Culture · Wear Your Voice Magazine

The Complicated and Sometimes Racist History of Referring to South Asians as “East Indian”

Christopher Columbus discovering a land that had been populated for thousands of years. *Insert eyeroll here* “Christoper Columbus arrives in America” by Georgio Deluci, 1893.

*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, January 18, 2017.”

Once upon a time, in the year 1492, a Portuguese sailor set off into the west, convinced that he had found a new way to reach that haven of spices, textiles, gems and so many other natural resources known as India. Once he and his colleagues realized the so-called New World they’d “discovered” was not, in fact India, presumably to save face they began calling the land West India, or the West Indies — a misnomer that lead to the indigenous populations of the Caribbean Islands and the North American subcontinent being called “Indians.” As if the smallpox blankets, genocidal project and every kind of violence enacted on the indigenous populations on account of Cristobal Colón and his minions wasn’t enough, Columbus also contributed to the cultural erasure and brownwashing of entire groups of indigenous peoples who sometimes had as much in common with different groups in the area as they did with the people of India itself, i.e. not very much at all.

Since Europe was the geopolitical center of the world at that time, the term “East Indian” has been used at least since 1661, and became code for the country of India — evidenced by organizations such as the British East India Company, which primarily traded goods out of India to Europe. “West Indian” eventually took on three meanings: one referring to the Caribbean as a whole, another to the country of West Indies and yet another for the Native American populations of North America. Soon, Natives would be referred to as Red Indians or American Indians in order to distinguish between these other ethnically, socially and culturally distinct peoples whose names had been conflated into the blanket term of “Indian.”

Indian-American podcaster Ashok Kondabolu told The Mash-Up Americans about being Indian from India and growing up in Queens, New York:

“I mean, there wasn’t even a racial slur for Indian kids, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. ‘East Indian’ was a phrase I heard all the time growing up. When I was younger I was like, what is East Indian? In Queens, there were so many people from the West Indies that mostly socialized with blacks and Latinos. So Indians from India were East Indians, where people from West Indies were West Indians.”

Hundreds of years later and these culturally erasive terms still persist and need constant negotiation.

During a discussion I initiated in a Facebook group populated with women writers of color writer, Chryselle D’Silva Dias says, “That distinction between West Indian, American Indians and “Indian” Indians must be so confusing for some folks. We all look the same, after all,” ending her statement with an ironic winky face. However, D’Silva Dias’ says her experience of the term “East Indian” isn’t “racially derogatory at all. Catholics in India are largely divided by their origins, so we have Goans, the Mangaloreans and the East Indians, who are native to Bombay.” D’Silva Dias is an East Indian in the true geographical sense of the phrase, and this is the only appropriate way to use the term.

On the other hand, writer Shubha Bala tells me: “Growing up in a suburb outside of Toronto, I often got called East Indian (weird because of how many Indians lived there). When I first heard it I thought like Chryselle, that they meant I was from the eastern part of India, but when I corrected them, ‘No, I’m South Indian,’ they would get really confused. They definitely meant as compared to the West Indies. I don’t ever remember anyone using it in a derogatory way, but just ignorant like they would laugh at me for saying I was Asian.”

In our current cultural context, being Asian is specifically coded as being Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Burmese, etc. and not Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, etc., even though we are all part of the same Asian continent.

Writer Prema La tells me, “I grew up in an overwhelmingly white small town where they all said ‘East Indian’ when they meant from India. I eventually started using it myself because I was sick of all the back and forth if I tried to just say I was Indian. I just wanted the conversation to be over instead of having them ask for clarification.”

These kinds of microaggressions are so common for South Asians that we end up taking on racist terms ourselves just to make our lives a little bit easier. Decades ago, when the term “South Asian” started being used to distinguish the Indian subcontinent from China and Southeast Asia, I was a staunch objector. The term doesn’t even make sense, and it brought home the ideas posited in Edward Said’s Orientalism, among many other post-colonial scholars, who noted the obvious geopolitical underpinnings of the origin point from where these East-West discussions are initiated. The West is considered the geopolitical center of the world, and everywhere else determined in relation to it.

I was surprised when several non-South Asian women chimed in to my Facebook discussion about their own experiences with the term “East Indian.” Lou Dee heard the term tossed around a lot in Canada, and specifically British Columbia. Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui only heard the term in the U.S. used to “distinguish between ‘Indians’ being referred to, i.e. Native American Indian or India (east) Indian.” Ho’omanawanui also noted the parallel with the “dot not feather” expression, which serves a similar racist function.

Ultimately, the term “East Indian” is a remnant of archaic geopolitical Eurocentric positioning and shouldn’t be used at all in a modern context, unless you are talking about people from the eastern part of India. To use it in any other context is playing to Orientalist — and yes, racist — othering of not only people from India, but also Native American populations throughout North America who shouldn’t still be called “Indian” at all.