FEATURE: South Asian students speak on identity, belonging at Yale
Finding a space of belonging and community can be difficult for some South Asian students, as the label of “Asian” often gets defaulted to East Asian.
South Asian Yalies reflected on the challenges of finding a cultural home away from home — but some said that no campus space has felt quite right for them.
Since it opened in 1981, the Asian American Cultural Center has been an important space for many students to interact with other Asian and Asian American students through events and programming. Operating in collaboration with the AACC as an affiliate organization, Yale’s South Asian Society offers a space for students of South Asian backgrounds to engage with one another and to share South Asian culture with the Yale community more broadly through various events and showcases.
For some South Asian students, SAS offers a sense of home that the AACC does not, particularly as the term “Asian” within United States contexts is often defaulted as East Asian. But at the same time, several students told the News that SAS is not free of fault, noting the implicit ways in which they feel the organization centers on a certain kind of South Asian identity and falls short of including Yalies of all nationalities and religions.
“My experience with SAS has been very eye-opening because for me, it felt like home and was integral in supporting an important part of my identity,” a student from India, who requested to remain anonymous for this article to avoid backlash, wrote to the News.
“However, for a lot of my friends, it was not received as the same sort of safe space,” the same student added. “SAS tends to feel very centered on north India and very rarely makes an effort to actively promote culture from other countries.”
Nonetheless, for some, the organization offers an important community — especially relative to the AACC.
“SAS has been an important part of my Yale experience, and having a strong South Asian community made it much easier for me to feel at home here,” another international student, who is also from India, wrote in an email to the News. “Things like cultural performances, town halls about South Asian topics, and even just parties with Bollywood music have helped me maintain my connection to my South Asian identity.”
This student, who serves on the board of SAS, also asked to remain anonymous.
The South Asian Society: filling in where the Asian American Cultural Center does not
The United States Census Bureau defines a person of the Asian race as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”
But as a 2020 Time article explored, the connotations of the term “Asian” in the United States go deeper than the census. The label is often perceived as centering on or only including East Asian identities — in 2016, College Board adjusted its race categories to explicitly include those of the “Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin” under the Asian category after discourse swirled on a college admissions forum as to whether Indians count as Asian.
This trend also emerges in national politics, and the 2020 Democratic presidential primary was no exception. Andrew Yang, a Taiwanese American candidate, was often slated as “the Asian candidate,” the Time article reads, ignoring to some extent the South Asian and Southeast Asian heritages of competitors Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard.
Yang himself spoke on the subject: “My Asianness is kind of obvious in a way that might not be true of Kamala or even Tulsi,” Yang said. “That’s not a choice. It’s just a fairly evident reality.”
This conflation of “Asian” with “East Asian” within the United States leaves students involved with SAS feeling varying levels of exclusion from the AACC.
“While the AACC has made strides in including South Asians within the AACC’s space, I think there is always progress to be made on further including a group of Asians in the AACC who have historically felt like their identities and values have not been fully appreciated or emulated by the AACC,” Yash Roy ’25, a first-year liaison with SAS who is also a reporter at the News, wrote in an email.
The anonymous board member concurred, similarly noting that the AACC — and Assistant AACC Director Sheraz Iqbal, in particular — works hard to promote the inclusion of South Asians, but that this task is complicated by the breadth of the term “Asian.”
Joliana Yee, director of the AACC, commented on the efforts by the AACC to include South Asians.
“The AACC has made deliberate efforts to challenge the misperception of who is included under these umbrella terms through our advocacy, communications, events, and initiatives,” Yee wrote to the News. “From ensuring South Asian representation on our AACC student staff, invited guest speakers, and artists, to supporting local South Asian restaurants and providing advising and funding for our affiliated South Asian student organizations, the AACC is committed to creating ongoing opportunities for South Asian and South Asian American students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional) to build community and feel a sense of belonging at Yale.”
The SAS board member further noted that the AACC is dedicated specifically to Asian American students, which might not cater entirely to the experience of international students who do not identify as American.
While organizations like the Office of International Students and Scholars and the International Students Organization exist to support international students, for some, SAS specifically provides a culturally supportive environment to American and international South Asian students alike.
“While the AACC is a very homely space, I do sometimes struggle to feel connected to it,” the board member wrote. “Not being American and having grown up in a place where a majority of the population is Asian makes my experiences feel different from those of Asian Americans. In addition, Asia is such a large continent encompassing so many different cultures, that it becomes difficult for the ‘Asian’ identity to feel universal.
“However, the AACC does do their best to support South Asians who may feel less included, and people like Sheraz put in a lot of effort to make this better,” the board member added.
Shortcomings and future steps within the South Asian Society
Four South Asian students who talked to the News expressed gratitude for the South Asian Society’s role in filling these gaps in belonging. Two of those four, in addition to five others, said they believe further change is necessary.
The first student noted that the organization carries an implicit feeling of centering Hindu and north Indian identities, reflecting long-standing issues in the subcontinent of prioritizing the safety and security of north Indian — and often lighter-skinned — Hindus. Three additional members of Yale’s South Asian community, who are not Hindu, told the News they felt “uncomfortable” or “unwelcome” in the organization due to religious ostracization.
One potential reason for this may be SAS’s commitment to secularity — or the selective enforcement thereof. Per AACC regulations, SAS is not permitted to host religious events, but one Yale senior said that some cultural events — such as Diwali — are imbricated so heavily with religious undertones that it is nearly impossible to fully secularize their communal importance. The senior said that historically, some students have felt the organization “picks and chooses” which events are and are not secularized causing it to disproportionately disregard non-Hindu holidays.
“For [SAS’s] intention to remain completely secular, it should either completely rid itself of any affiliation with some religious groups or make the effort to integrate all in their designs, aesthetic and learnings,” another student said.
Over the past year, SAS has not held any religiously affiliated events.
Two other South Asian students echoed the sentiment of implicit Indian dominance in conversations with the News. Specific examples that interviewees described included playing predominantly Hindi-language songs at various social events, as opposed to reflecting the musical diversity of the Indian subcontinent, as well as participants and performers dressing mostly in north Indian clothing at SAS-hosted cultural showcases.
For some, religious exclusion also arises from such showcases, as cultural performances also often carry religious themes. As such, one student said unequal performer representation at SAS-hosted showcases can further feelings of isolation.
In a text to the News, outgoing SAS presidents Vanya Shivashankar and Sandhya Kumar acknowledged that SAS has not always felt wholly inclusive, and they discussed efforts taken over the past year to push for progress.
“The South Asian Society recognizes that there are gaps in the groups of South Asian people that have been represented in our organization since its creation,” Kumar and Shivashankar wrote in a statement to the News. “A goal this year was to better listen and work with South Asian communities and identities that have been traditionally marginalized to make SAS a more welcoming space on Yale’s campus, and we’ve engaged in these discussions in meetings and community events. In coming years, we hope to continue prioritizing this goal and make significant progress in increasing representation of traditionally marginalized South Asian groups on our board and in our organization.”
Kumar added that over the past year, SAS has organized town halls to discuss important issues that face the diaspora, such as the model minority myth and religious polarization in South Asia, and is currently planning a teach-in event about the ongoing socioeconomic crisis in Sri Lanka. She also noted a recent South Asian fashion show, which highlighted styles from various areas of the subcontinent, and said that the SAS-hosted spring cultural showcase, Dhamaal, “incorporated talents from across South Asia.” Kumar further detailed specific efforts to appeal to a wider South Asian audience at Yale by tying in popular media and culture.
Looking toward the year ahead, incoming presidents Kirin Mueller and Anushka Nijhawan also said they are prioritizing the creation of a more inclusive SAS.
“We recognize that in the past, South Asian Society has not been a place where all South Asians at Yale have had adequate representation,” Mueller wrote in a statement. “Over the past year, one of our primary goals was working with South Asian students from all ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, and national backgrounds to include more South Asian voices in our organization. As I and my co-President Anushka Nijhawan enter our year as leaders of the South Asian Society, our number one priority is to make SAS a place where students of all South Asian identities can feel welcomed and at home.”
The AACC is located at 295 Church St.
Yeji Kim contributed reporting.