Happy New Year, Mutiny! It is not possible to hyperlink a post title, so I offer this as my inspiration for the headline above.
Sometimes, when people assume I’m of Indian origin, I get grumpy and I think, I know just how Jan feels. I mean, I like Marcia. I understand that she’s the biggest sister and everyone in school knows her. But I am special too.
As a result of this feeling (and arguably, my background as a sometime member of the Fourth Estate), I read media descriptions of desis pretty closely. Indian is NOT a racial or ethnic descriptor. But sometimes it’s used as such.
I recently wrote an e-mail to an editor at [ed: The New York] Times about three articles in which this came up. [Annotations in ital.]
p>I write you as a devoted reader of the Times and especially of the Travel section. I have noticed a pattern in several Times articles, two of which were in Travel, and would like to ask you about the section’s policies (and perhaps the policies of the copydesk).
p>I read Matt Gross’s article and I wondered about this line:
It was packed with college students, hipsters in silly fedoras, a British couple with a baby, Indian 20-somethings figuring out how to ship saris back from London.
p>I was curious as to how Mr. Gross knew that the people in question were Indian; “Indian” is a national identifier, rather than a racial one, but since the line is basically doing the work of “color,” I didn’t get the impression that he had talked to them to ascertain their national origins.
Note to SM Readers: In journalistic terms, “color” refers to language that sets a scene or provides atmosphere. Back to our show.
p>Saris are traditional dress in a number of countries. Furthermore, did he know that they weren’t American? If they wanted to ship saris back to Los Angeles from London, they could have been South Asian-Americans with familial roots in any one of a number of countries.
This isn’t the first time I have had this question after reading a Travel article. I also wrote Michelle Higgins after reading “Flying the Unfriendly Skies,” which included the sentence,
“No to the young Indian man who asked for a blanket for his mother who was shivering in her sari next to him.”
(I wrote to Ms. Higgins shortly after that article was published, to ask her if she had asked the young man about his nationality. She wrote me back a very kind response and said that she had based the description on his mother’s clothing.)
p>Finally, I also wrote Allen Salkin about “A Long Way From Bollywood.”
This story included the phrase “ethnically Indian.” But it isn’t possible to be ethnically Indian; India has people of many ethnicities, some of which appear in other countries as well (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, for example).
p>Note to SM Readers: Allen was kind enough to write back too, although his response was less clear. I would have written to Matt, but it was harder to get an address for him. Back to what I wrote the editor.
All of this brings me to a final question: Does the Times have a policy about the use of the word “Indian” in such contexts? With an increasing number of South Asians in America, descriptions such as these as bound to crop up, and could easily be made more accurate.
Thanks in advance for any time you are able to devote to a response. I am grateful for the Times’ thoughtful attention to the coverage of race, and am always interested in its appearance, however minor, in stories with other subjects.
p>…So I sent this off to the Times, and relatively promptly, I got an e-mail saying that I made a good point that he would discuss with the copy desk and other editors there. Very responsive of them.
Now it will be interesting to keep an eye on this and see if they change how they do things! For those of you who think I am nitpicking… this is important! The descriptions are inaccurate. And I’M DOING IT FOR JAN.