Stein’s own private joke is no laughing matter

A scant month after Andrea Miller’s “humorous” ‘How to Date An Indian’ piece in The Huffington Post comes another oh-so-funny offering: comedian Joel Stein’s My Own Private India in the July 5 issue of Time magazine online, which discusses the Indianization of Edison, N.J.

I think there’s a very real problem in media today, if respected publications can post this kind of content without blinking an eye. Who sits around thinking, “Hey, you know what, let’s put up a couple of posts chock full of racially triggering language”? Obviously people who care more about site traffic and using Indians for cheap jokes than about common sense. And people who think that the South Asian community is this benign, singular mass that’s not going to get stirred up. I mean, we’re just going to keep serving you curry, driving your cabs and reading your medical charts, right?

Stein’s response on Twitter was that he didn’t mean to insult Indians…which is hysterical to me considering A) the content speaks for itself and B) what he said next: “also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing.” Yes, because all Indians are beatific Gandhians…who, lest we forget, worship funny looking gods and take over your towns and schools.

Journalist Sandip Roy has a great rebuttal in the HuffPo…and, yes, I’m aware of the irony of linking to the HuffPo on a positive note after taking swipes at them for the Miller entry. But I think that disconnect speaks to, again, a very troubling issue with media. Is there no self-awareness on the editorial level? A month ago they put up a ridiculous, stereotype-laden piece of dreck, and now they have a wonderful piece skewering somebody else‘s ridiculous, stereotype-laden dreck?

People have tried to excuse or explain away Stein’s unfunny work as “satire,” and I think that’s giving the piece too much credit. In the same way that Miller’s “How To” article missed the satirical mark by a mile, the racist rhetoric in Stein’s piece outweighs the tongue-in-cheek value. What’s satirical about saying, “In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor”? Absolutely nothing! It’s just mean.

Additionally, dismissing Stein’s article as comedy also dismisses the very valid outrage it has elicited from those who don’t like a cup of asshat with their Time. It’s telling us, “What are you getting your panties in a twist about?” and “Let me explain it to you, because you’re not smart enough to get it,” and “Calm down, you angry brown person!” And, I’m sorry, but we get to have our indignation. We get to be insulted. If people have the right to laugh at Stein’s work, then others also have the right to think it’s unbearably douche-y. Not to mention that there’s a very uncomfortable history of minority voices being silenced, of people of color being told how we’re allowed to feel and what’s an “appropriate” level of reaction. (See above re: Gandhi and nonviolence.)

My parents emigrated here in the 1960s. At that time, Indians had little choice but to assimilate as best they could. There weren’t dozens of Indian restaurants and temples and funny-smelling neighborhoods. The Midwest, especially, was a cultural wasteland for them for a while. They had to drive hours just to see friends from back home. But just like all those who had come to America before them, Indian immigrants built communities and friendships and new definitions of family—working hard to capture bits of home while also contributing to their new homeland. I remember going to temple in a little house in Cincinnati. We would drive an hour each way and crowd into the first floor where the service would take place…and then the kids would go upstairs for Hindu “Sunday school.” We were all thrilled when the first Indian grocery store popped up, when the restaurants followed.

And I think using the collective Indian immigrant experience —which is so vast and certainly doesn’t necessarily mirror that of my parents’—to make some kind of clumsy point about immigration was just a really poor decision on the part of Stein and of Time magazine.

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5 thoughts on “Stein’s own private joke is no laughing matter

  1. Not just Apu anymore–Indians making presence known in American pop culture
    By Matt Kuttan
    RedEye contributor

    So, I get this call last month from my mother, who is happily retired in Florida, and she asks me if I’ve noticed how many Indians there are in American media lately.

    Clarification: I am of East Indian descent (so she meant dot, not feather). Whether it’s TV sitcoms, commercials or big budget movies such as “Avatar,” there seems to be a sudden surge of friendly brown faces on the air. And I’m not just talking about Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal complaining about BP or the latest spelling bee champion.

    It is common knowledge that the most famous Indian on the planet is Apu from “The Simpsons”; he’s on the TV in every country, every week.

    But then I saw the comedian Aziz Ansari hosting the MTV Movie Awards and commercials for NBC’s new show based on a call center in India titled “Outsourced” and started to think there might be something to my mom’s observations. My quick checklist shows that Indian-Americans have appeared on “The Office,” “Entourage,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Rules of Engagement,” “Royal Pains,” “Lost,” “Glee,” “Heroes,” “ER,” “House” and even kids’ cartoons like “Phineas & Ferb,” to mention a few.

    In films, we have “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the recent Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” M. Night Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian cameos in his movies and Kal Penn in the “Harold and Kumar” series.

    We’re also sprinkled all over my industry–advertising–generally playing the parts of nerdy researchers, compassionate doctors and technically proficient scientists. And to think that just a while back, the only Indians most Americans had heard of was Mahatma Gandhi, Ravi Shankar or the caricatures perpetuated in movies such as “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Octopussy” and “Short Circuit.”

    Full disclosure: In 1999, I did an acting cameo on the TV series “Early Edition” that was shot in Chicago–playing a stereotypical cab driver.

    Are we the token ethnics (or rather ithnics) for the 2010s? One answer is that Indians are the new culture du jour to make a entertainment more current and colorful. “What can Brown do for you” and make your show more in tune with the times? Historically, there has been a pattern of various cultures temporarily blowing up into the lexicon and mainstream culture for a time.

    My hope is that, during the past 25 years, Indians have mainstreamed and gone from Indian-Americans to simply Americans. Most people I know have had daily interaction with Indian folk, whether it’s the kid in braces who sucks at dodgeball in fifth grade or the voice that responds to the frantic lost-card call to Citibank that is routed to India. That slowly is being represented in what we view.

    Even better is the fact that a lot of the characters they’re playing are just regular people and their ethnicity is not called out.

    Matt Kuttan is a RedEye special contributor.

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  2. It seems that Indians are the only minority left for people to make fun of. Note I said make fun, not satire. For some reason, they think that Indians are not going to complain about the blatant racism/politically incorrect stuff that’s been written. I would think that someone with the last name Stein would be sensitive to not making fun of other minorities. But then since his skin is white perhaps he no longer thinks of himself or his people as a minority. Seriously if someone with the last name Patel or Cho wrote an article about the Jewishization of a town, people would be up in arms.

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    • I couldn’t agree more! Stein’s comment about Gandhi was, for me, the strongest indicator that both he and Time thought they weren’t going to cause a kerfuffle. And it really is symptomatic of Indians operating as America’s model minority: i.e. that we don’t complain, we assimilate…and if we don’t, well, you get to mock us for it and we’ll simply smile and move on like good little citizens. That people got *pissed* seems to have really, honestly, surprised Stein and his editor.

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