Meet the Authors: Prema Kurien and Bandana Purkayastha

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Editorial Note: This interview feature was curated as part of Sociological Inquiry’s “Meet the Authors” campaign with a goal of celebrating and publicizing the scholarship of Sociological Inquiry (SI) authors. This feature was made possible through a collaboration between AKD’s Media Editor, Dr. Stephanie Wilson, and the following SI authors:

  1. Prema Kurien, Professor of Sociology, Syracuse University
  2. Bandana Purkayastha, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Asian and Asian American Studies and Associate Dean for Social Sciences, University of Connecticut. Connect with Bandana on Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you to Professors Kurien and Purkayastha for their participation in this campaign! 

Why don’t South Asians in the U.S Count as “Asian?”

Why don’t South Asians in the U.S. Count as Asian? A recent article published in Sociological Inquiry’s Special Issue on the Transculturality of Anti-Asian Racism tackled this question through the lens of racial formation theory. Racial formation theory views racial classification in the United States as an inherently political project, shaped by a “centuries-long conflict between white domination and resistance.”

Following this perspective, the authors of the article “develop an expanded version of [racial formation theory] to provide an explanation for the differential racialization of South Asians compared to East Asians.”

Meet the Authors

The following is an exclusive interview with the article authors, Professors Prema Kurien and Bandana Purkayastha. Below, they share behind-the-scenes insights into their open access article “Why don’t South Asians in the U.S. Count as ‘Asian’? Global and Local Factors Shaping Anti-South Asian Racism in the United States.”

Can you briefly describe your most recent publication in Sociological Inquiry, including its purpose and a summary of major insights or findings?

Our article examines the continuing invisibility of South Asians in discourses about Asian Americans and provides an explanation, showing how the foreign engagements of the United States shaped the development of the Asian American category, and why, even though Asian Americans can be brown, yellow, white, or black, an East Asian phenotype is viewed as denoting an “Asian” body in the United States. We also discuss how the racialization of religion shapes anti-South Asian racism.

How were you introduced to the topic of the publication discussed above and what motivated you to study the topic as a social scientist?

Both authors were motivated to write this paper due to the exclusion of South Asians by Asian American scholars and within the field of Asian American studies.

How does your publication challenge social scientists to look anew at traditional areas or identify novel areas for investigation?

We point to the limitations of the acclaimed racial formation perspective that almost exclusively focuses on domestic factors. We expand this perspective to include U.S. foreign engagements to understand how and why East Asians came to represent Asians in the United States (as opposed to the Asian category in UK for instance where it primarily denotes someone from South Asia).

We also examine how U.S. encounters with global Islam have led to the racialization of religion (Muslims expected to have a certain visual experience and skin color) and the religionization of race (brown-skinned individuals who appear ‘foreign’ believed to be Muslim) as another factor shaping anti-South Asian racism, a factor largely ignored in the literature on racial formation and Asian Americans.

How does your publication challenge members of society more broadly to deepen their understanding of the topic of your paper?

We challenge the assumption that Asian Americans are individuals with an East Asian phenotype. East Asians are a minority within the Asian American category, and people of Asian Indian background were the largest Asian group in the United States in 2021, overtaking Chinese.

Despite being a very large U.S. Asian group, Indians, and South Asians more broadly tend to be erased or ignored as Asians by mainstream discourses and by the media. Because of this erasure, South Asians have also been overlooked in the coverage of anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian discrimination. We show that South Asians have been the victim of a variety of hate crimes, particularly in the post 9/11 period, which have been overlooked in the discussions of anti-Asian violence.

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