As American As Amit, Aasif, or Barack

Like many other browns I know, my name seems to bring out the worst in other people. When I taught elementary school in Brooklyn, an older colleague insisted on calling me “Ms. R.” “I don’t mean to offend,” he explained, “but if I try saying your last name, I know I’ll just sound silly.” Well, now you just sound like an idiot, I thought. A similar encounter occurred during my first week of graduate school, when the Dean approached me and introduced herself. I told her my name, and she asked, “Why couldn’t your parents just name you Molly or Jane?” Yes, I know, Naina Ramajayan…so difficult to pronounce, that even I just call myself ‘The N.’ It’s all pretty ironic, actually; considering that I’m a southie Hindu, my name is about as simple as it gets.

Thankfully, the baggage that comes with my name is fairly harmless, and I’m able to laugh it off. No one has ever looked at my name and suggested that I be targeted for homeland security. Some of my friends from college, however, haven’t been as lucky. When my friend Rahul Shah introduced himself to his co-worker a while ago, she responded, “Like, as in, the Shah of Iran, that Holocaust denier?” (Oh yes, she did.) Another friend felt pressured to start using his middle name at work because his boss joked that his first name, Amit, sounded like ‘Ahmed.’ And so what if does? “Dude,” he explained, “Three of the 9-11 hijackers were named Ahmed.” Amit, Ahmed, Shah, Iran…looks like the code is finally getting cracked.

I used to think these issues concerning names were a burden only for us brown people. But then I learned that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is in a similar predicament. CNN did a nice story a few weeks ago (you can view the clip here) on the “controversy” surrounding the Senator’s name. Since Obama rhymes with Osama, Barack rhymes with Iraq (and Chirac), and Hussein is his middle name, he’s evidently a newly-discovered threat to the United States. After watching that clip, I felt guilty for thinking my buddy Amit was just being paranoid of his boss all these years. In fact, now I’m even more paranoid than I ever was before. Of rampant stupidity, that is. Aasif Mandvi appeared on the Daily Show on Tuesday night to bring his perspective on Obama-Osama-gate.

My favorite line: Aasif Mandvi? Yikes, I sound like trouble. People, keep your eye on me.

Jokes aside, I have to wonder: if Barack’s name — or any of our names, for that matter — rhymed with McVeigh, Rudolph, or Kaczynski, would any of this even be a topic of discussion?

427 thoughts on “As American As Amit, Aasif, or Barack

  1. Risible: Wasn’t intending to be triumphalist — just ordered some Bose headphones today, after all — but when people trot out the comical idea that all ethnic groups have contributed equally to America’s greatness, they have to be called on it.

    Nicole: “It would only be surprising if the snake walked upright and if the the white guy didn’t quote empty ‘studies’ about blacks having lower IQ’s, no contribution to America, civilization, etc.”

    Didn’t say “no contribution to America,” Darling Nikki, said the contributions were primarily limited to cultural ones, with very few in business, law, science, and governance. If you dispute that, name a few. Bored is following the PC “everyone contributed equally” to America” line of trying to say that blacks made a huge moral contribution to America with the civil rights movement. To some degree, but it’s exaggerated in an attempt to get everyone to parity. We have an MLK day but not a George Washington or Thomas Jefferson day. Hmm.

    If you think there isn’t a white-black IQ gap, well, then I don’t know what to tell you. Leaving alone whether its cause is more nature or nurture, the existence of the gap is not disputed by anyone in the field of psychometrics.

    Door: “They expose their DNA to mixing with an alien race, they work hard to keep the alien race alive and breed more, while their own race desperately needs their services. All these points show that your thesis far from being “almost a law” is nothing but ignorant baloney that has little touch with reality. Its greed not DNA continuity that has motivated these desi doctors. In fact they have risked the integrity of their “racial” DNA by leaving India. They could have easily survived in India and preserved their genetic purity by staying there.”

    I agree, greed / desire for personal luxury plays a part in the calculation. But so does the Dawkinsian explanation, does it not? Don’t they want a better life for their kids, too?

    And Door — just to clarify, you’re now on the record here as being in favor of desis maintaining their — your words — “genetic purity”? If so, please discuss with Bored why MLK was such a great person if “preserving [one's] genetic purity” is a noble goal after all.

  2. Nicole,

    The vast majority of your points I agree with and understand. And it was about time they were said.

    Reading your original comment, I felt that you were associating WhiteGuy’s assumptions with all desis, which is simply not true – and I felt particularly upset because I’ve battled over assumptions about Blacks on these boards a couple of times (last couple of times was with a desi commenter). I admit that I’ve been troubled by the desi racism toward blacks which I’ve run across from time to time. Sickened. But I don’t think the majority of second genners, or even a sizeable portion of the first genners, are racist. I’m a canuck and can only give you anecdotal experience, but I have had at least two close Black colleagues. One of these was good friends with a first-gen East African Indian. My family was friends with an Indian woman who ran off with a Black guy – he came to her daughter’s wedding dressed in a turban and kurta. It caused some whispering but was generally cool. We’ve probably all got examples. We’re not all pandering to some norm of ‘whiteness’. A Black girlfriend of mine and I are very much a team in our approach to the racial assumptions of the white participants in a critique group we’re in.

    That said, I appreciate and will think about your comment re: the more ‘subtle’ racism. And yes, you beautifully called WG’s flattery of Asians as a snakish attempt to deflect attention from his racism toward Blacks. Just the old ‘divide and conquer’…

  3. A few black (one of them Carib) friends of mine asked me why Indians think they are “white”? When I asked what do you mean by this, they both said something to the effect of “they act white”.

    I don’t know what they meant by “act white”.

    Could it have been the types of jobs that the Indians they know hold? The neighborhoods in which they live?
    Their way of conducting themselves in public or what?

    Even they could not give me detailed answers to my questions.

    Life seems to be a little easier when one conforms to some extent to the majority population in any given country/culture. How to balance that and one’s own individuality or one’s own cultural conditionings can be tricky, as I’ve experienced in my travels around the globe.

    When one takes up residence in a country not of one’s birth you constantly have to balance between the norms of your birth country and the norms of your host country, especially if the cultures of the two are very different.

    Hopefully one ends up taking the best of both and contributing the best to both.

  4. “I’m a canuck and can only give you anecdotal experience, but I have had at least two close Black colleagues.”

    Bored, curious how much time you’ve spent in the States, and where? You’ve really gotta live in a U.S. city to understand it. Sentiments and sanctimony like above usually tell of comfortable distance from the problem (I know, I used to spout similar thoughts myself when I lived in the suburbs).

    You’d be amazed how “progressive” and “anti-racist” white Vermonters are — but when they move to NYC, they send their kids to private school. I recently had a very liberal Jewish friend tell me at poker night that he loves his new house, but that he and his wife are going to have to move or send their kid (now a newborn) to private school in a few years. Why? “65-70% of the kids at [local public school] are black and Hispanic. I’m not putting up with that bullshit.” And he prefaced it with, naturally, “I’m not racist, but…”

  5. Why? “65-70% of the kids at [local public school] are black and Hispanic. I’m not putting up with that bullshit.” And he prefaced it with, naturally, “I’m not racist, but…”

    He must be assuming that if 65-79 percent of the kids are black and hispanic, that the school must be riddled with drugs, gangs, etc. It’s an assumption but not neccessarily the case. He should spend some time checking out the school.

  6. Mistress,

    Well, your parents didn’t send you to a school that was mostly black and Hispanic, and you won’t send your kids to one, either. Neither will Bored.

  7. Mistress,

    Well, your parents didn’t send you to a school that was mostly black and Hispanic, and you won’t send your kids to one, either. Neither will Bored.

    White Guy, how do YOU know where my parents sent me to school? And how do you know I’m not black or hispanic?

    Again, more ASSumptions, with all due respect.

  8. Bored & Nicole –

    My problem with people who look at the disparities between whites & blacks and search for all kinds of “subtle racism” and “institutional racism” etc. explanations is that most of these people will never, ever look at the data on a partial — repeat, PARTIAL — biological explanation. They begin with the notional that a biological notion simply cannot exist, so the cause for the disparities must lie elsewhere.

    As Holmes once told Watson, you must change your theories to suit the facts, and not the other way around.

    BTW, speaking as a whitey — all this “whitey wants this minority to do this, and LOVES it when this minority does that to that other minority” — listen, it’s mostly bogus. Most white people feel this way towards the following minorities:

    American blacks — feel morally and historically indebted to them, but don’t know what it will take to make them self-sufficient, prosperous, etc. To white liberals this is deeply disappointing (that they can’t figure out how to make blacks rich and happy), white conservatives just move away.

    Hispanics — feel like they’re overrunning the country, and it probably won’t be good. Ten years ago there would’ve been more “they’re just here to work” sentiment, but now there’s a sense that there’s just too many of them and they (and their kids) wind up taking more than they give.

    East Asians — model minority, yup. Actually, whites generally see East Asians as smarter than we are, which is accurate (roughly 5 point IQ edge to East Asians). But even the most race-conscious whites I know don’t have huge problems with East Asians, since they are assimilationist and have low crime rates. Southeast Asians are a different story, not enough of them outside California for most Americans to have a general opinion, but where they are, they’re not earning a great reputation (e.g the Hmong guy who shot six hunters in Wisconsin last year, very well publicized).

    South Asians — to be honest, most whites probably know few if any South Asians well, but their opinions are generally quite positive. Seen as hardworking and prosperous and low crime, which makes people wonder why India is still so poor (Americans don’t understand that the Indians they meet are not generally representative of the whole subcontinent economically). I don’t know why having white people have a high opinion of you would be a bad thing, it sounds like more brain-twisting done by Marxist college profs to me! (not judging, it took me a long time to untwist my own brain after college!) There is also the whole question with South Asians of whether you’re Muslim or Hindu, I think more and more Americans are able to make the distinction between Hindu and Muslim but it takes time. I think even George W. Bush might know it by now.

    be a bad thing; if I moved to Japan, or India, or China, I would certainly want to behave decently, and give a good impression.

  9. White Guy – You must’ve read The Closing of the American Mind, back in the eighties, right?

    I also think it’s quite telling that when it comes to male/female – the latest in biological differences wired into our brains and physiological systems is the latest craze wisdome, but when it comes to race, it’s all hush-hushed. Seems ironic, contradictory and hypocritical.

    However, there are quite alot of people out there (from what I met, more black than white) who ARE into those bio-genetic-whatever studies and their findings.

    But like anything in the scientific world – unless it becomes pop-science or pop-pysch, like the men-mars/women-venus phenomena, well, it just won’t make money or become all that popular.

    Why people are welcoming it with open arms regarding men and women but NOT welcoming it with the same gusto regarding ethnic backgrounds or whatever, I don’t know.

    But “science” itself is a big guessing game. What passing as scientific fact or knowledge one day is poo-pooed the next with increasing technology and all.

  10. Mistress –

    I think the racial implications of differences are much more potentially explosive than gender differences, which is why it’s still hush-hush (see what happened to Larry Summers when he broached M-F differences, imagine if he’d mentioned racial differences). Pinker (and everyone else) uses M-F differences as the camel’s nose under the tent and remains steadfastly agnostic on B-W differences, which is what you do if you don’t what to get a firestorm of cirticism (ask Bruce Lahn)

    I never did read bloom, btw. Don’t regret it either — should I?

  11. Why B-W studies?

    If it’s impartial as you say, then all known groups should be represented.

  12. Incidentally, re the debate above: the December 2006 edition of the Atlantic’s cover article is called “The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time — They Made America.” It includes 92 whites and 8 blacks. The 8 blacks are MLK, Jackie Robinson (! — #35), WEB Dubois, Louis Armstrong, Thurgood Marshall, Nat Turner (!!!), Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. Turner’s inclusion is a PC joke. MLK, DuBois, Armstrong, and Douglass are all good. Marshall and RObinson are overblown but acceptable. Booker T.’s view of black America are 100% ignored in black America (and white America, for the most part), so calling him inflential is cruel. I wish he were more influential!

  13. Mistress COME ON. White Guy obviously has a very… unique… angle that he’s coming from, but it saddens me to see you take a similar position since you’ve been a clear and intelligent voice elsewhere.

    I also think it’s quite telling that when it comes to male/female – the latest in biological differences wired into our brains and physiological systems is the latest craze wisdome, but when it comes to race, it’s all hush-hushed. Seems ironic, contradictory and hypocritical.

    It’s hard for me to understand how a thinking person could seriously draw an equivalence here. There are real, measurable, radical differences between male and female anatomy that aren’t present between different racial groups. The ability to have another human being take root and develop inside a person is a much bigger deal than slightly different shades of skin pigment. Women develop differently from men starting in the womb. In fact, that different development is reflected in possibly the LARGEST measurable genetic difference between human beings: the X and Y chromosome. The hormonal differences that result from that have been exhaustively identified and measured too, and they do have an effect on brain development (although, yeah, it’s probably more subtle than some people like to pretend). While I’ll definitely agree that there’s a lot of very valid criticism of the popular studies that take this idea to unsupportable (and, usually, politically motivated) extremes, don’t get carried away.

    On top of that, that there’s a whole lot more geographic and historical consensus on what “male” and “female” mean than on the definition of different racial groups. There are many groups that are considered races now that wouldn’t have been considered separate groups even 50 years ago (and vice versa). With men and women, the terms of study are (mostly) defined, and arguments are mostly about the scientific process itself. That’s not the case with race.

    And this is just sad:

    But “science” itself is a big guessing game. What passing as scientific fact or knowledge one day is poo-pooed the next with increasing technology and all.
  14. You’re right Mistress, but B-W studies are the ones most Americans are interested in so it’s the one someone like Pinker would be most frequently asked about. BUt yeah, I was using that as a proxy for all groups being studied.

  15. Mistress COME ON. White Guy obviously has a very… unique… angle that he’s coming from, but it saddens me to see you take a similar position since you’ve been a clear and intelligent voice elsewhere.

    I’ve taken NO position since I don’t have enough data or personal experience in that field to take a position.

    I’m just pointing out what seems to me something ironic.

    And yes, there are obvious differences between males and females but that doesn’t mean I buy into all that men-mars/women-venus pop-psyche stuff (thought I like Dr. Phil’s books).

  16. Yes, Neal. I have created a fantasy world where Asians have a higher mean IQ than my own ethnic group. It is not based upon rational review of the available facts.

    For example, when seeking to answer the question “Why are some countries wealthier than others?”, I did not read 7-8 different books that attempted to answer that question (Guns Germs & Steel, The Wealth of Nations, The End of Poverty, IQ & the Wealth of Nations, etc) before deciding which one made the most sense (not that there’s nothing to the others, but one of those stands way, way out in front of the others. Hint: it’s not the one that won a Pulitzer Prize and was a NYT bestseller, it’s the one you have to pay $90 to an obscure academic press to get your hands on. It’s also the only one of those four you’ve never heard of, and whose co-author was almost arrested in Finland last year for “inciting racial hatred”. Fortunately his son was the prime minister of Finland so he got out of it).

  17. I have created a fantasy world where Asians have a higher mean IQ than my own ethnic group.

    You should always specify that its east asians who you are talking about here. South Asians have substantially lower tested IQs than east asians and europeans.

    the December 2006 edition of the Atlantic’s cover article is called “The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time — They Made America.” It includes 92 whites and 8 blacks.

    That list is skewed heavily towards presidents, none of whom were black, jewish, hispanic or southern and eastern european, for reasons of prejudice and discrimination.

    The list is dominated by anglo-saxon protestants. Italians are 8% of the population yet only one italian, Enrico Fermi the physicist, made the list and he was an immigrant who got his education in Europe. German-americans are more numerous than african-americans yet only one of them, President Eisenhower, is found on that list. No slavic-americans or scandinavian-americans made the list (based on a cursory look of the names). So the african-american contribution looks quite remarkable. Does this mean african-americans are intellectually superior or more creative than italian, german, irish, slavic americans? Why not? Isnt that the argument you are using to prove white supremacy?

    BTW, there is one african-american not included in that list who I believe has had, and continues to have, more influence on America and the world than most of the others: William Seymour who started the Pentecostal Movement in a church in Los Angeles exactly a century ago. There are now over half a billion Pentecostals in the world, making it the second largest sect of christianity after Catholicism, and it is the fastest growing religion in the world. Even muslims are converting to Pentecostalism.

    Other than country music is there any other major genre of american music that did not originate with the immensely creative african-americans? Even Beethoven, the greatest of the european classical music composers, was what would be considered “black” in America: anyone who looked like he had some african ancestry. That applies to Alexandre Pushkin as well, another immensely creative genius, who is considered the Shakespeare of Russia and the Father of the modern Russian Language.

  18. That list is skewed heavily towards presidents, none of whom were black

    Supposedly there was an American black president for a short time way back in the beginning of the United States America’s history.

    Other than country music is there any other major genre of american music that did not originate with the immensely creative african-americans?

    I thought even country music sprang out of redemption songs?

  19. I agree, greed / desire for personal luxury plays a part in the calculation. But so does the Dawkinsian explanation, does it not?

    You are not thinking rationally. If the Dawkinsian explanation is “almost a law” as you claimed, it should be more than just a “part in the calculation”.

    And Door — just to clarify, you’re now on the record here as being in favor of desis maintaining their — your words — “genetic purity”?

    That is dumb, dishonest and disingenuous. I am using your own arguments against you. That does not mean that I agree with them does it? If I am trying to disprove your thesis how the heck do you manage to conclude that I am “in favor” of it?

  20. And Door — just to clarify, you’re now on the record here as being in favor of desis maintaining their — your words — “genetic purity”?

    Is there any such thing as “genetic purity”?

    I thought we were all hybrids.

  21. Sorry Door, you’re right — I meant “East Asians” in 421, not “Asians”.

    Not saying the Atlantic list is perfect, but it does give the lie to the “everyone contributed equally” meme.

    Never heard of Seymour; will wikipedia him tonight. Thanks for the tip.

    Re paucity of Italians, Germans, etc. on the list — the reality is that they assimilated to the Protestant English model. And there is something magical about that model, e.g. if you took the blood of all 300 million Americans and distilled it into one big vat (yum!), it would only be about 10% English, yet still we (largely) follow their model because it had inherent value, i.e. what it stressed and stigmatized were the right things for a society to stress and stigmatize to become prosperous.

    Re “genetic purity” — OK, maybe I misread you…but you did precede it with the following, which would be considered racist if a white person had said it:

    “They [Indian emigres w/ high earning potential] expose their DNA to mixing with an alien race, they work hard to keep the alien race alive and breed more, while their own race desperately needs their services.”

    I mean, that is actually Stormfront territory, and I think there you were expressing your own true thoughts, not “using my own arguments against me”. Again, the double standard is clear.

  22. “That list is skewed heavily towards presidents, none of whom were black, jewish, hispanic or southern and eastern european, for reasons of prejudice and discrimination.”

    Presidents have a lot of impact in a society, so of course on a list of “Most Influential X of all Time,” a lot of presidents of country X will be on the list. As for discrimination, tell me again why Sonia Gandhi was never prime minister?

  23. This thread having turned into a small-group conversation among people with heavy trolltastic/logorrheiac tendencies, we monkeys are closing it down out of boredom. Time to move on!