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

By • Jul 4th, 2010 • Category: The Buzz
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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

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is a New York based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina See more articles from Lavina on
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52 Responses »

  1. Thanks for mentioning my article! I just discovered this site and planning on becoming a regular reader. I like that one statement you made to our mutual friend Nayan, “It might just be a humor piece gone rancid”. Definitely agree with you on that one.

  2. Thanks for the balanced piece and digging up what happened in Jersey City. I’m happy that people are talking about this matter because it shows many sides of the immigrant story and the xenophobia simmering.

  3. Very nice response, and far more level-headed than my initial reaction.

    My only quibble is that I wish more people would challenge the premise that “just trying to be funny” is a legitimate excuse (a la Michael Richards or Mel Gibson). Many racist comments, in fact, are attempts at humor.

    There is a difference between racist humor and racial satire. In the former, the target is the minority group, while in latter the target is the ignorance of the person espousing those views (and still should be attempted only by highly-skilled professionals like Sarah Silverman or Dave Chapelle, which Stein is not.) The target of the Stein’s “jokes” is consistently the minority group and that only about 1 in 6 even approaches funny only serves to obscure the fact that it’s racist humor regardless.

  4. Lets also not forget that just two years ago there was an incident with some desis and cops on the eve of India Day Parade in Edison, and there was quite a bit of noise about the circumstances and accusations of brutality.

  5. On the surface, it seems to be a pointless article in the guise of memories of a lost childhood that will bring publicity to the magazine and more hits to its web site. Why? Because we Indians will react to it.
    Is it racist? Yes, but Stein is an equal opportunity one and lambastes his own childhood’s sick morals and mores.

  6. Hi Lavinia,
    I understand your point about overreaction but also know that Gandhian responses, like the salt marches, worked against the Brits because they were capable of being shamed. It is equally dangerous for the Desi community to spin out into angry rhetoric, but showing a bit of backbone in a balanced way doesn’t hurt.
    As for Joel Stein’s article: take out the dot-head thing, and it would be a writer writing, and one might not like it but hey. Dot-head is a word that got people killed. With the economy in the state it is and more than sufficient voices looking for scapegoats, it’s dangerous to allow words like dot-head to pass for humor again. Also disrespectful of those who died in the 80’s.

  7. Curry Bear, don’t have honey here but glad you’re visiting! Yes, I do believe Joel Stein was having a bad humor day but Nayan doesn’t seem to agree!

  8. Michael, I guess it’s a calm, ‘Gandhian’ response after reading the article a few times – if you notice he’s trying to be outrageous by stereotyping just about everyone. I think ethnic minority jokes are funny only when they are made by the minorities themselves – like Russell Peters, for example.

  9. You’re right, Pradeep. But if he had written a positive article, Indians would have reacted even more favorably, sending the link to every cousin in India! As I noted in my article, Stein seems to be an equal opportunity bigot – he stereotypes other communities too in the article.

  10. ” It’s dangerous to allow words like dot-head to pass for humor again. Also disrespectful of those who died in the 80’s.” Shymala, I agree with you on the need for being firm.
    If you look at the letter which the Dotbusters had sent to the newspapers, this is what they wrote: “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.”

  11. First off, I demand a glass of cool lassi. Next, I will share my reaction to the TIME blog :-)

  12. Sure,but in the virtual world it’s going to be a virtual lassi. Close your eyes, imagine a nice frosty glass with tinkling ice, rich, thick lassi – yes, you can even imagine it to be mango lassi! When you meet me in the real world, I’ll treat you to a REAL lassi.

  13. Oh, and I did like Stein’s chagrin at the displacement of theatres that showed Hollywood films by multiplexes that run Bollywood blockbusters. To be invaded by the Indian “merchant” class has its highs and lows, but to be invaded by Bollywood has only lows and the lowest of the lows.

  14. In his blog in TIME magazine, Joel Stein voices his feelings about the changing demographics of his hometown, Edison, NJ. And Indians are up in arms, labeling it “racist.”

    O.K. It has a slight anti-Indian slant to it, but then let’s place it in a context.

    It reminds me of a time when Bengalis would vent similar thoughts about the changing cultural and aesthetic landscape of Kolkata.

    Kolkata natives—such as myself—have felt displaced by immigrants in two waves: First, by what was said to be an “invasion” by the Marwaris, with their love for gaudy splendor in a city known for its quiet sobriety.

    Later came, the Biharis. And on that, Shirshendu Mukherjee has an essay that remarkably resembles Stein’s in tone and ideology. But then, the Marwari and Bihari community didn’t cry “racism.” It was taken to be part of an emergent discourse on the patterns of immigration in West Bengal. There are beneficiaries of such population flow and mix, and there are victims.

    Let a full spectrum of opinions and voices on a touchy national subject matter prevail.

    Did any of the Indians, who scream racism at the drop of a (brown) hat object when African-Americans were stereotyped as the Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas of modern America in that (odious) Forrest Gump redo “My Name is Khan?”


    Yet they suffer from a reverse-racist sense of entitlement to bully-pulpit every time there is a mention of Indians in less than the superpower light that they have come to see themselves in.

    It’s sad that many Indians in this nation have become these self-appointed “brown” vigilantes, who like the “Orientalism-spotters” of a bygone era (sponsored by an Edward Said-worshipping clique of Columbia University graduates), assume that when they say it’s “racism,” then, it is racism.

    Oh, and I did like Stein’s chagrin at the displacement of theatres that showed Hollywood films by multiplexes that run Bollywood blockbusters. To be invaded by the Indian “merchant” class has its highs and lows, but to be invaded by Bollywood has only lows, and the lowest of the lows.

    In ending, I didn’t see any nostalgic reference to the age of dot-busting—Stein isn’t asking for a return to hate crime to restore the original “white” landscape to Edison.

    The blog isn’t centered on dot-busting, just as so many of the Waspish discourse on the advent of Jewry into N.J. cities post World War II isn’t redolent of the holocaust

  15. I agree with you Lavina. Joel’s piece has some humor but unfortunately it stirred up negative emotions in people. The fact is that yes, he is certainly looking back at a neighborhood that he once lived in and could associate to. And over time there has been a cultural shift not just in NJ but all across America.

    I mean, really what makes America? Immigrants coming from ALL OVER THE WORLD and embracing the opportunities. What’s happening in Edison has happened in every city where immigrants are able to build and in many ways give it a “little feeling of home”. Is that so wrong? I mean, do we complain about the “Little Italy’s, The China Towns, Harlem, Boro Park, Washington Heights”?

    In Washington Heights the Dominican population is larger than that of the actual Dominican Republic and people actually vote for the president of DR from the U.S.A.

    What is it that is really being addressed in Joel’s article?.. We can’t blame the Asian population for studying engineering / technology. I am not from India but I love my Indian friends, the culture, and see the shift no different than that of past predecessors.

    So perhaps Joel should talk about how some of the best public school districts are in NJ…and hmmmm I wonder why that is… “Dot-heads”…NOT…. perhaps we should learn from one another and truly live “The American Dream As ONE”.

  16. Oh, and perhaps you should invite Joel for a Lassi or two and discuss HIS family tree.

  17. Jamie, you make some very valid points – America is all about many different worlds within worlds and the only way we can live together is not only to accept that but to celebrate it. The facts about Dominican Republic having a larger population here are quite mind-boggling!

  18. (Comment received on Facebook from Sharmila Mukherjee)

    Lavina: I read Joel Stein’s blog–it isn’t about dot busting per se, there is an in-context reference to it. Of course dot busting is a traumatic event. I have a close relative who was actually dot busted in N.J. during that time, but please point out a specific area in Stein’s blog where he is celebrating dot busting or condoning it. Stein’s nostalgia for lost signs of his childhood has controversial moments, like most nostalgic writing is, but nothing that says “let’s go back to busting the dot out of Indians.”

  19. Comment received via Facebook from Vandana Govil

    I don’t think he is knocking Indians – he’s lamenting the loss of his old memories of childhood and youth! He seems to forget that change is inevitable – happens whether we like it or not!
    Lots of Americans appreciate the rich cultural heritage that Indians bring to this country.

  20. Alakananda, thanks for sharing your blog post and one can certainly see the connections, be it Kolkota or Edison, NJ.
    You’re right that places change and nobody is happy to see their old haunts disappear.
    “Did any of the Indians, who scream racism at the drop of a (brown) hat object when African-Americans were stereotyped as the Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas of modern America in that (odious) Forrest Gump redo “My Name is Khan?” ” – yes, some people did object – I know I did. But as you see, even in Stein’s piece, no Indians have objected to his stereotyping of whites – now if it were Indian kids!!

  21. Indu Jaiswal via Facebook

    Hi Lavina read the article – unbelievable comments

  22. Vandana, you are right change is inevitable – and yes, there are many Americans who really appreciate India’s cultural riches – I seem to meet Indophiles all the time, people who know more about India than I do!

  23. Hi Indu – yes, but as I’ve said, Stein was trying to be funny though most Indian-Americans aren’t amused.

  24. Indian Man murdered in Old Bridge, NJ – beaten to death by 5 teenagers in a possibly racial bias incident.

    Racism on the pages of TIME can influence this kind of behavior. Defend Joel Stein all you want, call racism on the pages of TIME satire, but this is no joke.


  25. Yes, it is rather strange to see how people out here are trying to whitewash and intellectualize xenophobia under the guise of satire in the Time piece to Stein’s advantage. Unbelievable really!
    Yes, go on expressing your keen solidarity with Stein’s cheap humor while your poor brethren who are probably not as hip, savvy and well-spoken as you suffer mindless injustice on the streets and schools of New Jersey.
    But then again, hey, aren’t we enlightened desis only too eager to swing along and keep beat with the cool Hollywood watching crowd? And a word to Alakananda Mookerjee: simply because the Biharis or Marwaris did not protest does not make Bengali racism right!

  26. Aarti Chawla via Facebook

    @Jamie: Excellent response. You’re spot on!

  27. Nyan, thanks for sharing. It’s a very sad incident.

  28. […] http://www.lassiwithlavina.comNEW YORK, July 1, 2010: By now you’ve all read Joel Stein’s “My Own Private […]

  29. Personally, I found the article quite humorous, and find the term xenophobic quite harsh. As an US-raised Indian, I sometimes wonder at my own adopted home town, which overnight went from a scattering of PhDs and doctors to having one of the largest Indian populations this side of the Mississippi. Such a mad rush to immigrate has created its own share of comical problems – like Indian restaurants opening up in former Chinese restaurants, pictures of Hindu gods struggling to find place in and around frescoes of the Great Wall of China and Buddhist prayer flags.

    I personally believe that a healthy level of humor is the first step in removing the veil of racial prejudice that divides us all. After all, isn’t the ability to share laughter something that makes us truly human?

  30. When I read Joel Stein’s article in TIME, my first reaction was: “Either people are going to take it in a funny vein and laugh it off, or they are going to make a big deal about it.”

    Guess, people are making a big deal about it.

    As I look around in the US, I see a country where people of a number of races, ethnicities and countries have created a place where they can live, dream and build lives. Despite the recession, there are still millions of people across the globe wanting to come to the ‘great’ US of A, and making their dreams come true.

    As far as I know my history, this is a country that was founded by and thrived on the presence of immigrants and immigration. Except for the Red Indians, oops, Native Americans, the entire population of the USA has its roots in some other country – be it several generations ago.

    I read Curry Bear’s article too. Like he says, in order to make ‘race-based comments’, it helps if one is from that race in the first place. For example, it is OK for a Black person to say the N word. We Indians have a similar situation going on in Mumbai with the whole ‘Marathi Manoos’ brigade! And let us not forget the ‘Sardar’ jokes which everyone forwards to each other on e-mail.

    Isn’t that funny?

    I think that when it comes down to it, we are all similar in some way or the other.

    I suppose, the only way we can deal with this situation is make a big deal of it and tell people that it is not OK to call us names like ‘dot head’.

    And the other thing we can do is send Joel Stein roses a la Munnabhai style and tell him that he is, deep down inside, a really good person at heart.

    In the end, I think, he was just expressing his confusion, amazement and discomfort – especially as a White Guy – who saw the entire landscape of his hometown undergo a startling change which he couldn’t easily digest.

    Guess the Native Americans, who used to live there before his ancestors came along, would empathize with his perspective too!

  31. Raghavan, which town is that and what’s been the reaction of the local population to the Indian invasion? I like the thought of Hindu Gods, frescoes of the Great Wall of China and Buddhist flags all together. In New York we have an Indian store which sells huge sculptures of Shiva, Krishna and Lakshmi – all imported from China! It’s a big complex world out there but some people like to live with blinders on.
    ‘Healthy’ humor is fine and the key word here is ‘share’ – it’s got to be inclusive to be shared.

  32. Niharika, scrape the humor away and there seems to be an underlying resentment of the town being ‘overrun’ by Indians. In real life, there was local opposition to the loud music from the Garba festivals in Edison, and to the parking problems caused by the increased traffic of Indian shoppers in Iselin. ‘Ghandi’ was an insult hurled at many an Indian schoolkid.

  33. Madhavi, I like your take on it – especially sending roses to Joel Stein a la Munnabhai!

  34. Please do a story on the murder of Prof. Sinha in Old Bridge, NJ where he was beaten to death by some hoodlums in front of his wife and sons.
    Vinita Ullal

  35. I would have found Mr. Stein’s piece funny if it didn’t include references to “dot head” or pander to the stereotypes of Hinduism (worshiping multiple Gods). I grew up next to Edison and I’m also amazed at how much Oak Tree Road has changed. I miss the Pizza Hut and definitely dislike the overcrowding caused by too much expansion with little parking…plus recent immigrants holding on to the Indian mentality of doing everything the way they want with no thought of how it affects others.

    I’m a US-born person of Indian origin. I was called “dot head” in the 80’s and early 90’s. I remember after the movie “Gandhi” came out, people used that as a new racial slur shouting it from school buses, etc. Basically, I was treated like a foreigner even though I was and am a proud American.

    I think part of the reason there is outrage over this piece locally is due to the timing…Prof. Sinha was murdered just last week and now this. It gives the community a reason to be in fear especially since we’re the natural target due to anger of jobs being outsourced to India. While Mr. Stein mercifully does not condone “dot-busting” or suggest it, he makes it clear that he thinks that Indians taking over Edison is a bad thing. How is it any different than Perth Amboy being “Little Puerto Rico” or how almost every major city has a Chinatown or “Little Italy?”

    It comes down to the fact that we Indians including Indian-Americans are an easy target because we simply lack political clout. We are not a voting bloc and now is the perfect time for anyone eligible, to apply for citizenship and vote. It is after all an election year. In order to gain respect and some political leverage in this state and across the country, we need our community to get involved and step outside of the comfort zone.

    If we ignore such “humor” then we will continue to be viewed as easy, weak, passive targets. We have to show these ignoramuses that we have backbone and are not weak!

  36. I have lived long enough in Africa, UK, Europe and Australia, India and USA. Every country has its bigots. Other countries tolerate but may not speak openly. We need to express our views in USA that we are here to stay and have contributed for many years, wherever we have gone. We need spokesperson like AHAD Organization to speak up and boycott businesses that discriminate.

  37. Benita, now one gets a clearer picture of how tough a place that idyllic Edison of the 80’s was for some young Americans – being called ‘dot head’ and ‘Gandhi’ must have been rough on you and the other Indian kids of your generation. And what Stein should hear is this line ‘Basically, I was treated like a foreigner even though I was and am a proud American.’
    Yes, getting politically active and making a commitment to citizenship seems the right thing – and the smart thing to do.

  38. Are we losing our sense of humor?

    I thought we Indians have a great sense of humor. In this outburst many of us seem to have lost it. If one reads the article with a really open mind then ain’t many of the things mentioned in the article correct?

    Gandhiji never started any of his protests with a boycott! If people really want to follow Gandhian non-violence then they should first send Mr. Stein a letter of protest and then think of any further action if he doesn’t understand.

    I agree some of his remarks are a bit overboard for example in calling Indians “dot heads” and his comments about Lord Ganesh. I always thought of Lord Ganesh with multiple arms and the elephant head as a symbol of the capability of multitasking, good long term memory and scholarly achievements in spite of physical limitations.

    Instead of getting outrageously angry, I would explain the symbolism to Mr.Stein and other Americans who do not understand our culture and pray to Lord Ganesh to forgive them for they know not what they are saying!

  39. Lavina,
    It was very hurtful to be called dot head when I was like 6 years old. I remember some people called me that on the bus ride home and after I got off the bus, I asked my mom, “Mommy what’s a dot head?” and she had this look of fear on her face.

    My parents instilled in me a sense of pride in our culture. As I learned about our First Amendment, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, I grew angry as a kid that people were so intolerant of me and my family (we were the only Indians in our neighborhood). My attitude was not tolerated and I received death threats when I was 8, our house was repeatedly vandalized by kids around Diwali, which was conveniently right around Mischief Night, and once, in the early 90’s, a tall blonde woman attacked me and my sister on our way home from school. She drove after us and threw eggs at me. She also put eggs in our mailbox. We were the only household to experience that and I was named intended victim #1.

    I’ve never forgotten that incident nor the first day of middle school. An African-American kid 1-2 years older than me saw me and said “Alright, Hindu time”! After that, I knew there would be trouble between us and boy was I right. He and his friends harassed me in both middle school and high school on the bus.

    By high school, our bus driver and our principal repeatedly gave lectures, tried making assigned seats, etc. After punching my ear with an umbrella, he was finally kicked off the bus. The first day of gym in middle school, a girl from one of the other elementary schools asked me how many Gods I worshiped and why do we have a million Gods. Grrr.

    To be fair, I went back and re-read this article for the 5th time. While I agree there were some funny comments, I just don’t think it’s funny to poke fun of Ganesh or any other form of God. If kids in his day truly shoplifted, stole cash from registers, etc., then frankly the change in Edison is a good thing. Wonder why North Edison is named one of the safest towns in America now? It’s also scary that Mr. Stein makes the comment about how it says a lot that the best racial slur/insult kids in Edison learned in school was “dot head.” It suggests to me at least that there are those in US who think that “dot head” is a mild remark.

    I’ve tried explaining everything from the bindi to why we worship the way we do to people until I’m blue in face. Few people are willing to take the time to listen, ask questions, and most of all, THINK before they speak.

  40. Benita, thanks for sharing these very personal and surely, painful, memories with us. I hope it provides an important Walking in Other People’s Shoes 101 for those who’ve never thought these things through.

  41. Thanks Lavina. I hope so too. I’m grateful that these acts have died down since the early 90’s…but with growing frustration over the outsourcing of jobs to India, I am afraid that FOBs will now experience first-hand what us ABCDs grew up facing.

  42. Hi Lavina, Perhaps you may have already seen Kal Penn’s fitting response to Stein’s article at Huffington Post. I think he nailed it brilliantly. If not, here is the link
    Thanks, Niharika

  43. Thanks Lavina for being so vocal about what I feel is our ‘collective hurt’. I believe TIME did this with malicious intent – nowhere it seems Joel Stein was funny or humorous -even if he was then he should not be so at expense of our community. He disparaged the whole community in a few hundred words.
    What was the TIME editor doing? Was he sleeping, napping or simply away from his desk for the whole week that he has now tendered an apology and calls the whole mess up ‘unintended.’
    Our response in media has been way less than appropriate. Wonder why the media in India is silent about this article of ‘unabashed hatred?’

  44. Hi Niharika, I’ve seen the piece – it’s a super response, and coming from Kal who’s been through the grinder of racial slurs when he was young. I will add in the link into my post too for readers, as I saw it after I had the piece online.
    BTW, I’ve always loved the Harry and Kumar movies which know the subtle difference between satire and racial slurs. They take on every minority, get great laughs without offending anyone.

  45. Harpreet, I seriously doubt TIME did it with malicious intent – what would they get from alienating readers? I don’t buy ‘unabashed hatred’ – it’s just that Indian-Americans have come across as wishy-washy and no one expects them to react firmly to any disparaging of the community. Hindu gods have been put on slippers, on toilet seats, mocked for their multiple arms – and Indians have hardly reacted, taking it all philosophically.
    I had another comment from a reader in which to show how racially motivated the article was, he changed every Indian or Hindu reference to a Jewish or Judaic one – the article now sounds so racially volatile that no publisher in the US would touch it with a ten-foot pole! I’ve been too uncomfortable to even put that comment on site.

  46. The offended are a variety of people, those who have been taught that it is intelligent/enlightened/morally superior to be offended, and therefore rush to be that way, plus those who want a minute’s worth of intimidating power by impulsively hurling the R-word at a giant like Time. These people are all disconnected from the concept of a going off on a rant.

    That’s what Stein’s column is, a rant, and I laughed out loud at his loose cannon of a brain. I applaud his honesty, that he had the nerve to write what he thinks, and that he accurately reflected the raw thoughts of so many others on street level. What information!

    I could be wrong. Is there any real chance that a column like Stein’s, in 2010 America, would motivate truly racist behavior? ..or are we free to joke now?

    I wish Lavina wouldn’t read him as laughing at poverty. He isn’t. We all make cause-and-effect comments based on what we observe. Sometimes, even if rude, they reveal what and why people think what they do. I wish he had stood up for himself, but perhaps he doesn’t realize that his own rant is a rant, and he has as much a right to it as the Indians do to rant back about the rest of us. Stein was kind enough to provide some ammo.

  47. People who find the reasons why Indians emigrate funny, and then turn the reason for their immigration into another country into a racist attack, would probably not desist from similar articles on, say, the Holocaust? Look deeper – what are the reasons behind emigration, and maybe columnists like Stein may have put forth some sensitivities too. Otherwise this is like making fun of people who had a choice of being burnt in an oven – or starting afresh somewhere else.

  48. Michael, if you look at the title of the article – it’s ‘Racism or a Storm in a Chai Cup?’ – just trying to give a balanced picture of all the conversation that is taking place out there, and the word ‘racism’ has been bandied around a lot in the media. Yes, I agree that it feels good to be morally superior and politically correct and some people may be jumping in to be a part of that crowd but sometimes it’s not a good idea to remain silent either.
    Maybe the column should have been labeled ‘a rant’ for all the people who don’t get it.

  49. Hi Lavina,

    I went through the comments here as well as other sites mentioned (including Kal Penn etc). I have no intention in blaming anyone but it is easy to write off the piece by Stein as humorous or racist. The real implication of such an article is how people understand it and what message they take from it.
    An innocent was beaten to death in front of his wife and kids by a bunch of kids racially motivated. If an article like Stein’s is taken wrongly then these kinds of unwanted explosions may occur. If this article came in 2007 when the market was in peak condition, things would have been different and noone would have created a political situation. But tight now the entire market is struggling to come up and everywhere the issues of job shifting and job losses are primary. Given that even though the US predominantly lives on the production done in China, it is always India which is seen by everyone as the major contributor.
    I don’t think the same satirical approach can be made against China because it holds a greater control over the entire USA.
    I have been here for the last 7 years and have seen my bit of racism as well as wonderful people who took to us to understand and embrace us. I have read lots of articles about immigration – and ranting of the same after the market meltdown. Sadly, every typical user (mostly) wants every Indian to get out and to stop all the immigration process. I understand their frustration, but they also have to realize that it is not the fault of people who emigrate. In fact, majority of the people here are also immigrants except for the native Indians.

    With all said and done, I still feel scared sometimes on what might happen when the market slows down further and how people react. There are always fanatics who can create havoc.

    I would rather make better immigration policies and make sure to cover people who live here in US before finding people abroad. Make changes so that you recover the market before asking more people to come inside.

    Hope I have not offended anyone with my message. If so, my apologies.

    – Anand

  50. Lavina, I admit I was a bit peeved at Stein’s characterization of Indians. Perhaps the only reason I wasn’t incensed is the nature of the forum (satire) where he was equally obnoxious about his own kind. On the other hand, I could also empathize with him. Let’s face it, we too, as Indians, have complained about the ghettoizing ways of some Indians. There is a distinct crudeness amongst those of us who don’t hesitate to dot public streets with paan spit. I don’t grudge Stein a bit for lamenting that his once quaint hometown has been overtaken by such obnoxious kinds who don’t give two hoots for civic niceties.

    That said, Indians do have a genuine complaint on their hand against Stein for stereotyping an entire nation of a billion people, and for borderline xenophobia targeted towards Indians. But peeling yet another layer of this “onion,” I find the degree of sanctimonious reaction against him to be out of proportion. It’s one thing to write to Time to register our complaints, but to petition all over town to boycott the magazine? Chill, people!

  51. 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.

  52. 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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