Locating “Desi”?: A Survey

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Hi everyone! My name is Kerishma Panigrahi. I am a graduate student in the English department at New York University, where I am interested in pursuing issues of race, racial subject formation, and nation, particularly within the context of the South Asian diaspora. This past semester, I took a course called “Locating Latinidad,” in which we attempted to—you guessed it!— locate latinidad, tracing its genealogy, history, and formation as an identity throughout United States history.* Using ethnographies, poetry, scholarly essays, legal histories, pop culture analyses, archives (both digital and physical), and personal testimonies, the course compelled us to consider the power and mobility of Latino/latin@/latinx (hereafter referred to as “latinx”), as well as its limitations and shortcomings.

I am not latinx. My parents immigrated to the United States from India in the 1980s, and I was born and raised on Long Island, New York. How I identify can shift as quickly and as easily as my surroundings shift; depending on where I am and who I’m with, I could be Gujarati, Oriya, Indian(-American), South Asian(-American), American, desi, “brown”…the list goes on. What I became fascinated by was how intertwined and slippery racial, ethnic, and national identities are, and how contingent they can be on one’s surroundings—which makes it even harder to effectively “locate.” But I found the political power and framework of latinx compelling, particularly its apparent detachment from national identity and its space to accommodate difference while still acting as a unifier. I tried to think of a sort of counterpart that applied to me. I have a complicated relationship to the term Asian/Asian American, and tend to use it out of obligation to sociopolitical solidarity.**

What emerged for me as a more accurate counterpart for latinx was “desi.” By accurate, I mean that I believe it accounts for my individual ethnoracial and national identity, but also accounts for other people’s own identities. It is to me very much a term of affect, a term that I can feel, as well as identify with politically. From my own experiences with other South Asians in the US, born abroad or born here, desi is an informal, comfortable term (considerably more comfortable than the mouthful that is “South Asian(-American)”). I became curious of the experiences of other folks of South Asian descent beyond my social acquaintance; the political mobilization of “desi” is basically nonexistent, especially compared to the mobilization of “latinx.” Is “desi” a term worth mobilizing in that way? “Desi” is also an imperfect term, and there are shortcomings that may take away from people’s ability to identify with it; does “desi” have the ability to expand and accommodate this difference? Is there a disparity of identification along age group, migration status, country of origin, multiracial status? How does multiple diaspora (e.g. folks of Indo-Caribbean or Indo-African heritage) effect identification?

These are just several of the questions I had tumbling around my head throughout the course, and I decided to let that guide me into my final project. I created a survey in which I hope to get a sense of the personal and political identifications of folks of South Asian descent; though there definitely exists a global diasporic “desi,” unfortunately, for this course, I am restricting myself to folks of South Asian descent in the United States. This survey is also restricted to folks who are 18 years old or older, per the Institutional Review Board rules of NYU. Also per the IRB, I will not be publishing the results of this survey anytime in the conceivable future, and all results are anonymous. I am more than happy to share my finished term paper with you privately, if you are curious.

You can find my survey here, if you would like to take it. If you would like to share it for other folks to take, please feel free! You have my sincerest thanks for your time and your interest. 

*The majority of the course did have an Americanist inclination, which was stated at the beginning of the course as a definite point for critique. The course was divided up by topics such as Queer Latinidad, Asian Latinidad, Afrolatinidad, as well as hemispheric latinidad(es). If anyone is curious about the course readings, please let me know.
**I could go on and on about my relationship to the term Asian American, but a lot of why I’m uncomfortable with it is because in the United States, it is largely synonymous with folks of East Asian descent. In my experience, South and Southeast Asians have often been put in the backseat of “Asian American.” I will identify as Asian American in solidarity because it is the most visibly mainstream label available to me, but I don’t have a personal or affective relationship to the term. (Shout out to the Asian American Writers Workshop though! It’s the one “Asian American” space I’ve been to that truly feels inclusive of all parts of Asia.)

Header image from American Desi (2001), directed by Piyush Dinker Pandya.

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