We all must keep the needle moving toward justice, says professor
"I'm confident that all of us ... have to chip away at this in our own way. We all have to come together," says Arup Varma, Distinguished University Research Professor at the Quinlan School of Business. "We have changed things that were unacceptable in the past and they are not acceptable today."
Varma joined Quinlan's Rick Sindt for a conversation about his immigration experience, his research on expatriates, and how to navigate being not white and not Black.
1. Change takes time and persistence
Following the murder of George Floyd and summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Varma reflected on how he can make change in his role as an academic and a professor at the Quinlan School of Business.
"It's not that you're going to have one big, huge shock one day and everything changes," says Varma. "I don't think society changes that way. It's done incrementally over decades or generations. This original sin of racism is 401 years old. But the needle has moved. And our role as educators, as academicians, as part of Quinlan, all of us, is to help keep moving it. Do not let it stop and definitely do not let it regress because it can."
He has also been heartened by the positive changes happening as communities rallied around each other to demand justice.
2. He is not white
When Varma arrived in the United States on january 14, 1990, the stereotypes he had of the Unites States were immediately broken. However, he was constantly reminded of the stereotypes Americans had of India, and that he was different.
"The first time you come out of your country, now you're reminded daily: you're different," says Varma. "Every day you are reminded: you are not white, which is a very interesting experience because it wasn't always in a very pleasant way.
"It's a constant theme, and at some point, you want to get over it. You want to get on with it. You want to get on with your life."
3. But he's not Black either
After not feeling at home at a Florida university, Varma transferred to Rutgers University to finish his PhD and had the opportunity to learn from friends and faculty of all different backgrounds.
"I got reminded, interestingly enough, that I wasn't Black either. [Friends] would remind me, 'Yeah, you're not white, but you're not Black either. You can't understand or try to incorporate that experience. You have not gone through that,'" says Varma.
Rather than fitting into a pre-determined identity and experience, Varma was faced with creating his own.
"I can't put myself in one of these boxes and say now this is the experience that I will call upon," says Varma. "I had to create my own box and find people like myself who had that experience. And we learn, yeah, it's not all Black and white. There's some brown in between and shades of brown."
4. Expatriates need help
Drawing on his own experience as an expatriate, Varma began to research how other expatriates find success and on what basis people help them.
"One thing we know from research ... is the help is needed," says Varma. "You cannot succeed to the same level without the help of locals or what we call host country national. You succeed - you're good as your job, that's why your company sent you - but if you get the help initially you can get going much faster."
This help can be divided into two categories: role information and social support. Role information can be things like what kind of behavior is acceptable in an office or how the education system works as a student. Social support can be things like where to eat and what areas of the city should be avoided.
For Varma, this help included learning that it is not acceptable to touch others' vehicles in America. The first time he saw a Ferrari in America, he decided to take a picture with it to send to his friends back home. When he leaned against the car with his elbow, the owner came running and yelled for his to go back where he came from. A fellow student helped to diffuse the situation and taught him the social convention.
"These are very critical things to know because these could become big things," says Varma. "You just never know."
5. If you're qualified, stereotypes have less impact on success
Varma has found that when companies send their most qualified candidates abroad, other indicators such as race or gender are less important to host country nationals looking to help.
"When you're good at what you do and you're there for a specific reason, your race, your gender, those become less relevant," says Varma. "If American organizations, corporations, decision-makers would just send the best people and not use their stereotypes of who might succeed and who might not succeed, they do much better."
Names are powerful
While Kamala Harris was selected by no-President Joe Biden as running mate, Varma was struck with a new term being used in American media: South Asian. Varma argues that in the same way we would never say Southern European, we ought to say Indian instead of South Asian.
"I realize this is not all by accident," says Varma. "This is a deliberate attempt to sort of say 'You don't matter. We'll call you South Asian.' ... As a true Indian, I'm always amazed that suddenly now all of these big media houses are calling us South Asian. There is now South Asia, there is India. India has a population of 1.3 billion people."
Individuals' names are equally important. Rather than choosing an English or American name, Varma encourages his friends and students from other countries to use their own names.
"I think it's dehumanizing, and it is to a large extent racist," says Varma. "Because [by by using another name], you're saying 'I don't care what your name is in your culture, this is what I'm going to call you.' No, no. ... If you mispronounce Arup, it's still closer to my name than saying, 'Why don't I call you Andy?' I'm not Andy, I'm Arup."