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Six Things You Should Never Say to South Asian Americans

Eight countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — make up South Asia. Nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S., according to South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Despite South Asians coming from a vast variety of backgrounds, cultures and lived experiences, they often face stereotypes and microaggressions that paint them as a monolith.

Here are six things you should never say to South Asian Americans.

“Aren’t you Indian?”

There are eight countries in South Asia, yet oftentimes, people assume all South Asians are from India. Cultures in these countries differ. For example, Pakistan is an Islamic republic, while most people in India identify with Hinduism. In Myanmar, most people practice Buddhism. South Asia is also one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, with people speaking more than 650 languages today.

Ignorant comments about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism

It should go without saying that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists, that Hindus don’t actually worship cows and that not all Buddhists are pacifists. There are nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the U.S., and Islam is, at its root, an Abrahamic religion similar to Christianity and Judaism. People who practice Hinduism are often vegetarians who don’t eat beef because they view cows as symbols of life that should be revered, but do not see the animals as gods. And Buddhists have indeed fought in wars; in the early 1900s, Tibetan Buddhists fought against British forces that invaded Tibet. Additionally, many Japanese priests and Zen masters supported Japan’s military expansion during World War II.

Reducing people’s religious practices to stereotypes erases their cultures and diminishes the significance of their beliefs. If you’re interested in learning more about someone else’s religion, do your own research and engage in respectful conversations with peers who have different beliefs.

“Are you in an arranged marriage?”

While some South Asian cultures practice arranged marriage, there are many xenophobic misconceptions about this practice. First, arranged marriages differ from forced marriages, and love and consent are not exclusive from them. While forced and underaged marriage are problems activists across the globe are fighting, they’re not exclusive to South Asia. Child marriage is a problem in the U.S. as well; Idaho has the highest rate of child marriages and 20 U.S. states do not have legislation that requires a minimum age to wed.

Mocking stereotypical “Indian” accents

If someone’s first language isn’t English, it means they know at least two languages — more than the majority of America, which is around 80% monolingual. Because there are so many languages spoken in South Asia, many South Asian immigrants know several languages, even if they can’t speak English fluently or without an accent. Someone’s accent or level of proficiency in a language that is foreign to them is not a measure of their intelligence.

Expecting South Asians to be the spokespeople of their own culture

A 2020 University of California, Berkeley study on South Asian American students facing microaggressions found that others expecting these students to be the model for their heritage and cultures was a prominent issue. Many of these students were American-born and did not necessarily identify with their heritage as much as others expected them to.

“[Teachers] didn’t understand I was fully American and born in this country too,” one student said.

“My family doesn’t celebrate Diwali but I always had to talk about it,” said another.

South Asian American cultures and experiences are not a singular entity, and no one person should bear the burden of representing their entire culture. As the Berkeley study found, these callouts led to embarrassment and Othering (a process where individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group) rather than cultural sharing or feelings of solidarity.

Upholding the model minority myth

The model minority myth often applies to Asian Americans, differentiating them from Black, Indigenous and other people of color in the U.S. because they often have higher incomes and graduation rates than other Americans. Although stereotypes like being intelligent and industrious seem positive, they are ultimately problematic. Not only do they paint non-Asian Americans of color as inadequate without understanding the reality of systemic racism holding these groups back, but they also lead to the dismissal of very specific types of racism that many Asians face. The model minority myth doesn’t allow for East and South Asians to comfortably have their own interests, skills and struggles.

In the Berkeley study, one student said model minority stereotypes significantly affected her learning.

“[Teachers] also assumed I needed no learning assistance and used me to help other students. Instead of challenging me, they would have me tutor other students, even talking them through test questions and helping them take school tests,” she said.

In reality, model minority myths and stereotypes hold people back and alienate them. To cultivate an inclusive — and therefore successful — work environment, check your biases and allow people to be themselves. Seek out resources to learn about the cultures and beliefs of other people and engage in respectful conversations that validate and celebrate all differences.

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