My mother completed her pediatric residency in Long Island, New York some 43 years ago, before the era of paid maternity leave. Every year on my birthday, she recounts the details of my birth, always including the fact that she worked until a few hours before having me, then submitted to a C-section that left a jagged vertical scar searing through her midsection.
“I had to go back to work two weeks later,” she always tells me. The words uttered with a touch of pride, her own disbelief with this occurrence apparent to both of us. I am certainly not made of such strong stuff.
This is an old trick lifted straight from colonial times—tantalize the colonial subjects with prestige and power so they will subjugate others in your name.
Nor would I wish to be. When I became pregnant with twins, I became an entirely different creature altogether. I gained about 95 pounds. I would walk across the street—from my rental in Albany to the public library—and that short excursion so winded me that I would reach for a nearby tree, lamppost, or stop sign, to catch my breath. And I vomited. Every day, I vomited because I was too cold in the morning, or too hot in the shower, or for no apparent reason at all. Such was my pregnancy.
I expected that I would have the pregnancies I witnessed around me—that I would be one of those glowing women wearing cute maternity jeans until the last week of pregnancy, attending pre-natal yoga classes, eating chocolate ice cream and pizza with impunity. But my pregnancy was nothing like that. Indeed, I look back on those days with admiration for my own willingness to endure it.
I doubt any man could.
So when I learned that Seema Verma, Donald Trump’s new pick for Medicare czar did not believe paid maternity leave should be mandatory, and that women should be able to “opt out” of such coverage in advance of their pregnancies, I was stunned. And angry. And ashamed.
As an Indian-American woman, I have tried to rationalize to myself that the meager number of minorities the current President has elevated to his cabinet might attempt to influence the administration in positive and more inclusive ways. But so far, that is not the case.
White conservatives have long depended on Indian-Americans to fulfill their vague commitments to diversity while reinforcing conservative policies that often undermine our rights as part of the larger minority community. This is an old trick lifted straight from colonial times—tantalize the colonial subjects with prestige and power so they will subjugate others in your name. This is how my great-grandfather came to be a judge in Vietnam, enforcing French colonial laws against the Vietnamese people. And this is how Bobby Jindal becomes Governor of Louisiana, Ajit Pai becomes FCC chairman (undoing our Internet privacy protections as we speak), and how Seema Verma becomes Medicare czar. And though Nikki Haley previously distanced herself from the candidate Trump, as UN ambassador for this administration, it’s unlikely she will have much influence to further any policies with which the President disagrees. And I’m sure she knows it.
Such is the double-edged sword of being a “model minority.” We become complicit in our own undoing.
I don’t minimize the talent or drive of any of these individuals. By all accounts, my great-grandfather was both brilliant and ambitious. But how much more could they do for our society if they saw themselves as part of a larger community rather than as part of the privileged few whose power they seek to solidify?
In late February, we learned that an Indian man, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was murdered by a white racist shouting for him to “get out of my country.” Note the explicit use of the word “my,” immediately rendering America something inaccessible to a brown, hard-working, tax-paying immigrant. This incident proves what I’ve known all along—to many Americans, we are still regarded as the “other.” We are still perceived as somehow less American and less the owners of all it stands for than our white counterparts. Even when we are born here; even after we’ve played on the varsity tennis teams, attended the best American universities, triumphed in spelling bees, been honored with Rhode scholarships, literary prizes, Nobel prizes, genius awards, and enjoyed the gleaming fruits of capitalism. Such tragedies as Mr. Kuchibhotla’s murder should embolden us to speak out as part of a larger minority community, but so often, we don’t.
The current President took his time condemning this recent hate crime. Another Indian man, Harnish Patel was murdered in South Carolina. And Seema Verma hasn’t said a thing about these crimes, at least not publicly. But the incident speaks volumes about where we are now—firmly consigned to the margins of Trump’s America.
A recent article in The Atlantic describes how Ms. Verma’s consulting company has made medical care even more inaccessible to Indiana’s poor. While she will personally benefit from her position as Medicare czar, if history is any indication, her elevation to such an office will be at the expense of many others.
This is the new colonialism, and we must remain mindful of how we are used in it.
Samantha Rajaram is a mother, community college professor of English, writer, and attorney. She lives in the Bay Area.