“This food drive is for the working class, right? I still have a job and I work from home…sitting in front of my computer and attending zoom meetings! I don’t need food aid; my family is self-sufficient… we do online grocery order!”
While collecting data about those in need during the pandemic, I have noticed many pre-existing patterns of social interactions and beliefs emerge. As a social ethnographer, I utilize sociological consciousness, which demonstrates the hidden social inequalities existing within our society and the varied mental health impacts we are experiencing. Within the South Asian community, elements of shame, toxic masculinity, unequal gender relations, and class sensitivity that were operating well before this pandemic have been exacerbated as the economic and psychological needs of every family heightens. By accepting aid from the food drive, people feel their class status is visible and for some men, their masculinity is exposed and denigrated. People are more vulnerable to feeling ashamed and disgraced as they may be incapable of taking care of their family during the pandemic. In the face of shame, one may feel trapped, powerless and isolated.
It is not easy to engage our sociological imagination even in normal times, but in such a pandemic, we can surely put our imaginations into operation. It is important to note that as a society, we tend to credit ourselves for all the successes in our lives, not surprisingly, many of us therefore tend to believe that the onus of failure rests on us as well. This leads to drinking, gambling, domestic violence, as well as to frustration, anger, and feelings of isolation, helplessness and even suicidal ideation. Rarely do we ever consider the social structures which contribute to much of the events of our personal lives, a result of western individualistic values. Thus, thinking sociologically at such a time involves a process of seeing through and comparing the social structures of our society in order to see the various aspects of every household and create solutions.
My work conducting the South Asian Workers’ Center’s food drives brought me to some observational patterns. Many men’s sense of masculinity and pride became risk factors as it became increasingly difficult to take care of their families. As SAWC is run by a woman, a number of men have refrained from accepting donations from the food drive. Many of these same men were eager to discreetly accept food from an elderly woman from the same background who treated him as a son. In a neoliberal American society, the intersections that exist for a South Asian man culminate into common feelings of shame and disgrace, which are exacerbated during pandemics. These intersections include individualistic values, pressures of masculinity, the experience of being an immigrant, a person of color, and someone who may speak English as a second language.
Classism is another element which creates barriers for the South Asian community and an interesting subjectivity is reflected: being working class is spatially determined. In a global context, SAWC members are middle-class in relation to their relatives in South Asia, but within U.S. economic relations, they are working class. Many South Asian people in the U.S. feel that being perceived as working class is a negative stigma, despite having luxuries just for living in the United States, albeit not middle class. A number of SAWC members live in Boston, can afford to pay for their apartments, send their kids to English speaking schools, and the kids have fairly good English-speaking abilities, making them associate more closely with the middle class. South Asian working-class communities are typically upwardly mobile and often pegged as model minorities. Therefore, asking for help is stigmatized.
The stigma against public assistance and the individualism of the neoliberal economy have meant that South Asian workers are resistant to applying for unemployment benefits. Accepting governmental aid is seen as repugnant, something that should be avoided at all costs, and a reflection of a poor work ethic. American society as a whole vilifies poverty and categorizes people into those who are ‘deserving’ and those who are not, factors for which are often extraneous to actual need. So, these elements intersect within the South Asian community, leading many to instead prefer private and discrete methods, such as gift cards, cash, or direct deposit. This preference prevents others in your community from knowing about your economic problems and spreading your personal information.
These economic issues are still seen as an individualistic problem, one that is caused by our own personal faults, instead of a collective problem that is burdening all members of our society. To many people, being working class is perceived as the eviction of their power, honor, status, and autonomy. SAWC’s food drives are done to help the community survive the pandemic, yet it has provided us with an opportunity to challenge our perception of pride. Being strong, powerful, autonomous, and honorable does not have to be tied to class nor should it mean that people should personally take the fall for the failure of the systems in place to respond adequately to the coronavirus pandemic. Accepting supplies from the food drive does more than provide necessities to many families. It provides a sense of community and belonging, a collective understanding that it is not individual failure leading to current financial strains, yet a common experience among many. Strength comes from accepting and owning your vulnerability. The pandemic has challenged our society’s narcissism and human supremacy. We have lost our control over the postmodern world—and yet it seems that many people find it challenging to admit the fact of our sudden vulnerability and dependence.
The common term associated with coronavirus-related guidelines is “social distancing.” However, it is essentially just physical distancing that we must adhere to. We can still be socially and emotionally engaged with one another using accessible alternative methods! It is of high importance to pay attention to the important mental health implications regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Many people are losing their jobs and there is a pervasive sense of uncertainty plaguing all of our lives. People are experiencing higher levels of stress and the exacerbation of pervasive pressures on mental health.
Therefore, SAWC is starting a host of online mental well-being programs: psychological support groups, online gratitude sessions, online community cooking sessions, and recipe sharing forums. These care programs are important for a specific reason as well. A community of people who are also struggling demonstrates that everyone is suffering at this moment and that stability of families is more important than pride. SAWC wants to share a call to action for our community to look past the traditional barriers we have held towards one another in our respective cultures. In this time, many of us are experiencing the same, or similar, struggles! We can get through this only if we work collectively and build cross-class solidarity. Supporting one another, even across religious and caste lines, is revolutionary during this time because we can reduce stigma against poverty and create a more sustainable future. You can support your community by checking in on someone you haven’t talked to in a while, volunteering for food drives, or even joining in to SAWC’s bi-weekly wellness check-in zoom calls!
Jyoti Sinha is the founder of the South Asian Workers’ Center – Boston (SAWC), and a faculty member in the sociology department at UMass Boston