FOB (Faces Of Bigotry): Assimilating South Asian Americans Are Agents of White Supremacy
- It’s not our fault that white supremacist ideology has taken over our communities. That is merely a side effect of living in America.
I learned early in my life that wearing my favorite orange and pink striped kurta to camp at my local Indian cultural center was not acceptable. I learned that I could not bring Indian snacks to dance class to celebrate my birthday. I learned that telling my South Asian classmates I was gifted a gold bell was something I needed to keep to myself. By the time I was in first grade, I knew how Indian I could be and when. Around other South Asians, I needed to keep my love for my culture to myself.
One of the most widely referenced archetypes in modern South Asian-American culture is the “fob”: an acronym for “Fresh Off (the) Boat.” In recent years, “fob” has become a semi-derogatory term used by South Asian Americans to describe new immigrants or any person who appears to be supposedly too closely aligned with the customs and culture of India. He has an Indian accent? Fob. Come to school with vibhuti or kumkum on the regular? Fob. Doesn’t dress “fashionably” or choose to wear a kurta or kameez in public? Definitely a fob.
“Nah, don’t go on a date with him. He’s such a fob.”
“I don’t fuck with her. She’s too fobby for me.”
“Man, I don’t want to go to that school. It’s filled with fobs, not the type of brown people I want to hang out with.”
These sorts of comments were commonplace in the various Indian-American circles to which I belonged in high school and still do, to a degree, now. Despite the fact that the most ardent devotees of this subtle form of prejudice were children of immigrants, their disgust for new arrivals festers.
Assimilation was always the goal. “Cool” desis wore jeans, not salwar. “Cool” desis listened to Drake and Future; Nav was the closest thing to South Asian music in most of their playlists. “Cool” desis ate salads for lunch and hated dal and all the other “smelly” sabjis that their parents layered for them in their thermoses. “Cool” desis were practically indistinguishable from an average white American teenager, except for the rare occasions on which they would wear a lehenga or listen to Bollywood music or go out to an Indian restaurant to guiltily indulge in creamy butter chicken and freshly-soaked gulab jamun.
“Cool” desis were “normal,” but what is normal? Who constructs our idea of normativity? Well, white people. If our idea of normalcy is resembling an archetypical American, then our idea of normalcy is whiteness. This is not a radical thought; scholars have been talking about white supremacy and its pervading influence on normative American culture for decades. Whiteness is normal in America, and brownness is uncool and gross and smelly. Whiteness is cool, and brownness is not suitable for friendship or love or sex. Assimilation is the key to success, friendship, love, prestige, and status. Remaining close to one’s culture, sheltered from the attacks of white America, is a sure way to become undesirable, an outcast, uncool, or unworthy.
The easiest way to subdue your enemies is to make them kill each other. You know you have succeeded in taking them down when you no longer need to participate in the fight. My community’s disgust toward “fobs” is a colossal win in the centuries-old battle for white supremacy in America. We no longer need white people to tell us that our culture is subpar; we police ourselves, bringing down our own immigrant communities and preaching the values of assimilation to one another. We no longer need white people to tell us our food is stinky; we tell our curry-eating peers that their lunches smell like shit. We no longer need white people to make fun of our religion; we judge our classmates with shaved heads and shikha as much as any white person ever has.
And yet, we still act like we hate white people. We hate every creator on TikTok who dares order Indian takeout and give it rave reviews—how could they, those white people that hated our lunches and their pungent aromas? We hate every white person that wears a saree to an Indian friend’s wedding or dons a salvar while visiting a performance in India—how could they, those white people that gave us the side eye when we indulged in our cultural practices? We especially hate non-South Asian Hindus—how could they embrace the spirituality that they so frequently mocked and likened to cow worship?
It’s not our fault that white supremacist ideology has taken over our communities. That is merely a side effect of living in America. But perhaps we should center our activism not solely around the prejudices of non-desis, but also around ourselves. The first step towards undermining the influence of whiteness on our lives is understanding our own white supremacy. Though seemingly trivial, our collective disdain for “fobs” is a key agent of this. So perhaps we should also try to stop policing each other and ourselves. If we unlearn our own judgments toward our culture and those who indulge wholeheartedly in it, we might be one step closer to undermining the influence of white supremacy on our communities at large.
(Top photo, a representative image of Indian students in America. Courtesy, American Embassy in India)
Akhil Joondeph (he/they) is a first-year student at Wesleyan University, double majoring in anthropology and dance. He is an Assistant Features Editor for the Wesleyan Argus, and assists the Wesleyan Media Project with its research. As a journalist and creative writer, he is particularly interested in applying ethnographic and humanistic modes of research and reporting to his journalistic work, and questioning the cultural status quo, especially within the South Asian community and in the South Asian American diaspora.
I think you’ll look back at this piece with amazement at the assumptions it makes, its sense of victimhood by a very privileged author and its shortsightedness. That said, you write well and I look forward to hearing more of your perspective. And just to note, your paternal great great grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe and dealt with the same questions of who and what is American and what “white” means in this context.