The new stereotypes

Both ‘Dilbert’ and ‘Doonesbury,’ two of the most popular comic strips in America, just ran desi topics on the same day. The new stereotypes: both kinder and more boring than the old.

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As usual, India and first-genners loom larger on the cultural radar, at least among these blunt instruments of cultural critique, than the second gen:

Absent… personal interaction with South Asians, people’s perception of South Asia itself determines how they treat us. [Link]

Click the pictures see the full strips.

132 thoughts on “The new stereotypes

  1. Manish,

    Just finished reading your rather excellent essay that you provided a link to. Not sure if you have read Rajiv Malhotra’s, Ramesh Rao’s or Sankrant Sanu’s essays on Sulekha and Infinity Foundation, but if you have not, you should. They have taken the debate to the next level.

    My take on this issue is that we should fight this stereotyping not because it hurts us, but because it will hurt them in the long run. As Americans (or Brits as the case may be), we need to get the point across that they should view India and Indians not through the eyes of ossified professors of South-Asian departments, but through the actions of common Indians everywhere. We need to tell them that they should do this for their own benefit, because India is becoming increasingly important in the global marketplace, they or someone close to them will eventually have to deal with Indians on a personal/business level. If they fall back the caste-cow-curry theory from south-asian departments, they will definitely screw up in their interaction with Indians. On the other hand, if they broaden their horizons, both will come out ahead. Co-operation is the key, and accurate, up-to-date knowledge is necessary for co-operation.

    I am about to start a debate with the folks who prescribe history text books in my school district. I plan to challenge them on the oft-repeated drivel around the (mythical) Aryan-Invasion theory and the Dravidian-Aryan artificial divide that was introduced by Max Mueller. Americans are very amenable to debate, and I plan to convince them to eventually remove this from the school district’s text books. Hindus from Maryland have already started this process.

    M. Nam

  2. I grew up in Indian city (several cities) too. None of the cities had English as its main language. I dont have actual numbers but less than 10% people in India are comfortable in English

    True…but 10% is a pretty big number of people (I know, I know, any % is a big number wrt India).

    Yes, it’s not a “native” language, but it’s not a second language in the sense that most people imply in the US. I did not start studying English in school, but pretty much about the same time that I started with Bengali. Of course, my parents are not native speakers of English, so that makes a difference. But I consider my upbringing to be bilingual. It’s not that uncommon, especially in big cities like Bombay.

    Again, I do not intend this to be any sort of class-war judgement (“uppity” vs “vernacular” or that sorta stuff). Just wanted to point out that there are many people (a minority for sure) who do grow up with English as a “native” tongue, or close.

    It is unfortunate that English is a source of class-warfare in India, but I see it as just another “Indian” language.

  3. So It would be a DEVIATION from norm if some Indian FOB has English as his/her native language.

    Not native, but first language.

    1st genners in the US/UK/Canada typically arrive as students/researchers. English is the lingua franca of the academic world. Hence it follows they speak/write good English; not a deviation from the norm.

    And we haven’t even begun to discuss the 4000 word GRE wordlist that everyone has to cram for grad school.

  4. I don’t really think there is a huge difference between most browns. Sure, regional differences, exist, but where don’t they? Some people are so sure that they can tell who’s who, but I for one, am completely confused and have decided that I don’t care; so many people defy what they are supposed to look like according to the stereotypes. Isn’t Ash Tamil? Doesn’t she have sharp features? Yes, so you see, the ideas that people have, when tested, aren’t valid. There is no hard and fast line or divide. And when you come over here, you’re all brown anyhoo. I realize there are superiority ideas in India about north and south, but I think those are ill-founded ideas. I’ve met white people who have known indian people who have fed said white people with stupid ideas like northies have more caucasian features. There may be a superiority complex here.

    BTW, why are less-sharp features considered less caucasian? That’s dumb. So cute little french girls with “soft, un-sharp” flatter noses aren’t caucasian? Please, let’s not care about this.

  5. Manish and MN

    I agree completely that there cannot be South Asian studies without South Asians involved. Also, that US academia seems to have more than its fair share of “ossified” professors and hippie-turned academics who love to dwell on “oedipal instincts of Rama”.

    But I have to point out that this kind of psychoanalysis of religious texts is pretty standard in the field of religious studies in general. And not all modern academics (white or brown) are doing it out of some wierd sense of tiltillation or the colonial 19th century mindset.

    Contemporary critical and academic study of Indian religions is definitely not that prevalent in India (please correct me if I’m mistaken), and we Indians have a tendency to bowdlerize our own religious texts to ridiculous limits, denying the existence of sexual and other “prohibited” themes in our culture. This is a cause or effect of our own cultural denial of various sexual and social phenomena.

    Anyway, my point is that both sides of this study are important in the interest of academic study and culture preservation, so that some of the most interesting aspects of Indian and Hindu culture are not lost to the shredders of nationalistic censorship.

    Why am I talking so much about this? I recently interviewed Dr. Jeff Kripal for a Houston public radio show on South Asian issues. This is a “white” hindu scholar who is often targeted by Indian scholars (like Rajiv Malhotra on Sulekha, who calls Jeff “Wendy’s Child”) for his sexually-charged interpretations of mystic phenomena. Here’s the link, if anyone wishes to listen. Preparing for this interview, and reading a lot of the literature in these fields proved to be eye-opening for me.

    Ok, this comment is too long now…

  6. technophobicgeek,

    who calls Jeff “Wendy’s Child”) for his sexually-charged interpretations of mystic phenomena

    Jeff and Wendy are not at the receiving end because they have come up with sexually-charged interpretations of Hinduism’s various facets. They have every right to interpret Hinduism as they see fit.

    They have been challenged because they refuse to entertain any other interpretation of Hinduism, especially in South-Asian studies. They invalidate the experiences and beliefs of common Hindus, and demand that only their view of Hinduism be taught everywhere. They want to Monotheise Hinduism.

    For eg:

    Can Ganesha’s trunk be interpreted as a limp-phallus? Sure. Anything can be interpreted as anything else.

    Do 99.99% of Hindus think of Ganesha in this manner? No. They think of Ganesha as a cute son of Shiva-Parvati who removes obstacles in their lives.

    When Ganesha is introduced to impressionable school kids in the West, which is the version that should be taught? The version that’s been the predominant one for millenia, or the version that’s been concocted a couple of decades ago which has not withstood any debate(RISA is a closed list, unlike SM or Sulekha)?

    Which American will be more competent, and less hostile when dealing with Indians in terms of outsourcing, BPO’s, biotechnology etc? One who is taught that Hindus worship a god who has a limp phallus for a nose, or one who worships Ganesha as a god of good luck?

    Isn’t it more beneficial for Americans to see these things from a common Indian’s perspective, rather than Jeff/Wendy’s?

    M. Nam

  7. She’s Konkani.

    Nope. She a Mangolorean Bunt.

    Konkan is a region in Karnataka, which can include Mangalore (a port city), when you say someone is Konkani, you’re saying the person’s mother tongue is Konkani.

    Ash’s mother tongue is Tulu, the language of the Mangalorean Bunts, M. Catholics, and M. Muslims. Many Bunts have been migrated to Bombay generations ago.

  8. Thanks for the corrections. We are all surprisingly painstaking ethnographers when it comes to the Rai.

  9. Dude, my sister-in-law is Chinese-American. My family friends are Chinese-American professors. I am not talking about stand-up comics. Real people in real houses and am talking in generalities, not nit-picking details and statistics.

    You said you had ‘never’ seen a Chinese American badmouth a fellow Chinese, if you meant in general Indians are more likely to do it than the Chinese then I might have agreed with you.

    Also I was talking about ‘real’ working class people, not academics, and again it does happen all the time (possibly not as much as with Indians).

  10. 1st genners in the US/UK/Canada typically arrive as students/researchers. English is the lingua franca of the academic world. Hence it follows they speak/write good English; not a deviation from the norm.

    This is a popular MYTH that everyone who comes to America to study is fluent in English. I have quite a few very bright Chinese co-workers that dont fit in that characterization. My Professors in Grad school, who were non-Indians were also those who probably didnt get “your english is so good” compliment.

    Because “Your English is so good” means your spoken English not the ability to write in it.

  11. Not really, couldn’t care less about The Rai. Only know it cuz she’s from my tiny community. My own personal obsession is Vidya Balan.

    But yer onto something. There is something peculiar in finding succor in the accomplishments (or physical beauty) in someone who happens to share your (sub)ethnicity.

  12. There is something peculiar in finding succor in the accomplishments (or physical beauty) in someone who happens to share your (sub)ethnicity.

    Very true. An example: when news of Arun Nayar dating Liz Hurley broke, feverish discussions ensued on a desi message board. Then some poster pointed out that it was Nayar (probably Punjaby) and not “Nair”. The discussions died in no time.

  13. I dont think we should ever complain about being “stereotypical”ized. I think we Indians are the leaders in such a field. Ex. When I did show a few of my desi friends a snap of my girl friend, they went “She doesnt look Madrasi”. We are by nature a community which laughs and mocks at other regions/castes/communities-Ex. we tend to associate that all African-Americans are dangerous.

  14. We are by nature a community which laughs and mocks at other regions/castes/communities…

    You’re stereotyping.

  15. I have quite a few very bright Chinese co-workers that dont fit in that characterization. My Professors in Grad school, who were non-Indians were also those who probably didnt get “your english is so good” compliment.

    Absolutely. But we are talking about Indians in the US in the context of the post above.

    Because “Your English is so good” means your spoken English not the ability to write in it.

    Note that I talked about English in general. The ‘your English is good’ comment also applies to writing.

    Ex. we tend to associate that all African-Americans are dangerous.

    Yeah. That Halle Berry is one dangerous sista.

  16. I am…because…

    “We are by nature a community which laughs and mocks at other regions/castes/communities…”

    :)

    Nice post though..

  17. Isn’t it more beneficial for Americans to see these things from a common Indian’s perspective, rather than Jeff/Wendy’s?

    Common practice and academic study of religion are vastly different things. the problem is that they tend to get conflated, especially while discussing “foreign” religions.

    Again, a view that is “prevelant for millenia” in common practice of a religion does not necessarily render it immune to critical analysis, no matter what religion it might be.

    Rather than tending to censor and suppress academic analysis (whether it’s palatable or not) it is important to emphasize the popular practice of the religion and make sure that gets conveyed equally. Hence the need for South Asian scholars.

    That being said, I did not get the sense of “monotheising” Hinduism from any of Kripal’s books that I read. I’ve not read any of Wendy’s work. I get the impression that you, like myself before the reading, are drawing your impressions from the Sulekha discussions.

  18. re: english is good.

    as some note, we need to decompose this into indian brown vs. non-indian brown by upbringing (indian as nationality, not race/ethnicity).

    i have lived in 90-99% white areas for the last 15 years, and an 85% white area for the 8 years prior to that. my experience is that

    1) the number of times people tell me “my english is good” or “you have no accent!” has dropped a lot as a function of time. i.e., circa 1985, i probably got this at least once every few weeks somewhere. circa 2005 i get this about once every year.

    2) over time the type of person who comments on my english fluency has changed. in 1985, it would have been everyone, my age and up (i was in elementary school). today, it is almost always older people, 40-50 and up, and, quite often people who likely have less education.

    3) so, as awareness of browns has grown, and our frequency has grown, this has become less of an issue.

    4) i am curious if anyone else has noticed this tendency.

    p.s. the same trend is noticeable for the “where are you from?” question. and usually, the question is now phrased as, “what part of india is your family from?” or, “ah, by your name your family is from pakistan, right?” (actually, bangladesh, but anyhow….)

  19. tpg:

    Common practice and academic study of religion are vastly different things. …especially while discussing “foreign” religions.

    Interesting that you brought this up. One of the objections that were brought against Wendy and others was that all other South Asian religions were portrayed as the common practitioners saw their own religion, except for Hinduism! SA scholars dealt sub-continental Islam with kid-gloves (even after 911),Buddhism was portrayed exactly as common Buddhists in Bhutan/SL practised it, Jainism was discussed with reverence, Sikhism was taught as the Sikh gurus meant it to be. All, except Hinduism which was trashed left, right and centre.

    a view that is “prevelant for millenia” in common practice of a religion does not necessarily render it immune to critical analysis…

    True. Relgions should be questioned constantly. Hinduism has been subjected to critical analysis both from within and without for millennia. Hindus welcome criticism. Now, please point me to any critical analysis that SA depts have subjected Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

    Rather than tending to censor and suppress academic analysis

    Ulta chor kotwal ko Dante

    It is Wendy and her children who have been suppressing alternate viewpoints!! Not the other way around!!

    M. Nam

  20. i’ve been reading this post all morning, and everyone seems to just be arguing about which points are more true. I think we all agree that sterotyping sucks, but its human nature, and will always be a conflict within society. All i’m saying is that instead of arguing about if aishwarya rai has non sharp features, why don’t people come up with positive things that can be done to reduce the stereotyping of desis. I for one have no clue, indians and non-indians alike always say to me, wow you’re not like the other indians i know, and then come up with reasons why i don’t fit their stereotype. I think the biggest reason is simply ignorance and that they really haven’t been around enough desis.

    Anyone have solutions? Cause these days i just say i’m Brazilian, so instead of questions about eating snakes and outsourcing, they ask me about surfing, Carnivale, and futbol.

  21. 1st genners in the US/UK/Canada typically arrive as students/researchers. English is the lingua franca of the academic world. Hence it follows they speak/write good English; not a deviation from the norm.
    Absolutely. But we are talking about Indians in the US in the context of the post above.

    You never mentioned, that your sweeping statement was only meant for Indians. Why should an American talking to someone who has an accent know the culture and other details of the country that person comes from ??

    How many Indians would know which language they speak in Eastern Tajikistan ??

    Besides any of the exuses given so far doesnt explain the “shame” factor in Indians about not knowing English. But I dont think that will ever be addressed, unfortunately.

  22. re: english as a brown language. in particular, piqued by the reference to a “slave mentality.” my understanding from the literature is that in parts of southern india english is preferred as the elite lingua franca specifically as a way to block the rise of standard hindi with the perception that it is a more “neutral” language for elite discourse. this brings me to my point that generalizations about 1.25 billion people (all brown countries) can be dicey. as someone of muslim background (i.e., name, family, etc.) but brown phenotype i have had to deal with the “do you worship cows?” a lot more than i am comfortable with, partly because i am not affiliated with that tradition, but usually because they then go on to make fun of hindus at which point i have to make a decision whether to “defend” the beliefs of other browns (usually my tactic, as i have noted before, is to simply ridicule religion in the generality because i don’t think “worshipping cows” is less rational than worshipping a dead man on a cross, and that turns the discussion in another direction where i am on ‘home ground’). but in relation to british imperialism, and some of the impressions of commenters here, it makes me wonder: do we have a model where we simply related to the british as unbracketed brown, or do you have a model where we relate the british to multiple partly independent brown cultures and subgroups? clearly on some level the british did view the browns as one, yet on other levels not necessarily (i.e., martial races vs. non-martial races). i am wondering about this because obviously there is a general consensus that the british screwed the browns, but, would anyone be willing to entertain the possibility that some groups benefited vis-a-vi other browns because of british patronage? i am thinking of, for example, dalit soldiers who attained higher status because of their service in the british army, and who boldly walked into “high caste” areas of madras/chennai with their weapons and dared to the brahmins to kick them out. also, as someone of muslim background i am aware that many muslims were skeptical about transferring british christian rule for the rule of indian elites who would predominantly be hindu (ergo, pakistan).

    my overall point is that obviously a weblog is not a good forum for nuance, and i don’t consider myself a participant in brown culture (my interest here is more personal and intellectual, not cultural, so to speak), but it seems to be that in the generation of a common identity differences get elided over which might diminish the ability to form a coherent stance on a given issue (i.e., brown rule is preferable to british rule, which might hold for the majority, but perhaps not muslims or dalits, depending on how you looked at it). as a matter of course i think that the creation of a “pan-desi” identity is going to result in the erasing of differences and a compressing of the narrative, but, i hope that people acknowledge that dissenters who wish to maintain their differences, and still be accepted as authentically brown (i don’t make any pretense to being brown in anything but genetics, though i have plenty of cultural residuals), are not necessarily “self-hating” for espousing a position, x, y, z…. rather, they are different?

  23. Now, please point me to any critical analysis that SA depts have subjected Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

    I’m not a religious studies student, far from it, so I’d have to do some research.

    Of the top of my head: I’d recommend Kripal’s book “Roads of excess: palaces of wisdom”, in which he discusses five different mystics from five religions (Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism etc) plus his own mystical experiences, in order to make certain points about mysticism and sexuality in general.

    That’s another point I think I should mention: many of these scholars deal with mystical traditions (eg: tantra in Hinduism/Buddhism, Sufism in Islam) which are inherently intertwined with sexuality. Mystic traditions typically are counter to common practice of a religion.

    I’d be glad to ask friends in that field for more references with regd to Islam and other religions for you. They assure me that there are tons and tons of such literature.

    Most reputed Universities would have religious studies (not theology) departments which carry out precisely the same function. I recommend a web lookup.

    In fact, I’d be interested to see instances of critical analysis of Hinduism from within too, particularly in contemporary times. Could you supply me with any references?

  24. Interesting discussion. The desi community is just beginning to flower in the US; before it was small and a bit of a curiosity. Perceptions change as the community gains prominence. I mean, if one of you met someone from, say, Tonga, would you be able to say anything intelligent about it? A person can’t know everything.

    *No one non-desi ever gets that I’m desi. It’s to the point that as a kid I felt uncomfortable with desis – I didn’t think I looked ‘right’, I didn’t have the ‘right’ hair, I didn’t fit, I so desperately wanted to look like the other kids of Indian heritage I knew. Sometimes the minority community can create the feeling of ‘other’. Even today, at the dentist, the woman said, “Oh, you’re Indian? You don’t look Indian. Your color and features don’t look Indian.” This is a Russian immigrant living in Boston, who has formed an idea of what a person born in India should look like. It used to kind of bother me, and now I just let it go.

  25. love the Sepia Martini banner today :D /interruption>

    my overall point is that obviously a weblog is not a good forum for nuance

    ITA Razib. Yet people seem to hash out the same damn boring arguments.

  26. I’d be interested to see instances of critical analysis of Hinduism from within too, particularly in contemporary times…

    Some names come to mind: Jiddu Krishnamurthy, UR Ananta Murthy, Kanchi Shankaracharya(the one who was arrested), SriSri Ravi Shankar etc etc

    All of these have spoken out against casteism, blind worship, lack of philosophical interest among contemporary Hindus etc. Some of them have spoken against specific instances of epics where Rama/Krishna etc erred in their ways, and how those behaviours are irrelevant in modern times.

    M. Nam

  27. oh, and cocoapuffs, I think one way to combat stereotypes is to be vigorously involved in the larger culture; not to self-ghettoize or turn-inward.

  28. I think one way to combat stereotypes is to be vigorously involved in the larger culture; not to self-ghettoize or turn-inward.

    Amen to that!

  29. ITA Razib. Yet people seem to hash out the same damn boring arguments.

    …in response to the same boring topics over and over again :-)

    And cicatrix, thanks for the suggested comebacks at the beginning of this discussion…might even try them out.

  30. I would limply quibble with the phrase “way to block the rise of standard hindi”. I think the four southern states with their four (major) languages would take just as much umbrage the imposition of another southern states’ language. The Tamilians certainly are legendary in their own (justified) linguistic chauvinism.

  31. Maybe Razib can enlighten us on whether there is a preference for ‘sharper features’ in different cultures along with some data on that.

    for the sake of time, i will not offer references, but, you can find much of the information i present in survival of the prettiest, or why sex matters, and for the more evolutionary genetic topics, please see the books listed first on my weblog book list.

    many topics have been hit on this thread relating to looks. so, a few comments.

    preface: these will be statistical assertions with a range of variance, not deterministic projections.

    skin color

    1) with a given population, controlling for environment, males tend to be about 10% darker, i.e., their untanned skin reflectance is about 10% lower than females.

    2) as a function of time, women tend to be palest after puberty, but before their first pregnancy, or before their mid-20s (which ever comes first). women also tend to darken more with menopause.

    3) 80% of cultures surveyed seem to have a preference for light skin in the female gender (see david buss). additionally, this preference in the americas predates european hegemony. in places like east asia, it predates european contact, and, is not correlated with other “european” traits (i.e., before westernization there was an aversion to non-black hair, non-epicanthic eyelids, european features, etc., as typified by the indo-european peoples of what is today northern xinjiang).

    4) there seems to be some correlation between testosterone and melanocytes, and some negative correlation between estrogen and melanocytes. that is, the hormonal pathways have a networked cascade where they seem to modulate the paths downstream melanocortin 1 receptor. roughly, within a population, not only are males darker and females lighter, but extremely masculine males (strong jaws, robust bone structure) will be darker, while extreme pale females may be paler (this second contention is more tentative, though there has been research which suggests frequency of fertilization and estrogen levels are strongly correlated).

    5) these correlations might not correlate themselves, so you can’t make definitive assertions. more research needs to be done, and the possible correlation structure needs to be eludicated (because we know some of the details of hormonal networks and the effect of given hormones it seems plausible that there will be correlation between some of these trends). but, let us assume correlations….

    that implies that within a given population males should attempt to target the palest females (all things being equal) and that females should target the darker males (all things being equal) to maximize fitness. if you like old women, you are less likely to have children since they are less fertile. so, “avoid old women” should over time be selected for (this is one that i have a hard time imagining not being selected for, since i know of no old-women-are-hot-sex-bomb-cultures, or record of any). older women are darker than nubile young women, so darkness, along with skin texture, gray hair or not, etc. are indicates of age. with men, things are reversed, if, for example mating with a 12 or 13 year old means your children will have lower survivorship as a woman because your “man” can’t help around the camp, you might want to avoid those, and, it is known that boys are paler (for example, blonder), than older, more mature, males. this would imply that there would be an equilibrium, though over time might assume that hormone dependent modifier genes would show up which turn on “get dark” if the fetus is a male and turn on “get light” if the fetus is a female. modifier genes take a long time to develop under directional selection pressure, which i doubt has happened. so it is all too messy to make a straight line generalizations.

    additionally, 6) there are environmental constraints on the range of color within a population. dark skinned peoples, with africans being the most extreme, but indians, etc. also falling under still, are still under constraint so that only one or two alleles (gene variants) are exhibited that control color variation. in other words, most of the variation isn’t due to the gene that controls color itself, but buffering during development via environment and other genetic factors. this is why intrapopulation color differences are important: they cue you into other aspects of the person’s health and vigor. but interpopulation differences are not very relevant, because most of that is controlled by the color gene in question (there are many, though MC1R is the main locus of interest right now). europeans are what is called a “relaxed selection” population, there are about 30 variants floating around, suggesting that mutation has random walked many europeans to loss-of-function. this makes sense because dark skin protects against harsh sun, but if there isn’t harsh sun, the gene is likely to degrade. also, you are aware of issues relating to folic acid and vitamin D synthesis which might benefit the loss of function for dark skin. east asians seem to have light skin because one variant is being selected, i.e., same feature (pale skin), different mode.

    7) but in many cultures (japan, india, china) light skin is preferred in males. why? the answers here are probably higher order cultural issues. in china the ideal male is a scholar who doesn’t work outside. having dark skin in many post-neolithic cultures with social stratification is a sign of lower status, so there was a premium on lighter skin. in genealogical records in tokugawa japan some effort was made to ascertain the character of women who “married” up the nobility, and one thing they found was they tended to be light skinned. so their feature which made them naturally more elite allowed them to move up easier. over time, this likely resulted in the probability that the elite became genetically lighter skinned because those women passed the genes to their sons. this amplified the tendency to associate light skin with the non-farming aristocracy.

    8) and yet today people in the west tan. what gives? first, the tendency to prefer light skin in males was far more mitigated than in the west. the male ideal was not always the scholar, but often the hard-charging warrior (knight, etc.). herakles was blackened by his time in the sun, the apotheosis of greek heroes. the ‘tall dark and handsome’ sterotype doesn’t come out of a vacuum. prior to racialist interpretations of neitszche’s ‘blonde beast,’ fair haired men were stereotyped as somewhat effeminate dreamers (beautiful adonises so to speak). with the rise of factory culture in the 19th century and the increased frequency of the upper and upper middle class in taking vacations to semi-tropical climes, the natural association with peasantry and “farmers’ tans” was slowly mitigated further. a dark tan on a blonde woman in the USA doesn’t mean she is a lower class farmer, more likely she either invests in tanning beds, or she takes trips to mexico, etc. around where i live, in the pacific northwest, “pastiness” is the modal state of the “white trash,” while a good tan indicates you are athletic, or, take trips to california or the baja.

    9) the moral is that one principle component can’t explain skin color preference across all individuals and cultures, you need to take into account like evolutionary/physiological basics, and the latter sociological accretions that have been layered on top of it. some of these accretions are functional, that is, they are adaptive in some way. i.e., they delineate the class structure in a society. or, they are random. in restoration england, during the reign of charles II, dark hair was the rage among the elite. blondeness was associated with sluttish lower class women. part of this was likely the preference of charles II for dark women, for example, his famous mistress barbara de villiers. so this is an instance of a fad that would generate variation over time.

    “sharp features”

    1) how do you define this? i assume you mean facial relief, i’m sure you can find a topological metric, but let’s take it as “understood” as what you mean.

    2) my reading of ethnography does not suggest any preference for “sharp features” that can’t be explained by sociologically. until the 19th century japanese women with brown hair dyed it black, those with epicanthic folds were prized more, and those who had “large ainu noses” were considered course. today, japanese women have brown hair (via dyes), get nose jobs to create more “caucasian” features and get eyelid surgery.

    3) even today the idea of a “big nose” or sharp features differs. if “sharp features” was the summum bonum of beauty, than mediterraneans would be at a premium. certainly people’s perception of beauty is a function of cultural inputs around the basic core (i.e., symmetry, sex-specific neoteny or lack of, etc. seem to be universals, take away make up and adornments, papuans dudes can pick out a butt ugly swede vs. vendala kirsebom).

    4) i have read of references in the vedas to “snub nosed dasas.” i don’t know if this is correct, but stipulating that it is, one assumes that exogenous elite prized their own features above the subjegated substrate. the same pattern is historically attested to during the muslim period, when “white” ashraf muslims were keen to distinguish themselves from the “black” converts. because of a quirk of geography it seems that the vast majority of india’s population movements into the subcontinent after 10,000 years BP have come in via the northwest, and quite often they have set the standards for elite phyisque and beauty.

    notes:

    1) sexual selection can be capricious. please google “runaway sexual selection” if you are curious, but the basic issue is that random preferences and characters become coupled and explode in frequency until constrained by selection or other stochastic forces.

    2) sexual selection can be adaptive. i.e., the “handicap principle” suggests that showy males or females will tend to be advertising to the opposite sex how fit they are, sometimes using “expensive” signallers. for example, high testosterone males with powerful jaws also tend to be susceptible to more infection. if a male can survive and develop properly all “roided” up, than that indicates his genes are good. the logic is far stronger in the case of symmetry, because developmental stability is buffered by infections and pathogen load, so less symmetry is a good sign that development was fucked and they didn’t have good immunity conferring genes to protect themselves.

    3) getting a good grip on many forms of sexual selection is difficult, in particular assaying fitness in long-lived species. and with humans, well, it is hard to control variables, at least now that chattel slavery has been banned in the civilized world.

    my conclusion: all things aren’t equal, so the basic “innate” signals are swamped out by a lot of cultural-social noise. but, signals are still important because that’s the base we start out at. i suspect that the strongest case for a “natural” bias is for females whose complexions are somewhat deviated from the population median. but, this could be strongly controlled by environmental priming, that is, the “population mean” isn’t something you know genetically, but a statistical average to what you are exposed to over your lifetime. i could say more, but i’ll leave it at that.

    p.s. i like blondes. they never have mustaches you can see :)

  32. by the way, speaking of language issues, i have often had the experience of hindi or urdu speakers “checking” if i speak their language (i assume some of these must be gujarati or punjabi too, seeing as over half of american browns are these two groups). i never know what they just said, but i’m always like, “uh, i speak bengali.” then they will speak to me in english. now, should i be offended by this presumption? :) also, a few years back i traveled around the country a lot, and when i was staying at a brown run hotel, i’d get ‘the eye’ (you know what i mean) from the owner/clerk when i signed in if they were brown. when i spoke without an accent ‘the eye’ would go a notch down. when i wrote my name down, and it was invariably muslim looking, ‘the eye’ would disappear. but hey, perhaps i shouldn’t be so sensitive :) (i didn’t care actually, just suggesting that there are different classes of brownhood in my personal experience)

  33. Razib, cheeky mustache comments may get you in trouble……

    PS. Grooming can help with such issues, my good man. I grew up in the world of blonde and semi-blonde Iowans: you could see plenty of blonde down on female upper lips!

  34. So is comment No.86 in the Sepia Mutiny book of records? Congratulations Razib !

  35. minor note: when i said that signals are swamped out by cultural noise, i mean the color and feature signals we are referring to on the thread. i think there are particular “signals” who have strong innate genetic components, i.e., preference for neoteny in females (large eyes, small jaw, etc.) or larger size in males as opposed to the female median. also, remember the point about environmental priming of biases, in bangladesh i’m a tall dude, here, i ain’t so tall. doesn’t mean that the ladies in bangladesh have an ‘innate’ idea of what is tall that is different than ladies in the northwest, rather, environmental inputs get slotted into a general heuristic (‘short-dudes-relative-to-the-population-mean got nothing to live for’).

  36. Razib, cheeky mustache comments may get you in trouble……

    PS. Grooming can help with such issues, my good man. I grew up in the world of blonde and semi-blonde Iowans: you could see plenty of blonde down on female upper lips!

    she isn’t reading the blog today, i know, cuz she be travelin’ :) and yeah, i agree, there are blonde chix with staches, but i think the worst-case-scenario for female stache prominence is very light skin with very dark hair.

  37. Congratulations Razib !

    this comment didn’t come out ‘on-the-fly,’ i have thought and researched this topic in various aspects a lot over the years. i just slapped together the appropriate chunks and modules to this thread. and dudes talk about chix all the time in terms of hot-or-not, so it is of deep personal interest…though i’m not on the market, so no real relevance aside from “intellectual curiosity” (you know, like porn).

  38. this comment didn’t come out ‘on-the-fly,’ i have thought and researched this topic in various aspects a lot over the years. i just slapped together the appropriate chunks and modules to this thread.

    And here i had stereotyped you and thought you were displaying your 110 wpm skill set. What a KLPD :)

  39. it’s the entire premise behind “Jassi Jaise Koi Nahin”.

    It was true for the first 10 episodes or so till it got grotesquely streched.

  40. oh, and cocoapuffs, I think one way to combat stereotypes is to be vigorously involved in the larger culture; not to self-ghettoize or turn-inward.

    MD – what do you mean by be more vigorously involved in the larger culture? Maybe being an older 2nd gen you can shed some light on this topic. I interpret that to meaning getting more non-desis into desi type cultural activities? or like bring a desi twist to a non-desi activity? I tried once to get active in my university’s(Johns Hopkins) south asian group, i just don’t consider doing a some bollywood dances as cultural. Ironically they all fit into my stereotype of douche bag 2nd gen, spoiled, clueless indians. I only chilled with them a couple times and it was for a couple girls, i won’t lie. Perhaps someone should look into this stereotype. the cliquey indian who only socializes only with other indns and thinks they are better than everyone else.

  41. Actually, cocopuffs, the other way around. I like the way some desis are running for office and getting politically involved. the Indian American Political Action Committee (I think I got that right) recently did a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina. It’s fine to get non-desis involved in cultural programs, but I think it’s just as good to look around and see if you have an interest in something, and then, jump in. My parents were always involved in the community around them; my father was (is) very into sports and they always interacted in the larger community. I think my Dad still goes to town meetings. I’d like to do the same, if I get some time.

  42. I think one way to combat stereotypes

    I find this a little disturbing. You know for the most part sterotypes are true to a degree. I will use the example given by a lot of you here wherein you have been told that you dont look Indian. You know that maybe true. The average Indian looks a certain way. Drive through the dusty roads of India and you will see how the most of us look like. We have a certain look for the most part. And yes there is a small minortiy of you who look different. But that is a small minority. To combat stereotypes in this case is to dis out at the rest of the majority – the true look of a country. Yes, the minority need to be represented, but along with the majority.

    Move beyond the desi world and its the same. I just happen to be in Sao Paulo as I write this. And that whole stereotype about Brazilians looking a certain way is so TRUE. I have been here numerous times, and each time they never cease to amaze me. Drive down south and every girl looks like shes out of a magazine. They just look a certain way.

  43. You never mentioned, that your sweeping statement was only meant for Indians.

    Note my use of the word context. Here the context is ‘perception of Indians’. Refer to the comic strips above.

    Why should an American talking to someone who has an accent know the culture and other details of the country that person comes from ?? How many Indians would know which language they speak in Eastern Tajikistan ??

    They ask me where I was from before determining I was from India. Or in the case of more perceptive interlocutors, they guess I am from India and ask me ‘Where in India are you from’.

    Um, they know that English is not a native Indian language. Much like English is not a native Tajik language. Even Indians know that.

  44. oh, and i knew a guy from zimbabwe, and people (this was at a university) would ask him if he wore skins and hunted lions when he was back home. so there are worse stereotypes one could be saddled with….