TIME article – Racism or Storm in a Chai-Cup?


Racism or Storm

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By now you’ve all probably read Joel Stein’s ‘My Own Private India’ in TIME magazine – his tirade against Indians in Edison, NJ and heard of the big hullabaloo that’s ensued. The bloggers, Indian media as well as regular folk are quite upset about Stein’s seemingly bigoted views.

“All that needs to be done is Indian merchants should stop selling TIME in their news-stands, and c-stores,” fumes Nayan Padrai, a reader of this blog. “Indian doctors should cancel their subscription for waiting room copies, and Indian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies should instruct their marketing managers not to advertise in TIME!    Joel is surprised at the ‘non-Gandhian’ response on Twitter.  So please send a ‘Gandhian’ response of boycott!”

So is the column chock full of racism – or is it just a storm in a chai-cup? Well, read the original and judge for yourself.   If you haven’t read the piece yet, time to do some homework.

Stein, who grew up in Edison, writes in uncomplimentary fashion about how the town has changed over the years with the desi influx: “For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. 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.”

I gather that Stein writes mostly satire. In this piece I see him attempting to be an equal opportunity bigot – he mentions ‘stupid Americans’ who need to be taught how to reboot their computers; he talks of white kids stealing pies for drunken parties, stealing cash and shoplifting (we don’t object to these derogatory remarks since he didn’t say ‘Indian kids’ or ‘black kids’). He talks disparagingly of LBJ’s immigration policies – of his inviting Asians over to America and then simultaneously going over to Asia to kill them too. No objection from anyone to this statement either.

I tried reading this as a humor piece, and actually found some things faintly amusing. Yet what could possibly be funny about India’s poverty? I found it chilling that someone would try to wring humor out of misery, especially when the white man and colonialism had so much to do in bringing that poverty about.

To me, it looks as if Stein was working on deadline, his funny bone was out of sync and the humor juices just weren’t flowing. He’s clutching at stereotyping  straws, trying to find humor where there’s none.

To be fair, I actually found the conclusion of the article quite funny: “While the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians. Their assimilation is so wonderfully American that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.”

Yes, I’ve seen some desi guys like that too!

Storm Black

So, while I found a few things offensive in the article and felt sorry for Stein that he lived such a shuttered, parochial life, I didn’t find anything so evil in there as to proclaim a hartal. The blog Curry Bear had quite a fun yet insightful para by para rebuttal of the Stein piece which seems to back what I am thinking.

Stein wrote: “I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate. Were they from some Indian state that got made fun of by all the other Indian states and didn’t want to give up that feeling? Are the malls in India that bad? Did we accidentally keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai?”

To which Curry Bear responded: “Well Joel, Edison was not chosen randomly. It was Manifest Destiny. Indians have a belief that they are destined for Westward expansion. You remember Manifest Destiny from History class right? It is the same belief Americans used in the 1800s to acquire more land and kill an entire ethnic group of, ironically, Indians. Now that Indians have taken over your childhood town, you can think of this as karma.”

Curry Bear suggests compassion, the Gandhian response to Stein, but Nayan Padrai is thinking another Gandhian response: non-violent agitation and boycott of TIME.

When I suggested to Padrai it might just be a humor piece gone rancid (like paneer made out of bad milk), he responded, “This is not a ‘one-off’ article.  It is a ‘series’ on immigration, which fans racist flames across the country.”

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He adds, “I am furious at reading this article as it demonstrates such core racism and is published in a “series” on racism.  It is not a one-off satirical column.  When Helene Thomas made a comment about Israel, she had to resign as a White House correspondent.  I don’t see how this is any different, basically saying Indians should not move to Edison, NJ.  I live in the neighboring town of Woodbridge, and when my father was alive, a racist almost hit him at the corner store and told him to move back to India.

I don’t think this article is funny at all and Indians, for once, should support a ‘Gandhian’ protest of boycotting TIME Magazine.  If every Indian merchant removed TIME from his/her store shelf, and all Indian doctors canceled their waiting room subscriptions, TIME would pay attention. The African-American community has Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to speak on a national level.

Who does the Indian community have?  No one.  Therefore, it is important for Indian Americans to recognize that what Joel is saying isn’t all that different from what’s happening in Arizona, or what is happening in this country on a broader level.  Immigration isn’t a ‘fad’ – it is the fabric of this great nation, and people like Joel Stein shouldn’t have a platform as respected as TIME supporting them.  The collective wealth of Indians in America is over a trillion dollars, but we have no voice.  And that’s sad.”


To an extent that is true, and TIME Magazine still has so much cachet that people reading it take everything as gospel truth, even if it is written by a prejudiced writer or a bad humorist. It is TIME Magazine and it is – and should be – held to a higher standard. Who’s to stop the next crazy who reads it from taking a swing at the ‘Dotheads’ as tragically happened back in 1987 when Navroze Mody, a 30-year-old Indian bank manager,  was brutally murdered by a gang calling itself the Dot Busters?

According to the Pluralism Project,  a day before the death of Mody, the local newspaper received a letter signed  ‘Jersey City Dot Busters’, in response to an article about harassment of Indian families in New Jersey:

“I’m writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I’m here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called dot busters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don’t want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week race Physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped.”

The report goes on to note that In Jersey City, a few weeks after Mody’s death, a young resident in medicine, Dr. Sharan, was assaulted by three young men with baseball bats as he walked home late one night. One of the young people yelled, “There’s a dothead! Let’s get him!” as they set out with their bats. Sharan was beaten severely and left unconscious with a fractured skull. He was in a coma for a week, in the hospital for three weeks, and suffered permanent neurological damage.

One should not forget the past; yet nor should one over-react to a supposedly satirical piece. So is this a train wreck of a humor piece or a racist rant which should be taken seriously by every Indian – and by extension, the South Asian community? (Remember to the whites, all South Asians look alike. )

Deepa Iyer, Executive Director, South Asian Americans Leading Together, feels it is a serious enough issue for the community to take action. She writes in The Huffington Post: “Community members can join SAALT’s petition expressing concerns about the column and asking the magazine to open a space for a response to the column; convene a dialogue regarding its impact on the South Asian community; and refrain from publishing future pieces that fail to treat immigrant communities with respect. The petition can be found here.”

In the meantime, an update: Time magazine and Joel Stein have apologized.

TIME responds: We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

Joel Stein responds: “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.”

Well, what do you think of that apology and that explanation?

One will have to see  whether the controversy picks up steam in the coming days – or dies out, like the proverbial storm in a chai cup.

What about you? What do you think of Joel Stein’s piece?

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RELATED ARTICLE My Own Private America


About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!


  1. Joel Stein’s piece on the Indian community in Edison, NJ may have humor, but it lacked the new understanding of today’s minorities in America. He resorted to old stereotyping where humor is @ expense of the culture less understood here. The cultures bring a lot of rich traditions from overseas which are often ignored in mainstream America.

    What Stein forgot is that the Indian community brought new business to Edison to thrive on for a long time, even in a recession, with their hard work, ethics, solid family values, and rich cultural traditions. If he had done a good job in reporting appreciation of this transformed town then it would be easy for people to see the humor part without any hurt feelings.

    It is not only Joel Stein who has such an impression regarding cultures from around the world. Most people lack understanding of the richness of non-European cultures, which they often consider alien to their society. Those who say that Indians are over-sensitive should recall how black history in pre-‘Roots’ America was ignored, and black literature was regarded to be of lesser value. Knowing how one culture is ignored and undervalued is the best way to move a step forward to a progressive society.

    TIME did the right thing when an apology was rendered. There is no need to boycott a magazine which has corrected itself. The desi community is in dire need of a guardian like NAACP that can vouch for desi interests being protected without going overboard.

  2. I don’t think Stein’s column was meant to be taken as serious as everyone made it. Yes, maybe the Indian community brought new things to Edison, New Jersey, but they were never asked for, but I’m sure everyone was grateful for it. The people who are getting offended are too sensitive. Everyone, including Joel Stein, is entitled to their own opinion. If everyone if getting mad about it then state your own opinion- not that anyone will care, but if it makes you feel better go ahead. Joel Stein didn’t just out of the blue start calling Indians “dot-heads’, he had a reason for it. Seeing his childhood home completely changed was upsetting to him.

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