The Multicultural Future: An Interview with Khyati Joshi

Joshi photoKhyati Y. Joshi, a scholar and commentator on far-ranging issues of religion, diversity, and social justice, came to the U.S. from India with her parents when she was two. They settled in Atlanta, and so began her adventure in ethnic identity in a nation where she was neither black nor white. Today she teaches in the School of Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ, and consults nationwide on questions of diversity and religion with school districts and teachers. Her 2006 book, New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America (Rutgers, 2006), based on forty interviews, explores how second-generation Indian Americans make sense of their identity as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or Christians.

In the book she writes, “The Irish and the Jews, to name two major constituents of the last great wave of immigration, were thought of as racially different, until this view was finally overwhelmed by the force of white skin and social mobility. Nearly half a century after the Civil Rights Act was passed, more than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, oldfashioned racism is finally beginning to become socially unacceptable. … Yet despite the decline of Jim Crow racism, America still needs its ’others,’ and despite the flourishing of non-Christian religions, we prefer our differences to be visible. So we racialize religion … Unlike the Irish and Jews of a century ago, however, Indian American Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs will not melt into whiteness after a generation.” Khyati Joshi spoke to Reflections in March 2013.

REFLECTIONS: In New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground, you say, “America is changing how it categorizes people.” The nation’s demographics are shifting. Are definitions of race changing too?

JOSHI: We need a deeper awareness that certain groups have had advantages and others have not, and this system of advantages and disadvantages is still embedded in our laws. It’s a matter that whites have an advantage, white privilege, and Christians have an advantage, Christian privilege. The nation has looked different ever since the Immigration Act of 1965. You have many people coming here from very different places and raising families and sending their kids into the school system.

That’s where things are finally starting to change on the ground. Racial, ethnic, and religious diversity is exploding. However, the presence of diversity doesn’t mean that laws and traditions about faith in the public square are keeping up. The question is, are we going to continue to have rules in place as if it’s still fifty years ago, or are we going to create policies that better reflect how we’re living in our own time?

REFLECTIONS: As we become more multiracial, will racial prejudice likely diminish, or intensify?

JOSHI: I see progress happening as two steps forward, one step back. I’ve seen marked improvements in the last ten years. Looking at public schools, a decade ago there was little more than lip service given to multiculturalism. Today there’s still too much lip service, but more and more teachers and administrators are taking it seriously. Multiculturalism is about more than race; it includes sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic class, and religion, among other identities.

As a reaction to all this diversity, we are seeing a surge of nativism. Scholars point out that race is not a biological phenomenon, but a human-made idea. It’s not “real.” We give it meaning through laws and social values. There will always be efforts to define people and divide people. Historically, that’s often been based on lightness and darkness of skin, but ideas of “race” and inborn difference have also been applied to religion.

REFLECTIONS: When whites lose majority status, will the preoccupation with race end?

JOSHI: Well, let’s do the math. The white majority might become a minority by 2050, but add 275 years of laws and institutional structures benefiting just one people, and that’s still a lot to overcome.

Meanwhile, many people still think of “racism” in terms of the historic African-American experience. So immigrants who face bias either don’t recognize it, or they deny it’s happening to them, or they say, “Well, I’m new here, and I don’t want to rock the boat.” But they still feel excluded, targeted, isolated – and so do their kids.

REFLECTIONS: You were born in India, raised in Atlanta. In your book you call yourself a proud southerner. What does that mean to you?

JOSHI: I have an appreciation for what the South has gone through, and where Atlanta is headed. I’m not saying it’s a bed of roses. But I appreciate southern culture – the combination of genteelness and matter-of-factness. In the South, I know where I belong – and where I don’t belong. There are places fifty miles outside of Atlanta that I wouldn’t want to stop for gas. I’ve encountered racism in Massachusetts and New Jersey too. There you find what one columnist has called “Have a Nice Day” racism – a covert racism that speaks behind your back. The South, and the U.S. as a whole, still have a long way to go, but I intend to keep us moving in the right direction.