True story: This post was incredibly difficult to write. I had writer’s block. I felt I had too much to say, and I didn’t even know where to begin. The confines of a word document seemed absolutely incapable of capturing the joys and the challenges of my racial and ethnic identity in higher education and student affairs. In my experience, narrative sharing about identity is typically reserved for group texts with my Desi student affairs sisters, long chats with other women of color colleagues, or at Social Justice Training Institute APIDA caucus spaces—places with trust and accountability to deserve my vulnerability.
I had the kind of writer’s block that could only be induced by white supremacy: I had a lot to say about being a Desi woman, but I had internalized the fallacy that I had only one opportunity to speak my truth.
Then it struck me—my socialization in predominantly white spaces (i.e. my field) is so deeply rooted in my consciousness that the whiteness was rendering me silent. This was the same colonized mindset that I yearned to disrupt when I entered Student Affairs. So I breathed a deep breath and asked myself again: Who am I in the context of my Desi identity, what was my journey like to my chosen profession, and why does it matter?
I am the child of immigrants—both of Indian descent (Gujarati) who transnationally immigrated. My father is from India and my mother is from Zambia. I take great inspiration from my parent’s narrative in the United States. They are often reluctant to share their experiences of struggle and triumph- but along the way I have picked up nuggets of wisdom when they swap stories in their reunions with old friends, and when I listen to some of my dad’s well intentioned lectures. The story of my parent’s immigration and subsequent survival in the US is one of quiet resistance, and creating counter spaces.
I saw quiet resistance modeled when my mother resisted gender norms. The day after she got married she cut her hair to a “boy cut”. This is absolutely counter to the desired gender expression of a Desi women who ideally had long flowing hair. She started her own travel agency after September 11, 2001 and grew this business during an extremely challenging time in her industry. Her model showed me that Desi womanhood isn’t confined to narrow parameters. Desi womanhood has agency, has varied performances and expressions, and is incredibly strong. My father resisted norms by insisting on my independence, allowing me to move far and wide, refusing to place value on structures like the caste system, and having candid conversations with me about our racial identity and what it meant to be brown in a white supremacist system. From him I learned to give little credence to what people will think, and to have firm opinions. My parents are the foundation of my critical lens. They nurtured this lens over long conversations at home, and from giving me the space to grow. I can read critical feminist pedagogy all day, but no scholar will educate me more than their actions did.
My desi identity is one that was developed first at home. I saw my parents build relationships across difference with other desi folks in the diaspora. My parents created these counter spaces with individuals who became our chosen family–my mom’s Parsi best friend, and her Muslim, and South Indian colleagues. Through watching my parents interact with these individuals I saw the similarities and connections that they forged even though we had different languages, food, and religious/cultural norms. The differences were acknowledged, dialogued over, and struggled with. The shared experiences and connections are still hard to articulate however there is a connective thread. You can see the thread when you are tired and realize that all of these folks linger at the doorway at the end of the night (for what feels like another hour), they fight loudly over the bill in restaurants, and they are perpetually surprised you grew taller when they see you a year later. For me that is Desi.
In many ways college was my opportunity to live out and construct my own Desi identity. So I did my due diligence, and was on the executive board of the South Asian Student Association. While on the board I built relationships with other strong Desi women- folks who were different from me in their religious, class, and ethnic experience- but who nurtured and validated me. They made sure I was never lonely or isolated in my move to Chicago – whether it was sharing the amazing biryani* that their parents would send, or our trips to Devon Ave. These women were a strong part of the reason I survived Chicago winters and the distance from my own family. My involvement grew and I started paying visits to the department of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. I participated in a women of color leadership program** and learned the academic language about the equity and diversity issues that my parents’ unintended curriculum had already laid a foundation for.
Gaining knowledge about systems of privilege and oppression was a catalyst for asking hard questions of my institution. The curriculum at my Jesuit institution had the audacity to ask- what do you believe and how will that matter? What are your gifts and talents? How will they meet the needs of the world? In an educational environment where I was asking myself deep questions of meaning and purpose and uncovering my voice- I also was experiencing the pain and isolation of being at a predominantly white institution. I saw my friends build activist movements fighting for anti-racism, while simultaneously experiencing institutional trauma for speaking out and resisting the very dynamics of privilege and oppression that we were taught about in our classrooms. I had challenging conversations with other Desi folks, about what it meant to have our specific racial/ethnic identity in racial justice activism. In one instance, I can remember a heated conversation with another Desi man who accused me of my complicity and lack of radical engagement in social justice movements because of my formal student involvement in the Desi community. I pushed back and accused him of failing to build relationships with the Desi community and in doing so, being inauthentic in his quest for justice and failing to interrogate his positionality as a Desi person in racial justice work.
What I realized through those challenging conversations is that my values and my Desi identity informed my organizing work. I had to start within my community. That was my role and responsibility– this is where my gifts and talents met the needs of the world. So in this interaction and others I was reminded that my Desi identity was one of great diversity, never monolithic, with its fair share of controversy and hypocrisy, but a shared connection which held me in a tension of accountability, disappointment, and connection with other Desi folks.
My Desi identity is intrinsically tied to my purpose within higher education. Every day, and in every position I have held–I strive to create counter spaces. Places where those who are at the margins of our institution are centered. I prioritize this need for counter spaces in the service I provide to NASPA or other professional organizations that I am involved in.
I do so, with quiet resistance- because I work within systems that were never created for queer folks and people of color. The quiet doesn’t come from how I’ve been socialized as an Asian American, or my need to be covert with the way I disrupt. My desire to resist quietly comes from working without need to elevate my ego- placing attention and energy on the work and the community I serve rather than the performance of resistance. The lessons I learned from my parents and my diasporic Desi community have molded the way that I supervise, facilitate, and lead. So the almighty question- why does #HigherEdDesi matter?
Having a critical Desi identity matters because I consciously resist systems of oppression. It is my hope that my service will lend itself to Desi folks not being perceived as a monolith. I recognize that these different experiences, paradigms, and political orientations within the Desi community will mean that we will have our fair share of controversy. I hope that our shared connection will mean that we will hold each other accountable and work through these tensions collectively. I strive to maintain a Desi connection because it is so essential to my sense of purpose in this field.
*Shoutout to Mama Haneef- best Biryani ever
**Shoutout to LUCES: one of the most transformative and empowering educational experiences I have had.
This post is part of our #HigherEdDesi series, which aims to share the stories of what it means to identify as “Desi” and working in higher ed. We hope to provide a context of how we came into Higher Education and what that journey looked like for each one of us. For more information, please see Juhi Bhatt’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!