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Last week I watched the Wedding Season on Netflix. It’s a light-hearted rom com in which two eligible Indian Americans try to evade family pressure to marry by pretending to date each other. Predictably, they fall in love and get married.

I cringed as the two mothers obsessed over how to convince their adult children that marriage was the key to happiness.

This got me thinking.

Arranged & Love Marriage

Marriage rates in the U.S. have consistently declined since the mid-1980s, so why are Indian Americans (and some South-Asian Americans), so preoccupied with arranging their children’s marriages?

I wondered if instead, we could make a dent in the social fabric of our adoptive country as Indian American parents, by trying to abandon our cultural penchant of arranging life partners for our children.  

Let me explain.

When I arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student in 1989, an advanced degree was not my only motivation. Shortly after our wedding, my husband and I were forced to leave India. I was raised in a Hindu household. My husband is a Muslim. Though our marriage was not illegal in India, it became extremely difficult for us to live there as a couple. Indian society is still intolerant of mixed religion marriages like mine. So, we decided to leave for graduate schools in the U.S.

Loving vs Virginia

I started law school in Chicago. At my very first Constitution Law class I encountered the case of Loving v. Virginia {388 U.S. 1 (1967)}. In this landmark ruling, the Supreme Court stated that any laws banning interracial marriage violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mildred and Richard Loving helped end laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the United States 1967. (source: Wikipedia)

The Lovings lived in Virginia which enforced strict anti-miscegenation laws. The state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, criminalized marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored.” So, the couple married in Washington, D.C. which permitted interracial marriages. Richard Perry Loving was white and Mildred Loving self-identified as Indian Rappahannock. When they returned to Virginia, the state sentenced the Lovings to a year in prison for marrying each other.

In applying the strict scrutiny standard of review, the Court determined that the Virginia Racial Integrity Act had no discernible purpose other than “invidious racial discrimination” designed to “maintain White Supremacy.” It therefore ruled that the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause.

My Daughter’s Inter Racial Marriage

To me this case was no different from any other in my textbook because I had just arrived in the U.S. Only later, did I begin to understand its social and historical impact not just in the context of the larger American society, but in my own personal life.

In 2019, my daughter married her fiancé who happens to be white. He was raised as a member of the Southern Baptist Church. Watching my daughter’s dual-ceremony wedding – they exchanged vows in the Christian tradition followed by the Saptapadi, seven steps arounds a sacred fire in a Hindu ceremony – it struck me that were it not for Loving v. Virginia, their marriage would not have been possible.

My husband and I had faced immense opposition to our unorthodox marriage, but no one had questioned the legality of our union.

Somehow, I had assumed that being born in America and raised as Americans, my children were safe from such prejudices and indignities.

And yet, only fifty years earlier, several U.S states would not have allowed my daughter and her husband to celebrate their interracial marriage.

The Changing Face of America

The changing face of America. Photo by Jhon David on Unsplash

Demographic data collected by the US Census Bureau indicates that by 2045, the US will cease to be a white majority country. It is hard to escape the fact that the white population (especially in rural America) has reacted to this trend in a defensive fashion, polarizing our politics. This phenomenon has led to significant electoral consequences.

In 2016, the country elected Donald Trump as its President. Over the course of his four-year term, American minority communities have reeled as Trumpism gained a stronghold over the Republican Party and triggered behaviors for which the country was unprepared. Inevitably, immigrant communities were targeted in the onslaught.

Close to five million American citizens of South-Asian origin live in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census, the majority of us immigrated between 2000 and 2017.

Given this, most of us who immigrated here as adults, tend not to understand the historical context or the prevalent undercurrents of racism and how they affect our own lives. Often, we see ourselves as outside of the Black-White divide.

It is only in instances when racist rhetoric translates into direct action against us that we take note of it.

Anti-Immigrant Bias

In 2016, Steve Bannon (Trump’s campaign manager), expressed resentment about Silicon Valley immigrants saying, “three-quarters of the tech industry is run by South-Asians.”  But Ascend, a nonprofit group for Pan-Asian business leaders contradicted that view.  A 2015 study had estimated that less than twenty percent of managers in Silicon Valley tech companies were of Asian descent. Their data suggested that systemic bias prevents Asians from rising to the highest ranks.

Among Indian Americans, Bannon’s assertion invoked fear of a racist backlash. It was not unfounded. In June 2017, two Indian engineers were shot in a suburban Kansas City bar. In 2020 Trump suspended the H-1 B program which funneled Indian origin engineers into the U.S. tech force. Then, in another hate crime, four Sikh workers were shot at a FedEx facility in Indiana in April 2021.

Attacks like these revealed the anti-immigrant, racist underbelly of American society.

Brown Bias

But, while Indian Americans have long known that being brown in a majority white society can work against us, we aren’t always honest about how we ourselves perpetuate prejudice.

Historically, we are a color-conscious culture. Being light-skinned equates with high-caste position and privilege.  Transplanting this baseless, immoral cultural precept into the society we’ve immigrated to is unconscionable.  Our community is more likely to accept a White-Brown couple over Black-Brown one.

Meera Nair’s movie, Mississippi Masala, from thirty years ago, observed Indian biases against the African American community that are largely still valid. In recent years, the Blindian Project, a social impact media platform that advocates for anti-Blackness and Indophobia in our communities, has helped normalize Black-Brown relationships.

Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury in Mississippi Masala (1991) (source: IMDB)

But we have a long way to go.

A Pluralistic Society

Building bridges in a divided nation is the government’s responsibility, said Justin Gest, Professor of Public Policy at the George Mason University. At an August 5 EMS briefing on interracial marriage in a polarized America, Gest suggested that government policies should cultivate pluralism and harmony amongst various ethnic groups. He sees inter-marriage as the primary means of fostering such social change.

In his book Majority Minority, Gest explores six societies (Hawai’i, Mauritius, Singapore, New York City, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago). He identifies factors that produce positive social outcomes in a majority minority transitions. Gest concludes that political institutions could use their power to shape public responses and transform perceptions of demographic change.

Such policies of inclusion are especially pertinent in a country of immigrants like the U.S. which consistently asserts on the world stage, that American identity is defined by its multi-cultural, multi-racial populace.

What Makes You American?

My husband and I faced immense opposition to our marriage in India. But I assumed that my American-born children would be spared such prejudice and indignities.

In my view, becoming American is not just about taking an oath at the naturalization ceremony.

As Gest suggests, we have to uncouple our ethnic identities from our civic identities to understand who we are. Policies geared towards fostering equality won’t work unless citizens build relationships across racial divides. And it appears that attitudes are changing. A Gallup Poll shows that the majority of Americans (94%) now approve of interracial marriage.

Multiethnic Marriage

If we encourage our children to step outside prescriptive parameters of caste or religion, and enter into interracial marriages, it will catalyze the process of assimilation for our minority community into the mainstream.

Welcoming or actively advocating for inter-marriage between people of different races, castes, or religions certainly helps mitigate and eventually overcome prejudice

Marriage is a powerful way of mending tears in America’s multiethnic tapestry. It takes multi-hued threads to repair these rips. Arranged marriage notwithstanding, choosing who you marry, regardless of ethnicity, religion or identity, should be one of them.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of India Currents. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything.

Shabnam Arora Afsah

Shabnam Arora Afsah is a writer, lawyer, and short story writer who is working on her first novel based on the Partition of India. She is a committed political activist and also runs a food blog for fun!