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.