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Why Are South Asian Men "Angry"?

Exploring the stereotype and the complex inner lives of South Asian men.

Key points

  • The South Asian cis male casts a large net of impact and influence in the family and the community.
  • South Asian men are not always afforded the occasion to show “weakness” or despondency, nor do they relish the idea of needing help.
  • Another fallout of suppressed emotion comes in the form of anger, control, and toxic masculinity.
  • While more South Asian cis males find solace in the safe confines of therapy, stigma continues to hold many back from entering treatment.

I was recently watching a Netflix comedy special featuring South Asian (SA) comedian Russell Peters. Poking fun at his father, Peters wondered why his father, and SA men of that generation, always seemed to be angry.

I remember laughing at the astuteness of the observation, thinking of all the men in my family and the caricature of the stern-faced, sullen, and monosyllabic Indian patriarch. And in talking with family, friends, and clients, I found that many of us can relate to this trope.

Many clients have further described their fathers, boyfriends, and spouses as emotionally unavailable or neglectful, and in some cases abusive. As a psychologist, I also encounter the effects among the next generation—including anxiety, lowered self-esteem, negative self-talk, an inability to accept praise, lack of confidence, and relationship difficulties.

Given this month is "Movember," which focuses on male health, I felt an exploration of this topic was relevant. To research this further, I interviewed three esteemed colleagues: Dr. Miraj Desai, Dr. Vasudev Dixit, and Ankur Varma, all of whom work in mental health and identify as cis-gender men, about the SA cis-male experience and issues of emotional communication, toxic masculinity, and patriarchy.

Cultural and Societal Pressures

In understanding the SA male experience, particularly those who are immigrants/first-generation in the U.S., I recognize that there are myriad factors at play. The SA cis male casts a large net of impact and influence in the family and the community. The pressures to succeed through career, family, and social status cascade down and are some of the most prevalent forces in a patriarchal system.

“There are so many directions that pressure comes from these days, including social media,” states Ankur Verma, a Chicago-based licensed clinical counselor and passionate mental health advocate who created the Instagram handle @BrownManTherapy. “I want to increase awareness and dialogue around this historically neglected topic by relating to and empathizing with our shared experience," Varma says.

SA cis males are held to very high standards emotionally, intellectually, and physically. For those who leave the “motherland,” immigration brings a unique set of challenges.

“There are a number of intercultural experiences for both families coming from outside the U.S. and then family members who are being raised and growing up in the U.S. These experiences don't always translate across these identity lines,” states Dr. Vasudev Dixit, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist with expertise in multicultural issues. “Given varying acculturation levels, there are deeper structural differences among families that can create an environment primed for conflict even with the best of intentions at hand.”

While SA males are usually instructed on gaining material success, there is often minimal guidance on dealing with emotions or navigating relationships. Empathy and self-awareness are not necessarily part of the calculation—the result of which can be cultural clashes. Dixit adds, “The basis for success are often areas of generational and cultural difference. This can leave family members, and fathers in particular, frustrated and lacking in skills to navigate this.”

In addition, systemic racism and discrimination have also had a significant impact on the diaspora, according to Dr. Miraj Desai, an assistant professor at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health and author of Travel and Movement in Clinical Psychology: The World Outside the Clinic. “Being and feeling invisible regularly deprives people of nourishment, warmth, and just basic human recognition. I don’t think people realize how much this has impacted the Desi community in this country, on multiple levels (cultural, social, economic, psychological, relational, etc.). Further, post-9/11 racism and racial profiling did a lot of harm to this community, much of which has not fully healed, as it lives on to this day. This issue cuts a specific way with SA men, who often were and are the targets of suspicion and scorn.”

Sadly, SA men are socialized to bear these pains without complaint. They are often not afforded the occasion to show “weakness” or despondency, nor do they relish the idea of needing help. This may be traced back to intergenerational patterns of behavior. Unbeknownst to us, we carry the traumas of our forefathers through scripted responses that have taken root in our nervous systems, unquestioned and unattended. What may have once been necessary for survival is now a problematic coping style that must evolve to suit the current environment.

Anger and Toxic Masculinity

Another fallout of suppressed emotion comes in the form of anger, control, and toxic masculinity. Desai relates suppressed anger to intergenerational trauma “that rarely gets discussed or healed, let alone its relation to an entire community being systematically ground down under the weight of a colonial machine that perpetuated racialized hierarchies and a host of social inequalities.”

Desai went on to add, “Toxic masculinity is a destructive scourge that needs to be eradicated in all cultures. Part of its basis lies in aggression—aggression towards others and towards the self—which then gets redirected outward towards others like a boomerang. This issue manifests at multiple levels from the interpersonal to the structural—it is at the root of so many of society’s ills, including in politics.”

Dixit concurred, stating that anger “is the tip of the iceberg… of toxic masculinity. There are so many emotions that are often left out of the conversation, particularly when men are at the table. When young boys are socialized, the message often promoted is that crying is weak and that vulnerability is threatening to one's survival. This can often lead to downward spirals where an individual uses unsustainable coping strategies to deal with painful internal experiences.”

Varma points out that suppressed anger can manifest as harmful and unhealthy behaviors, i.e. substance abuse. He emphasizes the importance of naming emotions. “Because anger can look a hundred different ways, we need to name what it really is: hurt, fear, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, etc. This allows us to cope with and regulate our emotions more appropriately.”

Patriarchy and Vulnerability

With regard to the role of patriarchy, a small shift is occurring among new generations of SA men. “There seems to be a growing willingness to connect with others at an emotional level,” says Dixit. “We are in an interesting time where the assumptions set by an age-old patriarchy are being challenged by the need to acknowledge emotions and embrace vulnerability as the flip side to the courage so often demanded, especially of men.”

The changing climate is especially challenging for those straddling two cultures, mainstream and familial cultures. “For bicultural men, traditional expectations include being the main financial provider for the family, remaining 'strong' emotionally, and making the family proud. These factors, along with the need to blend into Western culture, can create incongruence in our identity process,” Varma states. This incongruence, in my view, is a good pushback to the status quo, a pertinent part of change and growth.

In his own practice, Varma observes seeing more men take on larger roles as stay-at-home caregivers. He points out how changing ideologies have challenged the notion of primary caregiving being a source of shame for men. “We have socialized certain roles to be gendered when they don’t need to be.” A more balanced approach to gender roles can result in healthier partnerships.

“Patriarchy is a disaster,” Desai argues. “I welcome this long-overdue change of gender roles and see it as something to be celebrated. All men, including SA men, have a continued role to play as allies and advocates in the elimination of patriarchal power structures—and in showing that a different way of being and relating is possible, in this and future generations.”

Treatment and Stigma

With regards to treatment, we have observed more SA cis males finding solace in the safe confines of therapy, but stigma can still hold them back. Varma wonders if some SA men seek out therapists from other ethnicities or genders to avoid the shame they might feel about “asking for help."

On the other hand, Dixit talks of the relief he is met with when a SA male sits down with him. “Many times, there is a reservoir of collected emotional energy that is just waiting to be expressed. The experience of sharing emotions, particularly with another male, is often a new and reviving feeling for so many SA men."

It is indeed refreshing to see such shifts in the diaspora, but as Desai states aptly, “Stigma is rampant in our community, as is the idea that there is a flaw in vulnerability. It is helpful to model that there is strength in vulnerability. It is a fact of human existence and is part of what connects us all.”

The story of the cis SA male continues to evolve. As old scripts are unpacked and perspectives shift, space can emerge for intergenerational healing—for SA cis men and the diaspora as a whole.

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