Indian, Indian, Indian!

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.

118 thoughts on “Indian, Indian, Indian!

  1. I am gujju, Indian, Kenyan, Londoner, British, Midlander, Geordie and proud supporter of the Toon Army. But the one I am most proud of is I am FREE.

  2. Romeo 86:

    I’ll probably stir up things but throughout college nobody thought I was Indian, they thought I was Persian or something. They reserved that term for way browner people than me.

    Paging Manju! Manju, this here guy is fishing for one of your “oh my feet are so big I can’t find shoes my size” routines.

  3. 36 · Ponniyin Selvan said

    i admit there would be minor problems for people in the North east
    Just a nit. Actually, even Bollywood is not common between a computer programmer from Madurai and an economist from Karachi. Only 0.86% Tamils know Hindi (from 1991 census) and we can safely guess that an average programmer from Madurai would not watch any Bollywood flick

    how convenient to refer to the identity problems of north-eastern “minor,” but request that tamils be spared innaccurate categorizaton 😉 parochial much?

    fwiw, when people make judgments about where i come from based purely on my appearance, i’d rather they call me “south asian.” i’m an indian passport holder, but how can one guess that by looking at me? i do not see “south asian” as devoid of “color” at all. rather, it closely allies me with traditions and cultures that have something common with my heritage. my south indian friends all the know the same pre-liberalization doordarshan content; my mumbai friends share my contempt of the MNS; my punjabi-pakistani friends dance the bhangra with me; bangladeshi friends have shared bangla rock and their saris with me. we all have political debates and disagreements — but i feel proud to be connected to all of them. i’d rather we not deny the bonds of history that connect the subcontinent. in general, when i don’t know the specific nationality/ethnicity of people who clearly have subcontinental origin, i call them south asian. fwiw, it doesn’t feel antiseptic or wonky to me. i’d rather be referred to as a south asian than “paki” or “dothead.” as far as skin color goes, you can call me “wheatish” 🙂 me mum does.

  4. 79 · onparkstreet said

    It’s not more accurate, Ennis, it’s just less likely to be wrong

    anything less likely to be wrong = more likely to be accurate (by definition)

  5. how convenient to refer to the identity problems of north-eastern “minor,” but request that tamils be spared innaccurate categorizaton 😉 parochial much?

    Huh, I conceded there are minor problems in using “brown” for folks living in North East India. If you read my comments I am not forcing any identity on anyone like you seem to do here. If you like “South Asian” so be it. That’s your wish. If some one else does not like “South Asian” and would prefer “Indian” it’s perfectly fine too.

    The only “parochial” thing is that you try to impose your views of “South Asian” as an all inclusive term (which it is not) on others who do not like to be called so.

  6. What about the third set? Those of us who are of Indian origin, who have no problem being called “Indian” OR “South Asian”, and who use whatever is appropriate at the time?

    Good point.My comment should read

    There are 3 sets of people

    1) People who are not Indian and who are not of Indian origin and some people who are of Indian origin (and also some who are Indian, I suspect mostly of the “progressive” variety) and not having any affinity to India taking offence to being called as Indian.

    2) People who are Indian (or) of Indian origin who have no problem with being called Indian and take offence to being called South Asian or any other term.

    3) People who don’t care what they are called and are equally happy in being called Indian or South Asian and not send emails to news organisations / journalists complaining that they use wrong terms.


  7. I dunno about that Errm, I’m not sure that’s true.

    If I was an editor I would do something practical like this:

    1. A hard news story: use South Asian, taking care to specify, or be specific, when it is possible to specify.
    2. In a soft news story, like a travel diary, a little more artistic and aesthetic leeway allowed, in order to be able to play with language and personal impressions, so that newspapers don’t lose what business they already have.

    What about that my brown friends? A good happy medium?

  8. I get that some people view “Indian” as only a country designator, others as an ethnicity, or as a slur, but honestly, we are not all born with instant awareness and full knowledge. If someone asks you if you’re Indian or from India they’re trying to connect with you. They’re trying to be nice and show an interest. How is that a bad thing? Your average American is not going to understand or be aware of the multitude of ethnicities, cultures, and religions that make up the entire region. Gently correct them and move on.

    You will expand their world, and probably yours.

  9. 23 and #113,

    I think what both of you say is equally valid. Not every one grows up in the army quarters. That’s an entirely different experience than the rest.

    As partitioned American says, it is true that Punjabis / Bengalis / Urdu / Tamil speakers have more in common with people from outside the borders than people within the Indian borders. But they can all identify themselves as Punjabis/Bengalis/Urdus/Tamils respectively rather than bringing in a new global “South Asian” to throw everyone else in the same bucket.

    112, Maurice,

    that’s a nice comment.

  10. And I just wanted to add one more thing. These kinds of arguments make me really anxious when I meet desi. Most times I don’t feel self-conscious about asking the “Where Are You From” question (even though I know that that’s loaded too) but then I come across an argument like this and wonder if I should even bother. What’s answer? Do I ask at all or just ignore it completely? I feel like I’m an ignorant fool no matter which way I ask.

    And to head off the next obvious question, if I hear someone with a German accent I ask them where they’re from. Ditto Southern accents, or if I meet someone and they’ve got an obviously Scandinavian last name, etc. Maybe I’m just nosy and should knock it off. 🙁

  11. <

    p>Thanks, A N N A, SSK, ptr_vivek, ak…


    p>I wrote in favor of journalistic accuracy, not in favor of the term South Asian. It’s not the same argument.


    p>On Park Street, look at your own comment at #65. You write:

    2. Isn’t the author of this post assuming most people would prefer South Asian? Perhaps not, I don’t see that in the text. Still.


    p>What an interesting idea, looking in my actual text to see what I said!


    p>While I do myself use the phrase “South Asian” or a hyphenate twice in the e-mail (and yes, again on this comment thread), as a point of fact, I don’t say anywhere in the e-mail that it is the only solution to the possibility that these descriptions are wrong. I write, “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.” [emphasis added] That’s an intentionally passive construction.


    p>I wrote it that way because the point of the e-mail was what ak said: “journalists are not supposed to assume anything – they’re supposed to ask. in many contexts, incl. some she pointed out, it says that the reporter didn’t care enough to bother actually knowing, much less asking.”


    p>THAT is what the post is about. The Times and its copydesk are aiming for absolute accuracy, so the possibility of error means that by their own standards, there’s a problem.


    p>I happen to use the terms South Asia and South Asian. (So does the Times.)


    p>But I wouldn’t favor assuming someone is South Asian, either—I’d want to ask them, and then, depending on how they identified, choose an appropriate and accurate descriptor that is consistent with the standards and editorial style of the publication.


    p>Expecting the reporter to ask is not unreasonable or too much or impractical. Asking is the reporter’s job. Running out of time or facing some other practical problem means writing around the need for an answer, or acknowledging not knowing it. It’s not hard to do that, and when you don’t have a fact solidly, that is what you do.


    p>Maurice at #112, and many others… You’re simply off-topic.

  12. You know, ANNA left a nice message on my blog that made me feel ashamed that I was so strident, so I will simply apologize for the stridency of my responses. I shouldn’t have been rude.

    The passive voice made it seem to me, reading the text, that it was a term you were in favor of. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted your text.

    I still respectfully disagree with your main point – I don’t think you need the same fidelity in a travel diary that you do in a hard news article, but I see the mileage varies around here. I don’t think it was an egregious mistake, and I have canceled subscriptions to magazines and news papers because of the dullness of the writing. It is a tepid product these days, and accuracy is hilariously hit or miss in the Times to judge by the corrections pages, so in that respect, you have a point about South Asian.

    Maurice Reeves makes a lovely point which is not off-topic, but responds to another commenter in this thread. It is a lovely and gentle sentiment. I should learn from Maurice Reeves – when disagreeing, be more gentle.

  13. “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.”

    So next time, some one mentions “South Asian” in an article, I’d ask “Indians” to take offence and shoot a few emails asking the reporter whether proper verificiation was done with that person before calling them “South Asian”.

    If a bunch of people do this, I think the reporters would just like to stay out of trouble by not mentioning “Indian” or “South Asian” and figuring out it is better to ignore the “brown” rather than report and get into arguments.

  14. Dear OnParkStreet,

    Thanks, I appreciate that. (And thanks, too, to the lovely A N N A and Ennis for participating in this thread!)

    I’m not sure why one would have to choose between lively writing and accurate writing. They’re not opposed. Since it’s possible to achieve both, I expect both. My note to the Times does not seek to hold them to any standard to which they do not already hold themselves.

    As for Mr. Reeves, I agree that he is a gentle soul, but the person he was responding to was also somewhat off-topic. There were a number of off-topic comments here, and I did not point out each individual one. Mr. Reeves, I’m sorry if we’ve made you anxious, but this post wasn’t about people asking about each other’s backgrounds; it was about assuming (and that resulting in error). Seems like you ask!

  15. Oy! Mix a scoop of identity with a dash of semantics, a little self-righteousness, and we have a 100+ comment thread where people are more interested in being heard than working with others. It doesn’t have to deal with nationality all the time, but I find we as Indians/ South Asians/ etc seem to bicker a lot within the crowd.

    Second side-note: North America = continent South America = continent Asia = continent South Asia = region

    So if a guy from Quebec and a guy from Maine want to find some general regional term, maybe they could call themselves Northern Atlantic American or East North American, instead of North American. Because if they call themselves North American, the Indian and Sri Lankan would call themselves Asian, if the apples:apples::oranges:oranges analogy follows.

    See! I do it too. <3 semantics

  16. 119 · Thumbu said

    We have, at least, come a long way since “hindoo.”

    In all honesty that was probably the most accurate classification. After all the term “Hindu” was applied (I think by the Persians) as sort of an all-encompassing classification for everyone East of the Sindhu river. But with religion being such an ever present part of life for Indians back then Hindu referred to the people and the religion, but the religion itself doesn’t put itself in a categorized box like that. That was a category imposed by outsiders. For the Indians of the time they’d have various astika and nastika schools of thought within the Indian/Hindu society and everyone else was a mleccha.

    So really, the entire system of classification is one designed for and by Europeans.