Saru Jayaraman

The NYT profiled Saru Jayaraman, a 29-year-old activist for Manhattan restaurant workers, last week (thanks, Ms. World):

She is the executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, a little nonprofit that just pulled off a David-versus-Goliath feat. The center extracted $164,000 from two fashionable Manhattan restaurants – Cite and the Park Avenue Cafe – to settle lawsuits that involved charges of discrimination and failure to pay overtime to 23 restaurant employees, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Bangladesh.

The ‘pretty people in sales, pimply workhorses in the back office’ model is used by many, many industries (software, consulting, finance). But you can’t put it in employment ads. There’s a euphemistic hypocrisy here, but like blind auditions at symphony orchestras, it at least gives interviewees an honest shot.

“… you wouldn’t believe the ads put out by restaurant employers – ‘good-looking required, send photos’ – to be a waiter. Employers have told us that means they want good-looking white people in the front and hard workers in the back. Hard workers mean immigrants…”

Jayaraman has an interesting background:

A daughter of immigrants from southern India, a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she was singled out and honored as one of America’s finest young people in 1995 by President Bill Clinton… Ms. Jayaraman, whose father is an unemployed software developer and whose mother is a school aide, grew up in a Mexican-American neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles… She teaches… immigrant rights at New York University… She is a soprano who used to sing with a gospel choir at Harvard.

Jayaraman’s organization is opening its own coop-style restaurant on a fashionable street in Manhattan. It’ll be an interesting experiment in a tough biz.

This fall, it plans to open a restaurant, Colors, on Lafayette Street near Astor Place, to be owned and governed by workers.

Pushing back on premarital injustice

Women with supportive, well-off fathers often are often at the forefront of women’s rights in conservative nations, because they have the means. One such woman has shocked Egypt by filing a paternity suit against a well-known actor. Because it involves a woman fighting injustice before marriage, losing her privacy and being publicly vilified, it reminds me of the dowry extortion case in Delhi:

The standard three-step program for any unmarried upper-class Egyptian girl who becomes pregnant is an abortion, an operation to refurbish her virginity with a new hymen and then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare… Instead [Hind el-Hinnawy] did the unthinkable here: she had the child and then filed a public paternity suit… Ms. Hinnawy contends that the two had what is known as an urfi [unregistered] marriage… She may well set an Egyptian legal precedent by requesting that the court order Mr. Fishawy to submit to a DNA test…

Corporate tycoons and politicians who are married have found urfi marriages a convenient means to carry on affairs with everyone from secretaries to belly dancers with an Islamic seal of approval… “People prefer that a woman live a psychologically troubled life; that doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t become a scandal…”

… the case would help defeat the conservative Saudi values that she said had changed Egyptian society for the worse… “These values from Wahhabi Islam are completely different from our Islamic values,” Mrs. Bakr said. “This is petrodollar Islam…” [NYT]

The 2003 Nisha Sharma case in Noida:

Just a couple of hours before her wedding ceremony, Ms Nisha Sharma used her mobile phone to report her in-laws-to-be to the police. They had allegedly demanded Rs 12 lakh from Ms Sharma’s father, and had even assaulted him when he had hesitated to comply with the demand…

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South Asian crooners belt it out on “Idol”

I haven’t caught every episode of Fox’s immensely popular “American Idol” over the past three years, but I’ve watched quite a few. During that time, I have not seen a single South Asian contestant on the program. Thankfully, that barrier came crashing down last night with a cataclysmic thud.

For those who haven’t seen it, the show is essentially a massive singing audition, where round after round, contestants are judged by the following criteria: Their ability to carry a tune, espouse plasticity befitting a manufactured pop star, and a complete willingness to kill off any part of their soul that wanted to be a real artist. The first half of the contest is judged by the show’s three stewards, and the latter rounds are voted on by viewers (mostly teenaged girls with cell phones). The winner receives a record contract.

First up was accountant Sundeep Achreja, who is admired at his office because he dressed as a “pimp” (or “punk” — his co-worker really couldn’t get her story straight) for Halloween. His height initially impressed judge Paula Abdul. His rendition of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” replete with Rocky-esque jogging, did not.

Later in the show, a male with the last name of Mendes (the announcer butchered his first name) performed a song that probably doesn’t really exist. The performance was so hard to decipher, that he earned inclusion on a segment entitled “The Incomprhensibles.”

Finally, there was some good news…sort of. During a montage of various contestants celebrating invitations to the next round in Hollywood, Calif., one of the jubilant singers appeared to be of South Asian descent. Unfortunately, the show did not broadcast his audition or offer a name, so the only thing I’m going on is a brief clip. I suppose we’ll know for sure in the coming weeks.

“American Idol” airs again tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. If you have a dish that carries Sony Entertainment Television, you can watch the Indian version, entitled, yep, “Indian Idol.”

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A test for bias: Abhi –> Awful

The Washington Post Magazine published a lengthy but provocative piece by Shankar Vedantam regarding a technique which tests for racial bias. The test, known as the Implicit Association Test, was developed by three researchers including Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji:

AT 4 O’CLOCK ON A RECENT WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, a 34-year-old white woman sat down in her Washington office to take a psychological test. Her office decor attested to her passion for civil rights — as a senior activist at a national gay rights organization, and as a lesbian herself, fighting bias and discrimination is what gets her out of bed every morning. A rainbow flag rested in a mug on her desk.

The woman brought up a test on her computer from a Harvard University Web site. It was really very simple: All it asked her to do was distinguish between a series of black and white faces. When she saw a black face she was to hit a key on the left, when she saw a white face she was to hit a key on the right. Next, she was asked to distinguish between a series of positive and negative words. Words such as “glorious” and “wonderful” required a left key, words such as “nasty” and “awful” required a right key. The test remained simple when two categories were combined: The activist hit the left key if she saw either a white face or a positive word, and hit the right key if she saw either a black face or a negative word.

Then the groupings were reversed. The woman’s index fingers hovered over her keyboard. The test now required her to group black faces with positive words, and white faces with negative words. She leaned forward intently. She made no mistakes, but it took her longer to correctly sort the words and images.

Her result appeared on the screen, and the activist became very silent. The test found she had a bias for whites over blacks.

That must suck. I think most of us are pretty sure that we aren’t racists or bigots, but its an eye-opener to see how the biases of society seep into our subconscious. Continue reading

Its Still Personal

Sepia Mutiny Tipsters have been buzzing all week about another racist, ignorant and insensitive incident from the hip-hop airwaves. In this case, Radio Jockey’s (RJ’s) from The Miss Jones in the Morning Show, on New Yorks popular Hip Hop Station, Hot 97, recorded and played on air, the “Tsunami Song,” seriously mocking the hundreds of thousands of those who perished in the devastating tsunami this past December. Miss Info, an Asian-American co-host of the show did not participate, because, duh, she found the song to be extremely offensive. If you click here, you can here a verbal spat (that might give some insight into the intentions of the hosts that did participate) that Miss Info had with Miss Jones over the airing of the highly racist and insensitive song.

If you thought the Star and Buc Wild dialogue was offensive, you might want to skip the next paragraph. From the clip, it seems that the two other co-hosts Miss Jones, and Todd Lynn, recorded the song, with some of the lyrics as follows

..All at once you could hear the screaming ch*nks and no one was safe from the wave there were africans drowning, little chinamen swept away you could hear god laughing, “swim you b*tches swim” So now you’re screwed, it’s the Tsunami you better run or kiss your ass away, go find your mommy I just saw her float by, a tree went through her head and now the children will be sold to child slavery…

If you listen to the clip above you hear Miss Jones and co-host Todd Lynn launching into an abusive tirade against Miss Info for isolating herself and not participating. When Info voices her objection to the clip, Miss Jones tells Info she’s only complaining because “you feel superior, probably because you’re Asian.” Then, at minute 3:37 on the mp3 file, you hear Todd Lynn say, “I’m gonna start shooting Asians.”

Is there any humor in that?

Thus far outrage against the station and the show is muted, although there has been some press, and even a Hot 97/Miss Jones diss track by Asian MC Jin. To me, any reaction other than the firing of Miss Jones and Todd Lynn, is muted. Hot 97 issued a weak apology here, and according to the statement, Miss Jones in the Morning, along with her entire staff, have agreed to contribute one week’s pay to Tsunami Relief efforts.

To stay updated and to find out what you can do, go to, where there is a list of emails for the show, the hosts, and advertisers. And as always, don’t forget to include th FCC on your email list.

Some addresses for Hot 97′s parent company, Emmis Broadcasting are below. The first is their head honcho Jeff Smulyan: suggests you not use the word “tsunami” in your email as it will probably get filtered

Don’t forget to ask Hot 97 and its advertisers, how dare you compare a life to a weeks pay?

Links to radio clips taken from where there is a screen shot of the Hot 97 website featuring the now-removed tsunami song link. Click here for a story on this from the New York Post, here for the asiansinmediawatch website, and here for the story from the Billboard radio monitor. The asiansinmedia website has a form letter/email that you can send. Continue reading

“Born Into Brothels” earns Oscar nom

bornIntoBrothels200x118.jpg“Born Into Brothels,” the documentary about children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s notorious red-light district, earned a highly-coveted Oscar nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday morning.

The critically-lauded film documents the experiences of photojournalist Zana Briski, who supplied the prostitutes’ children with cameras in order to capture a glimpse of their harsh existence.

“Born Into Brothels” has already captured a slew of awards — Sundance Audience, L.A. Film Critics, and the National Board of Review — and has screened in nearly every prestigious film festival around the world.

The Academy Awards telecast airs on Sunday, February 27, on ABC.

Oscars: Documentary feature award nominations
“Born Into Brothels”: Official site
Sepia Mutiny: Kids with cameras

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I’d like to crunch THOSE Numb3rs

Geez. When did I become such a crass male? That has got to be the worst entry title ever. What inspired such a thought in me? Well, I was watching the premiere of the new CBS drama Numb3rs which happens to co-star former OC actress Navi Rawat. Rawat plays mathematics graduate student Amita Ramanuj who will possibly be a love interest to one of the two Eppes brothers who are the shows main characters. In the show’s pilot, the father (played by Judd Hirsch)of the two brothers, asks math wiz Charlie why he isn’t dating Ramanuj. Apparently he’s her thesis advisor. Damn college ethics. Besides, she replied she was spoken for and made some reference to arranged marriage plans her mother was making. Continue reading

Posted in TV

Racing the Monsoon with Michael Douglas

Michael Douglas, yes Michael Douglas, was in Bombay recently gearing up for his role in the third installment of the action series which includes the “Romancing the Stone” and “Jewel of the Nile” films.

The Indian Express is reporting that Racing the Monsoon , which is being produced by Sahara One Motion Pictures and Percept Picture Company, will be shot entirely in India, mostly in Sahara’s sprawling ultra-luxury Amby Valley township, south of Mumbai. Douglas, also producer of the film, is trying to get the support of the Indian Railways as a major part of the film is centered on a diamond robbery in a train. None other than TMBWITW, Aishwarya Rai, is speculated as being his co-star.

I really hope Douglas isn’t the first man Aishwarya has to kiss on the silver screen. Anyway, turns out Douglas, who has seen only “bits and pieces” of two Hindi films, both of them starring Rai, has some advice for the up-and-coming Indian film industry.

Michael Douglas confesses he’s “hardly a Bollywood expert,” but he has a theory about why Indian films don’t do well internationally. ‘‘I don’t know how you guys will take it, but I think you guys falter on script and structure,’’ said the 60-year-old Hollywood actor, in Mumbai to announce his next film. ‘‘Also, the Indian process that you guys have of actors doing many movies at one time doesn’t really benefit in the long run.’’

Smart guy that Michael Douglas.

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