DesiCrit: Theorizing the Racial Ambiguity of South Asian Americans

109 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2013 Last revised: 13 Feb 2015

See all articles by Vinay Harpalani

Vinay Harpalani

University of New Mexico School of Law

Date Written: August 12, 2013


This Article analyzes the racial ambiguity of South Asian Americans (peoples whose ancestry derives from the Indian subcontinent) and has two major aims. First, it provides a comprehensive account of the racialization of South Asian Americans (or “desis”) - a group that legal scholars have not considered at any length in the rubric of American racial dynamics. The experiences of South Asian Americans are unique in the variety of racial classifications and characterizations they present - including the U.S. Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Thind (1923), the “model minority” stereotype, “flying while brown” instances of racial profiling, and former Virginia Senator George Allen’s “macaca” remark in 2006. Analysis of South Asian American racialization adds many general insights to Critical Race Theory (CRT), and this Article introduces “DesiCrit” (focusing on South Asian Americans as racially ambiguous beings) to go alongside LatCrit, AsianCrit, and TribalCrit. The analysis here covers the formal classification of South Asian Americans as White and non-White, and it also examines informal racial characterizations of South Asian Americans as model minorities, mystical foreigners, and malleable scapegoats more generally.

By analyzing South Asian American racialization, the Article aspires to its second major aim: beginning the synthesis of a general theoretical framework to analyze racial ambiguity of individuals and groups. In the process, the Article draws from not only from CRT, but also from sociological theories of racialization, ethnic studies, historical and philosophical work on race and racial identity, and Whiteness studies. It delineates formal and informal modes of racialization, extending racialization theory past the creation of legal categories to racial symbols and performative notions of race. The Article expands the discourse on racial status hierarchies by examining the agency of racialized actors, analyzing not only ascriptions of racial status by others, but also proactive claims to racial status by such actors. Also, this Article highlights the importance of “racial microclimes” - local historical and political climates that impact racialization, particularly for ambiguous groups and individuals. Finally, while the Article is a full account of South Asian American racial ambiguity, it also posits broader implications of this analysis for examining American racial hierarchy and dynamics more broadly.

Keywords: racialization, race, racial ambiguity, South Asian Americans, desis, U.S. v. Thind, Critical Race Theory, CRT, DesiCrit, racial microclimes

JEL Classification: K30, K39

Suggested Citation

Harpalani, Vinay, DesiCrit: Theorizing the Racial Ambiguity of South Asian Americans (August 12, 2013). 69 NYU Annual Survey of American Law 77 (2013), Chicago-Kent College of Law Research Paper No. 2013-30, Available at SSRN:

Vinay Harpalani (Contact Author)

University of New Mexico School of Law ( email )

1117 Stanford, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87131
United States

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