Brown, Desi, South Asian: Diaspora reflects on the terms that represent, erase them

Over the last several decades, the diaspora of the Indian subcontinent has been labeled, relabeled and lumped together too many times to count. Indian and Pakistani immigrants were known as “Black” in 1980’s United Kingdom. The U.S. census classified them as “white” in 1970, and a host of transnational solidarity movements have cycled them through lengthy acronyms and broad umbrella terms.

“South Asian,” “brown” and “Desi” are three that are dominant today. For some, they’re apt names to describe inherently similar cultures and a connected history. Others say they paint over a vast array of peoples who make up the subcontinent and its diasporas. Erasure is rampant, some say, and it happens inside “South Asian” circles as much as outside them.

The debate has raged online for years — when referring to the diaspora, should we be as specific as possible or as inclusive as possible? And is there a way to do both?

The three terms sometimes don’t do what they were intended to, experts say, and it’s important to note that they don’t always mean the same thing.

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