Indian Coconut


The future will be a fierce political battle between those who stand for equality and justice and those who walk in step with entrenched wealth. 

Ambassador Lalit Mansingh is right about the coconut. It probably originates in southern Asia (India and Sri Lanka) or else in the islands of Polynesia. Eco-historians continue to dispute its presence in the Americas before Columbus and some say that ancient Egypt had the plant. The coconut is a resilient fruit whose shell can withstand the pressure of sea water, so it is not impossible for it to have made the transit across the waters without human assistance. A hardy plant, the coconut would have been able to survive in relatively hospitable weather without much upkeep.

For this reason Ambassador Mansingh takes the coconut as a metaphor for the Indian Diaspora. “What is the coconut famous for,” he asks, and answers, “It grows on sandy soil, requires little water, and requires virtually no maintenance.

In other words, send an Indian anywhere, just let them be, with minimum nourishment and watch the tree grow taller and taller until it dominates the landscape. That is what I think the Indian Diaspora is like.”

The Indian Diaspora, in its American sector, however, is multi-layered and complex. While there are some Indian Americans who flourish economically, there are too many who do not. A full quarter of Indian Americans live in households with incomes below $25,000, even though Indian Americans reported the highest median household income ($49,696). This means that the rate of inequality in our community is very high, with a few millionaires and a considerable number who live in the basement of US society.

You can’t go into an urban hospital in the United States without being treated by either an Indian doctor or an Indian nurse. Yet, a fifth of Indian Americans have no health insurance, a higher percentage than the national average.

One reason for our immense success is the canniness of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that only allowed highly educated Indians into the country. Of those who migrated into the United States between 1965 and 1977, 83 percent held advanced degrees.

They created the groundwork for the Indian American success stories. But, bear in mind, that of the Indians who migrated to the United States between 1987 and 1990, a fifth had no high school education, a tenth remain unemployed and a fifth live in poverty.

By ignoring this socio-economic disparity we run the risk of ignoring the rifts and dilemmas that already trouble our community.
These Indian Americans struggle heroically against the odds, against everyday and structural racism as well as against the concrete ceiling that prevents any upward mobility.

Most of them are averse to the attacks on civil liberties that result in increased humiliation at the hands of the Homeland Security people, and few of them would agree that Bobby Jindal is the “Indian American community’s future.”

Jindal represents the right-wing onslaught that targets the working people of this country, and those who are immigrants among them. I’m not one of those who harped on about Jindal’s conversion or about what a nice guy he his: all this is irrelevant to our lives. What is relevant is that Jindal represents the racially entrenched wealth that is in power: he is a shill for the supremacy of congealed wealth.

So, when Ambassador Mansingh speaks of “coconuts,” it gave me pause. How could desis in the room not think about the disparities in our community? How could we also let the Ambassador get away with his analogy without widespread laughter?

Now surely the Ambassador, who served in DC as Deputy Chief of Mission (1989-92) and who took up the highest post in Washington from 2001, has some personal sense of U.S. slang or else has someone on his staff who does. Coconut, in the lexicon of Indian Americans, is a pejorative term used for someone who is “brown on the outside, white on the inside.”

Among Native Americans the term is apple (“red on the outside, white on the inside”), among East Asian Americans it is banana, among African Americans it is Oreo. The term is similar to the derogatory term used in the British Empire for those Indians who sold out to elite British values: WOGS (“westernized oriental gentlemen”) being one of them.

There are at least two uses of these terms. The first is about assimilation, where the Indian American coconut, for instance, becomes “white” in all respects but appearance. The Indian American coconut identifies as white, has “white tastes” and has a disregard for things Indian. There is a problem with this usage because it assumes that there is a certain way to be Indian, to be an authentic Indian. It also ignores the history of colonialism that intertwined European and Indian tastes, particularly among the middle class in India. Assimilation, itself, is a spurious term because it often stands in for conformity: all of us assimilate by our very presence in the United States. To demand that we “assimilate” is really a demand that we conform to norms that may not be tasteful to us.

The second use of terms like coconut and Oreo has less to do with cultural assimilation and more with political belief. Those who use it identify the U.S. state as an institution that works to preserve the outrages of history: it sanctifies the property stolen by white slave owners from enslaved Africans and African Americans, it continues to use racist ideas to keep working people separated, and it pretends that its gift of “equal rights” is enough payback for the impoverishment of the descendents of the enslaved people.

The widespread demand among African Americans for reparations indicates that “equal rights” are not sufficient.

If you’re an African American who denies this history and says that all of us are now equal and that’s fine, then there will be many who may call you an Oreo. If you are an Indian American who blames those desis who are being detained for their own problems, then there are many who will call you a coconut.

I do, however, agree with Ambassador Mansingh. The coconut is a tremendous symbol of resilience and it is the great agricultural product of southern India.

Why taint this remarkable tree and its fruit with the mendacity of those who shill for power and disregard the howls of the people? I hope Ambassador Mansingh can start a trend: to rehabilitate the coconut.

Bobby Jindal will be the future of the Indian American community, but he will not be alone. The future will be a fierce political battle between those who stand for equality and justice, the champions of working people, and those who walk in step with Jindal and entrenched wealth. The greatest thing about our community is its feisty diversity 

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