Sharmila Rudrappa's book charts the road to "becoming American" traveled by the clients of two social service organizations in the Chicago area. Apna Ghar is a shelter for battered women and the Indo American Center is a cultural organization that helps new South Asian immigrants assimilate into the larger American culture. The book explores the "twin issues of assimilation and community formation." What are the cultural practices that new immigrants acquire in the process of becoming American? How do they negotiate the different terrains of their ethnic roots and the values of their new homeland? How is "community" defined and created by staff and clients in these two organizations?
The book is an ethnographic study based on Rudrappa's research for her Ph.D.in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the late 1990s she spent a year at Apna Ghar as a caseworker, during which time she also worked as a volunteer coordinator at the Indo American Center. Though on the surface both organizations seem to have very similar goals -- that of assisting their clients to engage in and become part of American culture -- they achieved their objectives in different ways. The services provided for the women at Apna Ghar which included legal advice, individual and group counseling, parenting classes, workshops on building self-confidence and independence and art therapy sessions, were all geared towards training these women "out of their ethnicities." The programs were based on the assumption that their ethnic identities and practices, which valued submissiveness and dependence, were the root causes of the women's situation. On the other hand at the Indo American Center, the emphasis was on authentic ethnic culture. The clients were encouraged to project themselves as a model minority and therefore fit to be members of the larger American culture. The discussion on assimilation is framed within the larger debate on multiculturalism and identity politics.
Though it is an academic book, it is very accessible to the non academic reader. The stories that the women tell are very compelling. Rudrappa intersperses her analysis and the stories told by her research participants with her field notes. The latter serves to draw the reader in, so that, in a way, we not only analyze the words of the research subjects but that of the researcher as well. The book raises several interesting questions. I was struck by the fact that when Rudrappa asked first and second generation Indians what "becoming Indian" meant to them, they had no difficulty in listing a set of cultural markers that defined their Indianess. Yet, they were stumped when asked to define what it means to be "white." She raises two questions about what she labels the "bifurcated existence" of second generation South Asians -- first, why at a time when diversity is celebrated and embraced, does this group of young men and women feel so conscious of their difference? Second, why does silence surround a definition of whiteness? The author argues that the consciousness of difference arises from the fact that though multiculturalism celebrates diversity yet the "difference that we can deploy is tightly contained within the parameters of whiteness." In answer to the second question as to why Indians have such a difficult time defining whiteness, she argues that Indian immigrants as outsiders have no knowledge of white practices. A second reason could be that Indian Americans normalize whiteness to such degree that they have a hard time naming individual cultural practices.
I found her discussion on "White in Public, Ethnic at Home" rather problematic in its underlying assumption that there are a common set of cultural practices and beliefs that constitute "Indianness" or "Whiteness". An analysis that ignores class and regional differences in both groups can be misleading. Also the term "bifurcated existence" suggests a split identity made up of binary opposites, whereas for many second generation South Asians it is a matter of dealing with fluid and sometimes overlapping spaces.
On the whole, I would recommend the book to any one interested in the South Asian experience in the United States. It fills a tremendous void in the social sciences where there has been little research on the South Asian Diaspora. In the era of globalization and cross national migrations, this is an important area of research that has exciting possibilities.
Book Description: [publisher blurb].. examines the paths South Asian immigrants in Chicago take toward assimilation in the late twentieth-century United States, where deliberations on citizenship rights are replete with the politics of recognition. She takes us inside two ethnic institutions, a battered women's shelter, Apna Ghar, and a cultural organization, the Indo American Center, to show how immigrant activism, which brings cultural difference into public sphere debates, ironically abets these immigrants' assimilation. She interlaces ethnographic details with political-philosophical debates on the politics of recognition and redistribution. In this study on the under-researched topic of the incorporation of South Asian immigrants into the American polity, Sharmila Rudrappa compels us to rethink ethnic activism, participatory democracy, and nation-building processes.
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