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Adolescence

The Dangers of Elitism in South Asian American Communities

Shedding light on intragroup conflict.

South Asian countries—including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—are known for their rich and vibrant cultures. As a second-generation South Indian American, I owe many positive aspects of my identity to my culture. Yet I also at times struggle to fit in with my community, a disconnect that was most noticeable during my adolescence.

As a clinical psychology doctoral student, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in my experiences. As a budding practitioner who thinks about minoritized adolescents and their mental health, I wonder about community values that South Asian American teenagers struggle with the most—namely, family image and personal accomplishments.

In my conceptualization and clinical experiences with the community, elitism—the feeling or attitude of being superior to others—seems to be one of the driving forces of how individuals, families, and community members treat one another. Two common factors of this elitism are family status and colorism, which can be distressing and harmful to South Asian American children growing up in the U.S.

PT Images/Shutterstock
Source: PT Images/Shutterstock

I worry about how these iterations of elitism play out for adolescents who don’t fit the mold they’re expected to emulate. What's more, how do these teens and their families get treated by others who do have the wealth or skin color that they don’t have? How does elitism impact their development?

One explanation could be that South Asian communities tend to be stringently hierarchal, which can create harsh judgments and overall disparities within them. This can be seen in India, where the caste to which a family or individual belongs dictates their profession, spouse, and many other parts of their social lives (Sahgal et al., 2021). Beyond caste, other characteristics that may elevate one’s status within society or family circles involve education, wealth, and skin color.

These considerations and historical policies likely contribute to the makeup of South Asian communities in the U.S. For example, the Hart Celler Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 preferred highly educated professionals—such as scientists, engineers, and doctors—seeking to immigrate to America (Sharma et al., 2020). While these highly educated immigrants were still vulnerable to stressors associated with immigration experiences, their professional, socioeconomic status, and earning potential gave them an advantage.

Yet they likely already had access to education and connections. Therefore, the leg-up given to them by the U.S. government only served to mirror the dynamics back home, giving these individuals an advantage over South Asians who did not have the same opportunities both in South Asia and in the U.S.

How Elitism Plays Out

Though elitism likely occurs in other communities, I argue that elitism in South Asian communities manifests in unique and nuanced ways.

From a family systems perspective, research has found that South Asian adolescents undergo significant acculturative stress when adjusting to conflicting family structures and roles, racism, and discrimination, presenting a barrier when seeking support (Tummla-Narra et al., 2016). This, combined with the fact that South Asians tend to view certain families and individuals as having “high status,” or being superior in some way, may lead “low status” families to experience added disparities and feel inferior, marginalized, and devalued in their relationships within their respective communities. The resulting isolation can have damaging effects, as these groups may be the only source of connection to the families’ home countries.

Adolescents whose families face this type of subjugation may be excluded from festivities or by other South Asian American adolescents, who may follow their parents’ lead when deciding with whom to associate. Typically, this behavior is based on the child’s family standing in the community and how associating with a particular person may maintain, elevate, or harm their image.

In their research, Masood and colleagues attest to how community hierarchies affect South Asian American mental health (2009). They discuss Dusgin’s (2001) term of “duty-based” morals and how this can evoke inner conflict, thus contributing to the idea of status anxiety (2009).

Consequently, children may work hard to sustain a false image for the sake of making their families proud or maintaining their family image at the expense of their own well-being. This ultimately increases their risk of suffering from poor self-esteem about existing as people of color, while silently facing issues at home (where the child may be told to keep these issues “in the family”).

Perhaps more troubling, when a teenager does not fit into the mold expected of them, guilt and shame are often used by parents with the intention of “bettering” their child. What commonly occurs instead, however, is the erosion of the child’s sense of self-worth and humanity. Other effects include increased isolation, intense mistrust of peers, and a stunted ability to express their authentic selves.

It's important to note that parents usually do not intend for their children to experience this. Instead, parents typically instill these pressures with the aim of improving the child’s future. Parents may project repressed shame and insecurity, which can look like parents trying to reinforce the child’s behavior to avoid what the parents experienced as children themselves. While it may be difficult for the child to understand the origins of their parent’s expectations, such dynamics may originate from parents being wounded by their own oppression, such as surviving poverty, gender-based violence, and other forms of discrimination.

Elitism can trickle down from parents to children. This can look like parents advising their children to stay away from a child that deviates from the norms and expectations of the culture and community. A typical example is when a child is pressured to be the model child and views their peers as “less than” based on their parents’ ideas of who is considered the perfect child. The perceived model child may feel pressure to maintain perfection—an ultimately unachievable goal because the “perfect” South Asian child doesn’t exist.

Colorism and Elitism

Colorism is a complex phenomenon rooted in colonialism, leading to grave consequences for members of racial and ethnic groups. According to Banks, “Colorism is a race-like phenomenon based on a person’s immutable characteristic—skin tone—coupled with the belief that certain skin tones, usually light skin, are preferable to dark skin” (2015).

My hypothesis is that this mistreatment happens because there is a perception that “whiteness” elevates beauty and, ultimately, someone’s status in the community. While South Asian people may not overtly state that they have prejudices against darker-skinned people, the difference in how lighter-skinned South Asian Americans are treated compared to darker-skinned South Asian Americans is well-documented. Adults and children alike may behave more kindly towards a child with a lighter complexion—an experience that can profoundly impact a child with darker skin.

Granted, having lighter skin can lead to negative consequences, too, such as being overtly sexualized by others. However, it must be acknowledged that the social benefits of lighter skin typically outweigh the costs, and darker-skinned children may even share the same negative experiences, often without respite. Further, darker-skinned South Asian teenagers in America and their home countries are more likely to be encouraged to use harmful skin-lightening products and experience open ridicule and prejudiced attitudes from relatives, peers, and community members alike.

This phenomenon illustrates how generations of imperialism are reinforced across social systems, where Eurocentric beauty standards lead to a sense of inflated superiority for lighter-skinned South Asian teens and adults, who may not notice or acknowledge how their darker-skinned peers are treated. Darker-skinned girls, in particular, may not be sought after for friendships in ways that lighter-skinned girls are.

In families where there are grandchildren who are diverse in skin tone, lighter-skinned grandchildren may receive more affection and attention than their darker-skinned cousins or siblings. Such treatment can shatter a child’s sense of self, and the child may internalize the message that the way they get treated by people is conditional and based on superficial attributes such as skin color.

Conclusion

Elitism is just one factor that warrants further examination, consideration, and conversation in the South Asian community. Several factors not mentioned here also foster elitist attitudes in South Asian American communities. I choose here to focus on family status, family dynamics, and colorism, not just because they are multi-layered but because many adolescents may experience them quite frequently. In covering this topic, I hope to shed a light on the several complex obstacles that South Asian American teenagers navigate.

Edited and reviewed by Amritha Jacob, Siena College; Dr. Sejal Prajapati, Psy.D.; and Emma Peabody, MA

References

Banks, T. L. (n.d.). COLORISM AMONG SOUTH ASIANS: TITLE VII AND SKIN TONE DISCRIMINATION.

Dugsin, R. (2001). Conflict and Healing in Family Experience of Second-Generation Emigrants from India Living in North America*. Family Process, 40(2), 233–241. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2001.4020100233.x

Masood, N., Okazaki, S., & Takeuchi, D. T. (2009). Gender, family, and community correlates of mental health in South Asian Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(3), 265–274. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014301

Prajapati, R., & Liebling, H. (2022). Accessing Mental Health Services: A Systematic Review and Meta-ethnography of the Experiences of South Asian Service Users in the UK. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 9(2), 598–619. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-021-00993-x

Sahgal, N., Evans, J., Salazar, A. M., Starr, K. J., & Corichi, M. (2021, June 29). 4. Attitudes about caste. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/06/29/attitudes-about-caste/

Sharma, N., Shaligram, D., & Yoon, G. H. (2020). Engaging South Asian youth and families: A clinical review. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66(6), 584–592. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020922881

Tummala-Narra, P., & Sathasivam-Rueckert, N. (2016). The Experience of Ethnic and Racial Group Membership Among Immigrant-Origin Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 31(3), 299–342. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558415592178

Harpalani, V. (n.d.). TO BE WHITE, BLACK, OR BROWN? SOUTH ASIAN AMERICANS AND THE RACE-COLOR DISTINCTION.

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