The Chronicle of Higher Education Interview: Trinity Professor Vijay Prashad

The Chronicle of Higher Education published this interview with Trinity College Assistant Professor of International Studies Vijay Prashad in its May 12, 2000 issue. 

News Release on Professor Prashad's books

Profile of Professor Prashad

The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated May 12, 2000



The Karma of Brown Folk
by Vijay Prashad
(University of Minnesota Press)

The karma of "brown folk" -- of Americans of South Asian descent and of South Asians in America -- is to face the question "How does it feel to be a solution?" So writes Vijay Prashad, an assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College, in Connecticut. His title alludes to the 1903 classic by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, which asked black Americans, "How does it feel to be a problem?" Mr. Prashad's Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (Oxford University Press) also appeared last month. It focuses on Delhi sanitation workers' struggles for rights.

Q. How pervasive is discrimination in the United States against South Asians?
A. It happens on many fronts. Those who work on the front lines of service -- for instance, people who work in kiosks in New York, and taxi drivers -- face a great deal of physical violence. That has been well-documented.

Then, people generally thought of as technocrats -- your doctors, your engineers, etc. -- face a discrimination of stereotypes: "These are mainly technocrats, they cannot think on their feet, they're not good managers." So, there is a kind of glass ceiling of technocracy. You can rise only so far. . . .

The sharpest form of negative stereotype falls on young South Asians raised in the United States, who are almost like performing animals. They face a great deal of pressure from their parents, from schoolteachers, and you could even say from the atmosphere of America, to succeed.

Q. Do South Asian achievements in this country result from natural and cultural selection?
A. Bill Gates went so far as to say that we are the second smartest people on the planet. It's ludicrous. South Asians do extremely well in America. This is not because they're inherently brilliant; it's because the I.N.S. is extremely brilliant. The 1965 immigration act brought in only certain kinds of Asians. After 1977, when the law changed slightly, you started to see different kinds of South Asians enter. Hence, for instance, the taxi-cab issue. But even many cab drivers are not working-class and peasants from South Asia. Many have degrees.

Q. You say "Radicalism is as South Asian as Gandhi."
A. When the Quakers, the Unitarians, and other pacifists introduced Gandhi into the U.S., as a figure, they brought him as an essentially passive character, as a saintly man. They took his teeth out. It's different when you read the black press. There, Gandhi is a figure of great anti-imperialist passion. People know that India fought for its freedom -- the word is fought -- and yet we think, "Well, they just sort of stood there passively, and got beaten and the British got fed up with beating them, so they left." Gandhi wrote of active nonviolence. There's nothing passive about it. Radicalism of South Asians overseas has been integral both to the history of South Asia and to the history of South Asians overseas.

Q. Why do you pick on Deepak Chopra in your book?
A. He appears, just when the medical crisis becomes relatively acute, with some useful information on how to deal with problems in the world. It is true that allopathic medicine does not give an answer to everything. But if there's less and less health insurance for the population, and then you start saying, "Look, the reason you're ill is because you don't take care of yourself," that wraps itself into a conservative personal-responsibility argument. I think that Chopra and Newt Gingrich share way too much for one to be silent about them.

Copyright (c) 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on the Trinity College Web site. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to For subscription information, send a message to