South Asian Heritage Month Provides Opening to Explore Complex Identities

South Asian Heritage Month Provides Opening to Explore Complex IdentitiesThe first South Asian Heritage Month (July 18 to August 17) was launched in the UK in 2019. The celebration helps people of South Asian descent reclaim their history and gives others an opportunity to better understand the especially complex identities of recent immigrants, the children of immigrants, and of descendants of imperialism or enslavement.

While we can’t really walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we can listen and learn from the lived experiences they are willing to share.

Complex identities

Historical interactions and conflict among countries may happen at a very large scale, but the impact manifests within individual lives and families. Similar to the conquest of native lands in what is now the United States, Britain’s colonial legacy in South Asia spans hundreds of years and also resulted in the abuse of native peoples and partitioning of land into new territories that often gave rise to greater conflicts.

For people born in one country who immigrate to another, or who are the children of immigrants, it can feel both enriching and challenging to have a complex cultural and ethnic identity that spans countries, continents, languages and traditions. Many immigrants and first-generation citizens of a new country struggle to feel a sense of belonging in either land. For people immigrating from South Asia to the U.S., for example, it can be difficult to maintain their ethnic identity that is based more on a sense of collectivism while adjusting to the ideals of a new home that emphasizes individualism.

Celebrations like South Asian Heritage Month, similar to Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, can provide positive gateways into a fuller embrace of that complexity, and increase understanding among others of the diversity of people living within a community.

Learn something new

One of the most reliable ways to show respect for people of other races, ethnicities and cultures is to show interest in their experiences, and to challenge your pre-existing beliefs and biases. To avoid turning your curiosity into a burden to someone who may already feel marginalized, your first step should always be self-education. Fortunately, the vast array of information available online makes that easy to do.

A quick point to understand about South Asia is that it is most widely recognized as comprised of eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The total population is about 2 billion which makes it the most populated region of the world, as well as rich in diversity with many languages, religions and forms of government.

Broaden perspectives and support

Regardless of the specific community involved, inclusion always means broadening perspectives, decreasing bias and discrimination, and providing support that can promote a true sense of belonging. Only when we feel we belong can we contribute fully.

The 2023 Asian American Foundation STAATUS (Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S.) study found that one in two Asian Americans feels unsafe in the U.S. and that 80% do not feel they belong or are completely accepted. “We can’t blame political rhetoric and the COVID-19 pandemic alone for anti-Asian sentiment,” the group’s CEO, Norman Chen, writes. “Historic stereotypes and prejudices towards our communities are persistent and deeply entrenched.”

Many respondents said they lack belonging both due to discrimination and because they do not see others like them in positions of power. McKinsey & Company has also identified stereotypes that paint Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” McKinsey and others recommend several approaches for creating more welcoming environments.

Deepen personal experience. You might consider buying from a South Asian-owned business or dining in a restaurant, reading content or watching a movie created by people from South Asia or of South Asian descent, or connecting with South Asian organizations and cultural centers in your area.

Look beyond the monolith. The terms Asian American, Asian British, Asian Australian or similar descriptors are large umbrellas that attempt to cover millions of people who trace their roots to well over 40 countries. Learn more about the specific background of people you interact with.

Retire the “model minority” moniker. The stereotype especially prevalent in the U.S. of Asian Americans being high achievers creates a false narrative impossible to apply to such a vast and diverse group of people. It can also contribute to ideas that this marginalized population does not need support despite data showing ongoing bias and workplace discrimination that limits advancement into leadership.

Break down the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype. The sense of being a foreigner in your own land can be especially isolating. Asian Americans report frequently being asked, “Where are you really from?” despite being born and raised in the U.S. McKinsey finds that Asian Americans report lower inclusion than their white peers and feel less able to be themselves at work. Sponsors can be particularly effective in helping Asian colleagues gain the sort of advocacy that can increase belonging.

Support Asian colleagues at key moments. “Granular data can help to inform corporate leaders about the experiences of Asian Americans at critical moments in their professional journeys, such as recruitment, evaluation and promotion,” McKinsey says.

Encourage people to tell their own stories. The 2023 theme of South Asian Heritage Month in the UK is ‘Stories to Tell’ and with good reason. Every person has an individual history that impacts their view of the world and who they are today. Inviting South Asian colleagues to share stories about the experiences that have shaped their lives, if they wish to, can be another way to honor their unique journeys.

No matter what our background and where we live and work today, everyone wants to feel their unique perspectives and experiences are valued. Special cultural celebrations can serve as important reminders to take a minute to explore what that means for someone else.