Election 2016: The View from India

Bandana Purkayastha, University of Connecticut

On November 10, a colleague from South Africa told me, “I faced racism when I was in the U.S, in the 1980s. After 30 years, these elections are a testimony to the gap between America’s messages to the world and the reality. Can American citizens ever dismantle their systems of apartheid?”

As an American spending her sabbatical at an Indian university during the U.S. election, I listened to many statements about the “real” racist/sexist America juxtaposed with Americans proclaiming a different message indiaglobally. Using the concept of intersectionality, I explained how U.S. citizens voted to preserve some aspects of their privileges—in many instances their race privilege. Sociological tools helped me explain about frames, and the ways in which frames are used to create a new consciousness to persuade people to act. In the making of news, as Gaye Tuchman and others have written about, the role of customized media and the ways in which infotainment industries have grown to shape world views helps to explain some of the “why” questions about the voting patterns.

I was also repeatedly asked to explain why Americans continue to maintain the Electoral College even as the United States talks about being a beacon of democracy globally. ‘Why is it acceptable for Americans to deny the power of one person, one vote to its citizens and cede that power to a smaller group of people?,’ asked by people in democracies where one person, one vote is how election work. I had no answers except to explain why it was introduced centuries ago.

In a closely networked transnational world, other anxieties soon surfaced. As stories of racist encounters filtered through social media, fear for the lives and well-being of family members surfaced in many conversations. How safe are immigrants and their children in the U.S. I was asked. Colleagues and friends in other countries in Asia and Africa asked: What about you, you don’t look American, are you and your family going to be safe as you go about your daily business? Clearly American media messages about who are the real Americans have shaped the perspectives of people in other countries, as Nadia Kim pointed out in her book Imperial Citizens. Fear abroad was also driven by the stories of escalating gun violence and the vulnerability of those who do not “look American.” A young faculty member, who teaches in a U.S. southern state, was asked by her family in Southern and Southeastern Asia to only wear traditional American clothes in order to stay safe and under the radar. Much like the pattern I recorded after 9/11 people in other countries expressed great concern about the vulnerability of “immigrants.”

Others in Asia and Africa, wondered about old and potentially new political alliances and the potential for new wars and conflicts in the coming years.

I keep sharing the news and language of resistance to hate and bigotry. I focus on accounts of politically active American citizenry asking for and establishing sanctuaries. Challenging structured power is never easy, but social scientists and humanities scholars have repeatedly shown it has happened. Judging by the comments across the world, there is much more work to be done.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *