Whitewashing Caste

How Indian immigrants used religion and caste to naturalise as White in the US

Asian Immigrants arriving at the Quarantine Station at Angel Island, San Francisco Bay circa 1911. Fotosearch / Getty Images
31 January, 2023

ON 6 SEPTEMBER 1915, 22-year-old Kala Bagai arrived at Angel Island aboard the SS Korea with her husband and three sons. Kala carried a material archive of her life in her luggage: gold ornaments, a portrait of herself, a sky-blue silk sari reserved for special occasions. Kala had carefully chosen the valuables, knowing her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, intended to establish a home in the United States.

After being questioned and examined at Angel Island, the Bagai family made their way to San Francisco. Sixteen days later, Vaishno submitted his declaration of intention for naturalisation. Given that a married woman’s nationality was considered a corollary of her husband’s, and a child’s nationality derived from the father’s, Vaishno’s application was important for the whole family.

Vaishno prepared his naturalisation case hoping he would secure enough evidence to prove he qualified as a White person. At the time, the United States required each immigrant to prove five years of legal residency in the country and that he was a “free white person . . . of good character.” The latter requirement, delineated by the US Congress’s first uniform law for naturalisation in 1790, succinctly captured federal attempts to mold and settle a nation with White citizens. While birthright citizenship was legalised in 1868 and the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalisation to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” virtually all other aspiring US citizens were required to legally qualify as “free white persons.” Between 1878 and 1952, US federal courts adjudicated more than fifty cases from immigrants from Asia, the Pacific, and Central and South America to determine who was White.

Indian immigrants took to the offices of county clerks and then to courtrooms to prove they were White. They argued they were Caucasian and Aryan, citing race science theories and categorisations developed by anthropologists, philologists and imperial bureaucrats. But whether Indians and other Asian migrants constituted White persons remained a contested legal question among county clerks, US judges and local populations. Religion and caste, however, cut across these concerns as Indian immigrants cited their ancestral heritage and practices of endogamy to argue their racial ancestry and families’ lack of “intermixture” proved not only their race but purity of blood over multiple generations.