Locating Myself Within the Social Formation of Society:
An Analysis of a Poor, First-Generation, Sikh-American Male
Sitting in one of the middle rows of the rather large lecture room in the International Affairs building, I specifically remember the moment of puzzlement that I felt one day while Professor Gary Okihiro was standing and teaching in front of the classroom. While continuing to discuss the pertinent topics of the week, he began to write seemingly obscure and vague terms on the whiteboard. He continued to intrigue me as he slowly crisscrossed and connected vast topics with arrows that went both horizontally and vertically. Creating an elaborate timeline from the 18th century to contemporary times, I sat there as Professor sketched out the instrumental forces of history and ideological pools of thought that have helped to create society today. Some of the terms covered from the list of many went from the imposition of order, World War II, to Third World Studies. Never having learned to view the society in this way before, I was simply captivated by the critical analysis of the formation of the ideologies and systems that govern our lives today. Explicating the different parts of the flow chart throughout the next few weeks, Professor Okihiro was setting up the fundamental constructions of orders that he wished to teach us with the class, while visually representing the evolution of what is now understand to be as social formation.
Supplementing his lectures with insightful readings, Professor Gary Okihiro, along with Elda Tsou, outlines and illustrates his thoughts further with the essay “On Social Formation”. Although the term “social formation” has been used in countless different fields of study throughout time, the authors define social formation within the field of ethnic studies as being “the location and articulation of power around the axes of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and nation” (Okihiro and Tsou, 76). As a part of forcing and challenging us to think about the nature of power through a critical lens, Okihiro and Tsou say that
“Social formation, in sum, attends to the multiplicity of forces at work in the locations and exercise of power. It demands a complexity in our thinking and politics to ascertain how social categories overlap, interact, conflict with, and interrupt each other. And it provides a rubric for unions among racialization, feminist queer, Marxist, and critical theories, and for political coalitions among peoples of color but also among and across created divides of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and nation” (Okihiro and Tsou, 76)
The intricate ways in which society forms and works does not come from individual factors, but rather, the overlap of the multiple social categories that help to define power. Society as a social formation allows for the expression of specific forms of power within a complex and shifting order. As students developing a critical consciousness of social formations, it is fundamentally important to analyze our own location within society by developing a clear sense of the forces that have created the life that we live in today. By listening to Professor Okihiro explain his in-depth theories on how different moments of histories and philosophies build society, as we know it today, we are pushed to think and question different constructs that we are placed within. Rather than focusing on the consistently shifting speculations about our identities, it is necessary to use critical sensibility in order to understand what one’s position is in relevance to larger theories about social order. Even though social formation is defined by the intersection of a multiplicity of forces, there are major pinnacle elements of social formation that have created my distinct place within society today that go beyond the simple binaries of personal identity.
Being a first-generation Punjabi American, my position within the social formation of society partly existed for me even before my birth. The larger forces of labor migration to the United States that have been at play long before I was born mark the beginning point for my personal location the social formation of society. Being born and raised in Punjab, India, my father, Gulchaman Singh, and mother, Mohinder Kaur, both come from humble, traditional backgrounds. Although my father was able to go college for some time, he was forced to quit school and join the Indian army in order to help support both his nuclear and extended family. After my parents got married, they had a daughter and were seeking to live a content life. However, this was not possible due to the circumstances they were in. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Punjab was a place of economic, political and social turmoil. In addition to the Sikh Genocide that was happening in the Northern parts of the country, there was simply a lack of opportunities and resources for the wellbeing of my family. Even to this day, Punjab is ridden with corruption, drug problems, and general crime. Looking for ways to escape this and to help give my family a better chance at success, my parents and my older sister left the country in fall of 1992 while my mother was pregnant with a son—me. Moving directly to the United States, my mother gave birth to me a few months after they arrived. Similarly to many others, my family came to this country in hopes of a better and more comfortable life and my own birth arises from that very desire.
When analyzing my position and the position of my family within the country, it becomes easy to accept my identity rather than locating myself with a larger social formation. During the Labor Migration unit of the class, Professor Okihiro elaborated on how push and pull factors apply to a nation of immigrants (Lecture note, Labor Migration 2nd October). Pushes are the number of factors within one’s home country that pushes on to leave—such as political, economic or social turmoil. Pulls are factors that attract one to a certain country. The United States of America is a prime example because it represents economic opportunities, education and freedom from religious persecution. For my family, poverty, lack of opportunities and corrupt institutions instill the initial desire to leave. Corresponding to the large influx of Sikhs from Punjab to the United States, the stories of success and freedom that the U.S. seemed to hold were lucrative to my parents and helped to pull them into the country. Rather than coincidentally being born within this country, my position and role within society is linked to the dominant factors that lead to the migration of many people from “underdeveloped” countries to the United States.
In analyzing the migration of my parents to the United States in the context of push-pull factors, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of capitalist labor migration and the implications that it says. In “Introduction: A Theoretical Orientation to International Labor Migration”, Edna Bonacich and Lucie Cheng portray this phenomena in a simple but profound diagram called “Development of Labor Migration”. In expressing their fundamental ideas of their essay through this diagram, they wish to explain “the origins of imperialism, the consequences of imperialism for the dominated countries that lay the foundation for labor emigration, and the changing labor needs of advanced capitalist countries that lead to immigrant” (Bonacich and Lucie, 3). An interesting point that this essay makes is that immigrant workers “contribute to the development of the country to which they have moved, while their country of origin loses some of its able-bodied and productive members” (Bonacich and Lucie, 2). The movement of labor immigrants across the world does not come with consequences. Although my mother, father and sister were able to find more solace within the borders of the United States, they left behind the possibilities of helping to develop a weakening and sick Punjab. With vast amount of productive and efficient people leaving the region to go elsewhere, there are profound, detrimental issues that are helping to damage Punjab more. According to Bonacich and Lucie, the inability of capitalism to cope with internal issues causes people to seek comfort elsewhere—causing mass migrations of people to become parts of America’s intricate fabric. Although immigrants come to the United States with the guiding hope of a much better life, newly arriving ethnic minorities must face many adversities against the hegemonic powers of the United States that other minorities have been facing for generations. Leaving their respective countries for many different reasons, their struggle is simply redefined and reshaped by new challenges and obstacles that they may face.
As an ethnic group as a whole, Sikhs and Indians as a whole have tried to fight for our equal place within the United States since 1923 with Bhagat Singh Thind (Lecture note, Critical White Studies, 29th Nov). Even though Sikh Americans have been struggling for equality and complete freedom within the United States for over a hundred years now, the exponential influx of Sikh Americans during a post-9/11 world has caused a radical amount of hysteria that places me as another religious minority among the social formation of our society. The way religious minorities are treated within the country overall has placed a subjectivity upon me that I could not chosen for myself. As a more contemporary example, Harsha Walia explains in “Hate Crimes Always Have a Logic: On the Oak Creek Gurudwara Shootings” that acts of religious discrimination against Sikhs have been happening in large hordes of numbers since 9/11. Although the issue of radical white supremacy has been hurting Sikhs for over ten years now, the horrific shooting of six people in an institution created for peace and love is still represented as a senseless act separate from racism and white supremacy. Using this article as a lens in hope of illustrating my position, the simple act of my parents giving birth to me and raising me as a Sikh-American has caused me to be misrepresented as another possible threat to society. Regardless of the number of years I have been within the country or the many things that make me a good citizen of this country, oppressive forces shape my experience and marginalize me simply because I am a religious minority.
In addition to dealing with the a different form of religious oppression in the United States, moving from Punjab to this country caused them to end up in a place that also has its own issues—Jamaica, New York. In the same manner that classical colonialism has led to the causation of labor migration as a social phenomenon, another element of my position within social formation is that of oppressive, internal colonialism. According to Professor Okihiro, internal colonialism resembles classical colonialism in certain ways—notably the oppression that ensues of the people within the borders of an area (Lecture Note, Colonialism, October 9th). A variety of political and legislative tools are used in order to keep control within these internal colonies and economic forces help to keep people in. There becomes a political dependency in enclaves that predominantly exist of minorities of the United States. Jamaica is a part of Queens that can, in my opinion, be considered as an “internal colony”. Consisting of a majority of African-Americans, Latinos, and a large influx of recently arrived immigrants, my Sikh family ended up becoming a part of the diverse oppression of the under-resourced and underprivileged area of Jamaica that I ended up growing in.
Although the struggles of my family definitely have been different from those African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other immigrants, growing up within these pockets of social, cultural, economic poverty has allowed me to face many similar hardships that these other groups face. Regardless of the origins of the people living within these internal colonies, the social tools that are used to perpetuate oppression can lead to the underdevelopment of any individual. Even though there are various factors at play that continue to subject people within these areas, a major tool that can be used for oppression of people is education and how it’s used. Within New York City itself, there are huge disparities between education institutions all throughout the city. People in poorer, more urban areas that tend to be minorities generally receive a much worse education that those who live in affluent areas. Jamaica, Queens is merely one of the hundreds of “internal colonies” within New York City that are plagued by awful education institutions. Although the implications and reasons as to why this is are profound, improper and weak education works to keep thousands of people from proper and full access to potential resources and opportunities—further deepening the subjectivity that exists for poor and minority people.
Inadequate and oppressive education for people within these social boundaries can help to colonize the minds of people by altering the presentation of social constructs. Carter Woodson in “The Mis-Education of the Negro” critiques the pedagogy that exists for black students during that time and raises a cry about learning the importance on one’s own roots rather than those of the Western education that sets people up for servitude. Talking specifically about educated Black people, Woodson says that these “‘educated’ people, however, deny anything as race consciousness; and in some respects they are right” (Woodson, 7). Even though educational systems are much more racially integrated today, an important point that Woodson tries to make is that there is a lack of consciousness within the people who are receiving this education. Many people within these internal colonies are receiving an education; however, they are not conscious of the larger oppressive system at play. Building this point further, Eldrige Cleaver in “Education and Revolution” says,
The education that is given is designed to perpetuate a system of exploitation. On the one hand it is designed to keep black people and so-called minorities ignorant, and on the other hand it is designed to keep the masses of white students in harmony with this system, to keep them from supporting the system, to indoctrinate them to fight the wars that protect the system, and that extend and influence and power of the system (Cleaver, 48).
Cleaver hits the nail on the head with this because most of the public schooling in these urban areas full of minorities are exploited and are completely unaware of the bigger world out there. Others who have more economic power and higher social advantages control minorities and poorer people. White students who have had the opportunity for a less oppressive education do not deal with the subjection that minorities face. In turn, they become supportive of the disparate educational system because of the benefits that it reaps for them.
Considering myself to be fortunate, my educational experience throughout my own life has allowed me to explore both ends of this educational dichotomy. Initially growing up and attending public schools in Jamaica, Queens, I have been a first hand witness to the oppression that a poor education can have on people. For elementary school, I went to a local zone school predominantly filled with many minorities from a lower socioeconomic class. Not being aware of anything else, I did not plan for my education pursuits to leave the internal colony. It was set for me to attend one of the local high schools within the area—some of the worst schools in the whole country. However, I was fortunate enough to come across an educational opportunity that would change I understand to have changed my life. Beginning in the 5th grade, I was accepted into the first graduating class of a middle school called George Jackson Academy (GJA). GJA was founded in hopes of helping poor, talented minority boys who are become victims of the achievement gap reach their full potential. From this point on, I could be accepted into a high school called Packer Collegiate Institute. An independent, private school in Brooklyn, it offers some of the most elite education that exists within the New York City. It was from this point on that I honed all the resources and opportunities that become available in the world of rich, white schooling and used it to learn how to think critically about the constructs of my earlier, oppressive education. Being the son to immigrants from Punjab, the opportunities that become available to me helped me to move from an oppressive, public school educational system to an elite, resourceful private school education.
Currently being at Columbia University now, I am a factor of the diverse educational environments that have both tried to oppress me and that have placed me in a more “elite” position of society. Paolo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” says, “To surmount the situation of oppression, men must first recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity” (Freire, 31-32). Discussing education as being a means to freedom, Freire emphasizes that proper development of a critical consciousness through education. This critical consciousness allows one to understand society and its structures in order to create individual agency. Even though I have been able to hone these skills to be critically aware of the oppression I deal with, other people who have not had the same privilege are still embedded with social formations that they do not completely understand. From friends to family that have been an important and intricate part of my life, they are subjected to their respective locations in society without even completely understanding them. If it were not for the educational opportunities that I have had through my life, my mind would still have continued to be colonized by the oppressive forces laid out by the social formation of society. By indulging an elite education in what is accepted as an elite education, I have been able to escape the degradation of the fundamental right of a critical consciousness that many people from my background face.
Although I have received what arguably can be called a better education, it is compelling to analyze my position as a Columbia student who comes from the background of immigration and internal colonies. An important follow-up action would be to question how much my elite education is actually liberating me as a person. What are the implications of having a “liberating” education within a white hegemony and how will this position within society moving forward in life? Looking at the broader phenomena that facilitate my creates my position within society, this critical sensibility that I have further honed in Comparative Ethnic Studies pushes me away from focusing on the concept of identity to contemplating about subjectivity. Through writing this paper and analyzing myself as a subject position within society, it is captivating to envision how little our lives are created through personal decisions and individual decisions, but rather, by the larger components of social formation that are much bigger then identity itself. I am not simply a poor, first-generation, Sikh male who struggled through obstacles to receive a great education that is presented to be open for everyone. Rather, I am the product of a multiplicity of forces that have instrumented my construction as an individual long before I was even born.
Punjab is a state in Northern India that is culturally and social distinct from other parts of India. In my essay, I refer to myself from being both Punjabi and Sikh. Even though I may use both the terms interchangeably, it is important to note their distinction. The term Punjabi refers to my familial ties to this region. When I use the term Sikh, I am referring to my religion. Sikhism is a universal religion but also is the predominant religion of this area. Whenever I use the term Sikh for the purposes of this essay, I will also be referring to my familial roots from Punjab rather than religion alone.