Meritocracy, Elitism, and Performative Activism in South Asian American Culture

By Rocky Sahoo

With the advent of Netflix’s South-Asian representation and Kamala Harris being picked for a Vice-President Nomination, there’s an underlying scheme: our representation is moving beyond the trivial and into the political, however idolized for wealth and elitism.  We’re seeing an uprise of South Asians entering creative industries and political fields,  forming organizations, and gaining leading roles in massive companies. There is an uproar of individuals obtaining success, but we have to address the elephant in the room, which is our toxic elitist culture. The drive to become financially successful,  appeal to the model minority myth, and submission to a meritocratic bedlam often blinds our social consciousness is evident through neoliberal performative activism, appeal to the white savior complex, and the elitism in our South Asian communities.  

South Asian communities perpetuate classism in many facets. Since our meritocratic ideals and appeal to our model minority myth is visible in the education system, we let these ideals cloud our empathy. Out of school accelerated education programs capitalize on competitive education. They profit off of brown parents sending their children to these centers for the goal of outperforming others. We drive for fields that appeal to our parents but also engage in toxic hyper-competitiveness in order to climb the ladder and obtain financial success. Part of this climb involves achieving the dreams that our immigrant parents fought tooth and nail for. This is in part with acknowledging that we have to outcompete our peers. We end up becoming victims of corporatism and late capitalism due to us being held as trophies to the white imperialist system.

Bollywood stars themselves have been a large culprit of performative activism. The same stars that exploit the tragedy by re-sharing black squares through capitalizing off of likes and re-shares, are the same ones funded largely by major skin whitening corporations, such as the infamous Fair and Lovely. The consistent endorsement, the perpetuation of colonial attitudes all reveal the hypocrisy of the stars. They will do anything to follow a brand and capitalize, even if it means reducing black lives to black  squares and hashtags. Just another fucking trend. But this isn’t exclusive to the top  one-percent elites and Bollywood stars, this hypocrisy is also found in the exclusionary  nature of Bollywood Teams and Desi Organizations in major universities. Most students who leave these organizations say they involve toxic hypergamy, social status, and  popularity. They often involve people who dress their social media feeds with BLM and Instagram slideshows, participate in aggressive cancel culture, but do little to help the working class. Their friend groups are exclusively Desi and involve Non-Desis within  their circles as tokens of diversity.

To social media activism, I’ve seen hypocrisy with people who re-share slideshows about the model minority myth but perpetuate classism in an academic environment by treating those in fields outside of Medical,  Engineering, Law, and Business with distaste. They let their judgment cloud their own empathy, and in return, they reveal that they only care about making themselves look better. They stand with messages that beautify their social media feeds but will turn around to judge others based on GPA, SAT, and otherwise trivial factors. Now, there is nothing wrong with social media activism. The rapid consumption of information and the growing algorithm is incredibly important in order for people to be educated on events. Especially in a time when mainstream media outlets censor writers and are profit-driven to spread information, social media can be a tool to show the masses what is going on in this world. But where “black square” activism is used as a defense for police brutality, our generation looks weak and hypocritical.

When Kamala Harris was picked as a Vice-President Pick for Jim Crow Joe, social  media users were quick to hop on the bandwagon for showing her as a landmark in  minority success and celebrating her identity as a South Asian without acknowledging  the obvious damage that her role as top prosecutor caused. For black communities,  her pride in arresting parents for truancy and non-violent marijuana offenses was evident. She played a major role in mass incarceration and fueling the prison industrial  complex and facilitating the school to prison pipeline. Kamala herself spoke up about  Joe Biden and his line of sexual assaults on womxn in the white house, yet when she was picked for V.P, she remained complicit and denied ever speaking up about it for political purposes. Kamala Harris and Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever share a  commonality: a drive to seek approval from white cis men in order to feel powerful as  minorities.  

When Mindy Kaling released Never Have I Ever, I had mixed feelings. It was good to  know that the show existed to give representation to brown communities in America.  Since most American shows had token Indian characters, it was different to see shift  from a single character to a whole community. The strong female leads existed in the plot, and it was inclusive of all identities and orientations. This was a strength in the  show. This is where we should question if this is just Hollywood tokenization, or  actually building characters that bring about massive societal and cultural issues into the limelight. However, I found the circulation of minority characters around white  protagonists problematic because this enforces the white savior complex ideology that  white or lighter skin people are more attractive. This is also normalized in Indian  Matchmaking, where there isn’t a slight hint of challenging the status quo. When a show participates in classism but doesn’t offer any means of challenging it, or showing  how the direction of the show is inherently trying to challenge stereotypes, it defends  the status quo and submits themselves to the oppressor.  

How is this similar to the performative activism we are flooded with on social media?  Since we idolize them, our images of South Asians in the media are so polarized, we  end up viewing the fight against racism and stigmas in society only by  microaggressions. We idolize the characters in the show for their pickiness and elitist  attitude as “strong” and “independent”. With Kamala Harris, many were quick to find  pride in the fact that she’s a brown and black female with massive power and influence  in a western country. But her track record is riddled with deeply troubling cases, such  as her acceleration of mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and feeding  the school to prison pipeline, via arresting parents for truancy and locking thousands of  the black working class up for non-violent marijuana possession. Our lens of racism and classism is seen through small incidents, that the larger cases continue to happen  because we believe that arguing online and cancelling someone out is fighting for a change rather than challenging our elders and parents, spreading information, writing  articles, doing extensive research, and attempting to change the way individuals make friends and associate with others in college.

Because performative activism only cares about reaping the benefits of an action, and the capitalization of  Breanna Taylor and every other victim of police brutality, it only keeps the fight away  from letter writing campaigns, starting grassroots, donating locally, and standing with  protestors who are sacrificing their lives in the face of tear gas and pellets in order to  stand for the revolution. We have to stop seeing activism as idolizing democrats, we  have to tackle the entire system, which includes liberals.  

The problem is very much systemic. Because of the rise in higher-income housing for  South Asian-Americans and suburban neighborhoods, the model minority myth is  encouraged by our elders notion of climbing the ladder. We are subjugated to a  competitive, capitalist system in which meritocracy drives peoples egos, the  acceleration of high demand in STEM fields, we spend a massive amount of time  studying to achieve success. This system does not allow for us to dedicate time towards social cause, and the only way to achieve legislative change is to study in the fields of sociology, law, international relations, etc. The role of everyone to defeat this  system requires the work of everyone in any field. To massively revolutionize base on  the skills we acquire. 

As a designer, I seek to create graphics and illustrations that mobilize others with visual language in order to reach people emotionally, spiritually, and politically. Because empathy plays a strong role in unifying people, I take my role as a designer to influence others based on simply providing information. The role of Desi Artists and Illustrators is shifting. Our representation does not have to be Mindy Kaling or Priyanka Chopra. It can be us. When our community decides how it wants to be perceived, we can return to true empathy and revolutionize. 


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