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South Asian American Studies

A guide intended to aid research relating to South Asian American peoples & history, both within the greater Chicago area & within the broader context of the U.S. This guide will be updated in accordance with CHM's ongoing critical cataloging work.

Questions/Comments?

We welcome any questions, thoughts or comments about this subject guide at research@chicagohistory.org. Please use "South Asian American Studies" in the subject line.

Special Thanks

This guide was first created with the help of Lois Hao, doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and CHM Summer 2021 intern.

Featured CHM Collections

South Asian heritage in Chicago has been an important part of the city's history. There are books and materials in Chicago History Museum's research collections that describe these immigrants' life here as well as their vibrant and expanding communities.

To find more, please use the subject heading and keyword search tips found on this page.

Additional Online Resources and Cultural Organizations

Explore other collections and resources about South Asian American history in Chicago and the U.S.

You can also explore our list of online resources about Chicago.

The material in CHM collections may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. The Chicago History Museum has an institution-wide initiative to critically consider the language used to describe people and materials, and we invite you to read more about our related projects.

Searching Library of Congress and Local Subject Headings

Main Variations of Identity Terms

  • Asian Indians
  • Indians (Indian)*
  • Indian Americans*
  • South Asian Americans

* These are local headings

Library of Congress Subject Headings

The Chicago History Museum relies on subject headings authorized by the Library of Congress to organize its catalog records. This controlled vocabulary facilitates the uniform access and retrieval of items in libraries and archives worldwide. Researchers can search headings in CHM's online catalog ARCHIE by subject keyword.

Headings from the Library of Congress classification that appear most frequently in ARCHIE in reference to people of Asian and South Asian descent include:

  • Asian American
  • South Asian Americans -- Illinois -- Chicago

Headings that indicate specific geographical and cultural origins and ethnicities include:

  • Pakistani Americans -- Illinois -- Chicago

Note:  This list is not comprehensive, but meant instead as a suggested starting point. 

Inappropriate Library of Congress headings in the Asian and South Asian Americans' category are "Asian Indians" and "East Indians," as they were byproducts of the inappropriate concept of "American Indians" and coined to make a distinction. The inadequate subject headings, such as "South Asians/East Asians" and "Pakistani Americans," often reflect and rely on a Euro-American view for geographical units, cultural origins, and ethnic groups. Meanwhile, some headings are predicated on assumptions that might contradict an individual's sense of identity and/or a researcher's intentions.  

CHM recognizes the limitations of these and other Library of Congress subject headings, noting that names and terms used may be inappropriate or inadequate. While CHM librarians are working to mitigate harmful language, these subject headings currently provide a way to isolate records within ARCHIE. 

Local Headings

As we reexamine our collections, we are introducing local and alternate subject headings to replace language that we feel is outdated or inadequate. 

We've changed instances of "East Indians" to "Indians (India)" and instances of "East Indian Americans" to "Indian Americans" based on Triangle Research Libraries Network recommendations.

Local headings that appear most frequently in ARCHIE in reference to people of Asian and South Asian descent include:

  • Indian Americans -- Illinois -- Chicago
  • Indians (India) -- Illinois -- Chicago

Key Terms Used on South Asian Groups

Keywords

There is a long history of white, wealthy, male, and Christian supremacy in official controlled vocabularies like Library of Congress, and often subjects, people and events associated with marginalized groups are left out of these official lists. We try to mitigate this in a few ways through our critical cataloging efforts. One is by creating more specific, new or local headings that truthfully recognize and represent these groups, and another is making sure people and events are named in the title or description so that you can still find them when using our general default search. If you are not finding resources by using the author or subject keyword search, try using the general search using the people, places, or events you have in mind, in addition to the identity terms listed below.

Religions

The diversity in faiths and religious affiliations is most remarkable in South Asian communities. But in many historical cases, a British Indian person was simply referred to as "Hindus" for the stereotypical conflation of the population and its major religion. At the same time, "Muslims" would be treated as a completely separate group, mutually exclusive to "Indians."

In the present context, however, we also need to keep in mind that some might prefer to be identified by their religious affiliation instead of nationality or ethnicity. For example, one might prioritize their Hindu identity for its strong ethnic and cultural bonds, while in another case, one might seek international solidarity in their Muslim identity.

The following list shows the various religious groups, the names of their faiths, and the nation-state they preferred or envisioned for themselves. This list includes historical Anglicized spellings that might still be in titles and original documents themselves. It should also be noted that presently around 2 percent of South Asians practice Christianity, and around 1 percent practice other beliefs such as Judaism, folk religions, or are irreligious.

Hindu/Hindoo/Hindustanee/Hindustani Hinduism Hindustan
Muslim/Moslem/Mahometan/Mohammedan Islam -
Buddhist/Buddist Buddhism/Buddism -
Jain Jainism -
Sikh Sikhism Khalistan
Zoroastrian Zoroastrianism -

Please see the Glossary for further information on each keyword.

Race and Colorism

Race is a social construct systematically conceptualized and categorized in and for the contexts and enterprises of colonialism. Although it has been discredited in the second half of the 20th century as a pseudoscientific system of classification and is being replaced by less loaded terms, it has a lingering cultural and social presence through colorism and the practice of racial profiling. Those with darker skin tones are subjected to face more discrimination in most countries around the globe.

In the Indian subcontinent, colorism was present before the colonial rule but was fueled and further consolidated by the attitudes of Europeans towards Indians. With the validation of the emerging race science in the 19th century, the previous colorism converged with the European belief in an alleged attached superiority of light-skin races who were the power holder against the subverted class with a darker skin who were taken as slaves. (Neha Mishra, India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances, 14 Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 725 (2015),
https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol14/iss4/14)

Race theory has coined a number of terms and concepts for colorist classification and discrimination, including
  • Aryan
  • Brownie/Brunette
  • Caucasian native/white
  • Kalu, kaliya (dark-­‚Äźskinned)

Please see the Glossary for further information on each keyword. These are harmful words of which readers and researchers need to be aware. Most are still in use today. For more information, see these sources:

Glossary on South Asian American Identity and Research Terms

This is a list of historical terms for your reference. Most of these will not be used in a title, description, or subject, but will instead be terms that you should look out for in the historical sources themselves. Please note that these are historical terms, many of which would be considered harmful or offensive today.

Neighborhood and Immigration History

Neighborhoods

  • Devon Avenue, West Ridge/Rogers Park

A 15-block stretch of Devon Avenue on the North Side has become known as Chicago's South Asian community and commercial district that began growing in the early 1970s. While locally known as "Little India," the area is a vibrant blend of multiple Asian cultures, with Pakistani, Chinese, and Middle Eastern influences. More information:

Both the Indo-American Heritage Museum in Lombard, Illinois, and the Indo-American Center (IAC), promote and share Indo-American culture.

In Illinois, there are more than 242,000 South Asian Americans, including people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Bhutanese descent. Since 2000, South Asians have grown by over 55 percent in Illinois. This rate is notably higher than the growth rate of Asian Americans overall, of which South Asian Americans make up 36 percent. More importantly, of all ethnic groups, South Asians are the Midwest’s fastest growing.

More information (pdfs):

Timeline for South Asian Immigration History:

  • 1917, the US Congress passed an immigration act which restricted migrants from the "Asiatic Barred Zone"--a region that included the entirety of the Indian subcontinent
  • 1923, the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that South Asians were ineligible for naturalization
  • 1946 Luce-Celler Act provided naturalization rights to both South Asians and Filipinos, but still limited the number of migrants allowed into the country
  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished immigration quotas based on national origin and led to an increase of migrants from South Asia, forever changing the racial demographics of the U.S.
  • After the events of September 11, 2001, South Asians -- primarily Muslims and Sikhs -- have been the victims of religious and racial profiling and violence

from South Asian American Digital Archive, "An Introduction to South Asian American History"