But Is It Racist?

There is a mutiny afoot in the Sepia Mutiny bunker. About half of us think that Joel Stein’s piece published in Time on Edison NJ was ill-humored garbage. The other half thinks it’s RACIST ill-humored garbage. I’m of the camp that thinks it’s racist. In the past few days the Desi blogosphere, twitterverse and facebookdom have been in uproar over this piece but what I find the most striking is the debate – “Is it or isn’t it racist?” What is it about the “R” word that makes us recoil and run to words like “stereotype” “bigot” or “xenophobic”? Why are we scared to call things racist?

I thought the article “My Own Private India” was racist – but then again, I come at things from a Critical Race Theory perspective where racialization is an inherent part of our history and narrative. It permeates through every aspect of living in the U.S., whether in how public policies and laws are implemented, healthcare is accessed or in a simple Time satire article. I think a lot of things are racist, more so than the average brown person, whether it be internalized, institutional or blatant. I think implicit biases are real, and people can be racist without intentionally doing so.

But instead of dissecting the Stein piece again, I wanted to highlight another racially controversial piece in the news. Today is the official premier of the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Last Airbender. The movie is based on the Nickelodeon anime-styled cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is a cartoon heavily influenced by East Asian philosophies, there’s martial arts in it, and the cartoons are brownish Asian looking kids. But the controversy has been around the casting process of the movie. White kids were cast as the main three roles, and the evil people? Why they were cast as the Desis: Dev Patel (as Prince Zuko), Summer Bishil (Princess Azula), Aasif Mandvi (Commander Zhao) and Persian actor Shaun Toub (Uncle Iroh). Question is, is it racist?

Floating World had a fantastic piece on their blog about the history of face painting in the industry, and the use of white people in the entertainment industry to play people of color.

…”The Last Airbender” offends even more [than “Prince of Persia”] with its casting of newcomer/lesser known White actors over equivalent Asian actors to portray its starring Asian characters. The marketing reasons attached to famous actors does not apply here; instead, the marketing assumption is that White actors are more “capable” than Asian actors for pulling in viewers, with a possible secondary assumption in their “superiority” in acting abilities. This overarching assumption is the basis for an institutionalized racism innate to Hollywood’s long, long history of ethnic narratives. [floatingworld]

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Drama drama drama at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in New Zealand last week.

You remember that big nuclear deal between India and the US a couple of years ago, right? You know, the one where Bush gave away the whole store to secure some sort of foreign policy legacy? Well, that decision appears to be coming back to bite the US right in the nuke. China now wants to build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. Given the lengths the US went to make sure its deal with India went through, it’s going to have a hard time objecting to this agreement without upsetting Pakistan or further alienating China.

The reason the India-US nuclear deal was a good idea, at least the way it was sold to Congress, was that the deal would promote non-proliferation by bringing India into the fold of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its monitoring and regulation. But India only agreed to this on the condition that it would split its civil nuclear program from its military nuclear program, and that only the former would be subject to inspection and regulation.

The US also pushed through an exemption in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which allowed India to trade in nuclear material and technology even though it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Signing the NPT is a prerequisite for participation in the NSG for every country except India. This blanket exemption drew concerns from the non-proliferation crowd. Their argument was that if India was supplied with enrichment and reprocessing technology for their civilian program, there was no mechanism preventing them from using that technology for their military program.

Makes sense, right? An inspection of a facility can establish whether or not the right amount of nuclear material is there, but how can an IAEA inspector determine whether a particular reprocessing method has been duplicated in a military facility that’s off limits?

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: The Success of NREGA

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a law passed in India in 2005 by the Congress Party that guarantees 100 days of paid labor to every adult member of rural households, has been the subject of enormous attention. It has been lauded for its initiative and criticized as another inefficient welfare program. Recent analysis, including a widely published AP article a few days ago, is shining a positive light on the legislation. It seems that NREGA, while expensive and imperfect, has been effective in reducing poverty across a wide swath of rural India, and has changed numerous lives for the better. As the program continues, civil society and government can do a great deal to improve its efficiency and impact.

The article that brought newfound attention on NREGA was an AP article published a few days ago entitled “One Indian Village Wins Freedom with Job Program” by Ravi Nessman. The article describes the wretched conditions in which the residents of the small town of Pipari, a small town 180 kilometers north of Lucknow, lived in before the job program:

For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.

The wealthy, upper-caste landlord forced them to work his fields for almost nothing, gave them loans at impossible interest rates, controlled their access to government welfare and held the police in his pocket.

They were dalits, the lowest caste, with houses made of cattle dung, clothing in tatters and barely enough food for a meal and a half a day. They were trapped below the bottom, serfs in an age-old system of exploitation that few in rural India dared question.

The “world’s largest social welfare program” helped them change their reality. The article describes how the residents demanded work under the new law in 2006, but local officials did not register them for work out of fear it would undermine their power. However, the local residents were emboldened by the law, and spent months fiercely protesting until they received their entitled work and pay.

The program has had a chain effect, allowing rural workers to use their earnings for savings instead of taking loans from the usurious landlord, and forcing the landlord to double wages to compete with the new workfare. They are able to send children to school and put food on the table, and the article ends on an inspiring note:

The men don’t pedal rickshaws in Kanpoor anymore, but stay home with their families and their fields. The women are earning money of their own for the first time. The villagers are even discussing taking on the next most powerful person in the area, the man who runs the government food shop, whom they accuse of stealing their subsidized sugar ration.

As for Shukla (the landlord), they still defer to him, but rebel in small ways. When he tells them to do work for him, they do what is convenient and ignore the rest, they said. And they have stopped touching his feet, giving him a little salute instead.

“He still acts like a king, but we don’t consider him a king anymore,” said Harpal Gautam, 37. “His rights and our rights are equal.”

The story paints a nice picture of NREGA, but is the story an anomaly or reflective of the program’s overall success? General consensus from various media and scholarly examinations seems to determine that the program has problems that need to be fixed, but, on the whole, has been surprisingly successful, especially considering the low expectations for most Indian government social welfare programs. Continue reading

An Unfunny Joel Stein Walks Into Some Cow Dung

…because he’s in his hometown of Edison, NJ. Get it? EDISON IS THE HOME OF A LOT OF INDIAN IMMIGRANTS! And they have overrun the township, what with their red dots, and zany, octopus-like deities and of course, their cows! Indians worship cows! And Edison is full of Indians! So there are cows in Edison, and the cows take dumps, and this unfunny columnist named Joel Stein really stepped in it, because the nasty brown shit (and by nasty brown shit, I mean “Indian”) is everywhere! The brown shit is unavoidable! ISN’T THAT HILARIOUS? WHY AREN’T YOU LAUGHING? Don’t you get it? That paragraph is humorous! I have bludgeoned you about the head with my clever humor! And if you don’t “get” it, you are excessively thin-skinned, like…like…an eggshell plaintiff!

What’s that you say, Desis? You weren’t impressed with Stein’s comedic stylings? Why…if you’re outraged, then that’s GREAT because it means Stein’s humor is EDGY. That’s what great comics do! They challenge you! They inspire your eyebrows to raise up like they’re furry, arched extras in a Petey Pablo video!

You didn’t think it was funny, at all? Well, chin up, dear Mutineers. Neither did I.

And that’s because, it wasn’t.

When I first ventured online today, I had a dozen tweets, emails and FB messages waiting for me. They all contained the same link to TIME magazine, a publication I adored as a child. My interest? Piqued. I started to read.

Let me tell you what I liked about the essay which all of you wanted me to read, first: the title. I loved the B-52s in high school and I love lifting blog titles from song titles. Clearly, Stein was referencing “Private Idaho“, which was a bit before my time (released: 1980) and to my INDIAN ears, a bit annoying. I preferred a single from a full decade later– “Deadbeat Club“. I used to put it on a lot of my mix tapes. Sigh.

Now that we got THAT out of the way, let me tell you what I disliked about Stein’s “meditation” on immigration. See what I did there? Huh? Huh? INDIAN STUFF, AGAIN!

Every. Thing. Else.

Let’s get started, shall we? But first, to really do Mr. Stein justice, I’m going to light some incense, play a “Jai Ho” remix, and nosh on some curry– but daintily! I don’t want to stain my exotic silk costume, which I bought in…of all places…Edison. What are the odds, right? Oh, wait…according to TIME magazine, the odds are very good that my Indian garb is from Edison. The whole place is infested with Patels. Did I mention there’s a dot on my forehead? I’m a dothead! Wheee! Oh, but I am getting ahead of myself (I am waggling my head as I type that. If you’re reading this, switch to an “Apu” voice, would you? Thanks, you’re a doll. I mean, you’re an Aishwarya!)

I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.

HAHAHA! Stein just called Americans “stupid”. Doing this protects him from any accusations of racism or bias, because he made fun of himself! And he said he was pro-immigration, so he’s nice, too. See how that works? What are you saying? It DIDN’T work? Oh.


Maybe that’s because it was made by an American! Ooooh, BURN! Like a VINDALOO! And you can’t get mad at me, because I’m an American, too! Huzzah for humor insurance! Continue reading

Got a story that is “One in a Billion?”

My friends Geeta and Ravi Patel, a talented brother and sister team based here in Los Angeles, are working on a comedy documentary titled, “One in A Billion.” The documentary follows Ravi’s quest for a wife and explains the odds stacked against him all along the way. Geeta previously co-directed the film Project Kashmir in 2008. Ravi has appeared in a few recent shows as touched on by Taz here. Here is the synopsis of the documentary:


So, my parents, who are totally, sickly, exuberantly in love- they had a traditional Hindu arranged marriage. Naturally, they want me to marry an Indian girl. Let’s say I want that too. India has a population of over a billion people. Easy, right? But I live in America, where Indians only make up one percent of the general population. My odds of finding this person are one in a hundred. But now let’s say I want this person to be a woman (fifty percent): make that one in two hundred. Now let’s say, I want this woman to be unmarried and over the age of seventeen (fifty percent): one in four hundred. Now, actually, this girl is supposed to be Hindu and her family has to originate from a specific 50-square mile radius in the State of Gujarat, India): one in two thousand. Okay, so now let’s say I have to like her, she has to like me, and we have to actually find each other…what are the chances?


This equation, or close versions of it, have been around for a long time in the American desi community. My undergrad buddies at Michigan and I ran through this equation back in the late 90s trying to explain our failed (alright, my failed) love lives. The funny thing is the math is very similar to the Drake Equation which attempts to approximate the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. The final odds all depend on the probability you assign to each variable.

    Ravi Patel is approaching age thirty and still single – a cataclysm in his culture. After breaking up with Audrey, his secret white girlfriend of two years, Ravi goes to India for his annual family trip. As usual, the pressure to get married is heavy, only this time Ravi succumbs; he agrees to try things their way: the semi-arranged marriage system. He comes back to America having no idea what he just agreed to. Blind dates with Indian girls introduced to him via biodatas – matrimonial resumes passed amongst the parents. Indian dating websites. Indian weddings. And matrimonial conventions for people all descending from a small group of villages in India – all with the same last name: Patel. Meanwhile, Ravi can’t stop thinking about Audrey. Ravi Patel has one year to find a girl, or next year he tries things the way his parents did it: the arranged marriage.

Because this is a documentary (i.e., things need to be serious) Geeta and Ravi are going to be interviewing a panel of all kinds of desi experts, including couples with interesting stories, as part of this PBS documentary. That is where you readers potentially come in. Got a good story about your relationship?

A PBS Documentary about Indian dating and marriage in America is searching for everyday people to appear as guests for a filmed radio talk show in conjunction with the film.

The talk show panel will include academics from around the world, celebrities, and everyday people. We are searching for the following:
Indian Americans who are currently dating people through biodatas/parents, marriage conventions, the internet, and other methods. We are searching for someone who might have faced a great deal of pressure/conflict from their family regarding love and marriage, and someone who has grappled with the question: “Do I need to marry an Indian to be happy?’ Must be dynamic, interesting personality. Shoot is Los Angeles in early July.

If you would like to share thoughts, have any further questions, or are interested in a preliminary interview, please email: tsbillion [at] gmail.com.

Since relationship posts on SM are always the most commented upon, I am sure some of you will be jumping at this opportunity.

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Tuna Princess


Tuna Princess by Daisy Rockwell

**Mohamed Mahmood Alessa was arrested with his friend (and co-conspirator) on the way to join a militant group in Somalia. His mother has said that he wanted to take his cat, Tuna Princess, with him, but she did not allow it and they argued. **

Acrylic on wooden panel, 14″ x 14″

I haven’t unpacked my bags yet. Just yesterday I was in North Adams, Massachusetts, where I had driven on Thursday to attend the opening of Rasgulla, Daisy Rockwell’s art-show. (Daisy is a wonderful artist whose work I hadn’t known about till only a few months ago; I have met her since, and regard her as a close friend.) The exhibition in North Adams of Diasy’s paintings draws upon the idea of what Sanskrit aestheticians called “rasas,” the nine perfected moods, distillations of human emotions into a pure form. An important part of the exhibition is Daisy’s exploration of “political rasas,” her attempt to take fleeting news-images of public figures and turn them into physical objects. You see the painting of the Ayatollah in a purple forest; Barack Obama as a boy, standing on the tarmac with his father’s arms around him; Sarah Palin, wearing red shoes, sitting on a sofa, surrounded by dead animals. For me, the greatest interest lay in Daisy’s paintings of those accused of terrorist acts. I have long held that many of the writers and artists working in the aftermath of 9/11 have presented a faux familiarity with the so-called terrorist mind. Daisy’s art makes no such claims. It returns us to what is real–and therefore surprising–about human lives. She has painted portraits of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and there must be some bravery involved in putting these up on the walls of a gallery, but what Daisy is especially good at is painting those one would call ordinary terrorists. These are people who might be behind bars but in the paintings emerge as individuals, as individuals who are neither particularly heroic nor particularly villainous. This isn’t what DeLillo was writing about in a story that invoked Gerhard Richter–this isn’t about a viewer seeing that even terrorists can be forgiven. There is too much irony in Daisy’s paintings, and often, also glitter. There is ambiguity, perhaps, and more than that, a plain sense of attention. It is as if in an effort to find more about the world in which we are living, a world where the war on terror is a fact, the artist has finally found a human face.

But the state lacks all subtlety. Earlier this evening, I read that a six-year-old girl from Ohio, Alyssa Thomas, has been put on a “no-fly” list. Her father, Santhosh Thomas, a doctor, has readily admitted that Alyssa has probably been mean to her sister in the past. And added, “She may have threatened her sister, but I don’t think that constitutes Homeland Security triggers.” I think Daisy should paint the portrait of this little terrorist.
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Free Summer Music Monday

With news that King Khan’s band has broken up, I understand if your Alterno-Desi musical heart is a little crushed. Never to fear, Sunny Ali and the Kid have just dropped their first EP with enough songs to heal the pain away. You can download the full album for “pay what you can”. Or free. Your choice.

<a href="http://sunnyaliandthekid.bandcamp.com/album/try-harder-ep">Try harder by Sunny Ali &amp; the Kid</a>

This Philidelphia based low-fi-cowboy punk duo of Hassan Ali Malik (that would be Sunny) and Abdullah Saeed (aka “The Kid” aka The Pork Adventurer) have just released their first EP, Try Harder. The band is relatively new having just started late last year but they already have a strong following. The EP has a fresh sound, reminding me of Texan deserts and dusty mirages. Recorded in a tiny 10×10 room on a “crappy program,” the album has a certain raw quality – but they guys are excited to share their music. You can check out my Q & A with the band a few months back on the Taqwacore Webzine.

What is odd to me is how this band is using a “pay what you can” model of distributing this album. Radiohead did this in 2007 when they ended their contract with EMI label. The idea is that even though most people will download the album for free there will be hardcore fans out there that will make a contribution to the band because they are invested. Takes costs benefits analysis to a whole new level. In Sunny Ali & The Kid’s case, people have been making donations for the album and the band has been fully appreciative.

Sunny Ali and the Kid aren’t the only ones dropping entire albums online for free. The Das Racist mixtape Shut Up, Dude can be downloaded off of their MySpace page entirely for free. Ridiculously surprising that after all their internet fame, their music is still not available on iTunes. You can download the album at this link if you haven’t yet.

A couple of weeks ago, another band also just dropped their new EP online for free, The Kominas. You can download mp3s off their album Escape to Blackout Beach for free OR for $7. I’m still confused as to what the $7 fee gets you, but I guess the hardcore musicians understand the differences in formats that the $7 gets you. Continue reading

Desi Pride

SALGA Roopa Singh 2.jpg

This Sunday marks the 41st Anniversary of the Gay Pride March in NYC. With rainbow flags waving, the streets of NYC will be covered with people taking it to the streets. And unlike the 2009 Indian Independence Day parade in NYC where queer desi activist groups like SALGA where denied from partaking, Desis this weekend will be marching.The SALGA float will have Bollywood music, of course.

NYC based pop cultural aficionado Rohin Guha had this to say about the duality of being queer and desi.

I’ve always been fascinated by the strange overlap between Indian and gay cultures. They’re like spurned aunts at a cousin’s wedding, each giving the other the iciest cold-shoulder. But once in a while, they might thaw enough to cast a wary side-eye to one another. And then they’ll return to ignoring each other.[thisisfyf]

Rohin goes on to write about this unlikely “fusion” via this Spice Girls video that he ended up watching with his parents as a kid.

But, when the Spice Girls–dressed in saris and salwars–stormed the stage on auto-rickshaws: Epiphany! It wasn’t an explicit epiphany, though. This performance of the Spice Girls lip-synching “Wannabe” simply made clear that my coming of age wasn’t going to be as neat as a joint effort co-written by Jhumpa Lahiri and David Sedaris might be.

[T]his is one of the earliest instances I can recall of my two identities being able to put aside their differences and play nicely. [thisisfyf] Continue reading

Ole, Ole Ole Ole. Gulati done good.

Four years ago I noted on SM that Sunil Gulati was appointed the head of U.S. Soccer. Right now the U.S. Soccer team is performing near its best in the modern era. 80% of the credit has to be given to the improvement in play by the U.S. team and to coach Bob Bradley. But lets also give some credit to Gulati. France and Italy have demonstrated that having some of the most skilled players in the world means jack if your organization is dysfunctional and poorly managed.

Gulati (left) is working with Clinton to try and bring the World Cup back to the U.S. in 2018 or 2022

He grew up playing football in Nebraska. Gulati, who served as USSF vice president for six years, was elected as its president in March 2006.

“Across the past decade, a platform for this sport has been built that did not previously exist, and we now have an opportunity in the coming years to achieve more for soccer in the United States than anyone could have ever envisioned 15 or 10 or even five years ago,” Gulati had said after being elected at the USSF President.

Former USSF president and Major League Soccer founder Alan Rothenberg has called Gulati the “single most important person in the development of soccer” in the country. It is he who appointed the current US soccer coach Bob Bradley.

In February this year, he was unanimously re-elected the USSF president. [ToI]

As Gulati said after the Algeria victory, “A new benchmark has been set.”

I guess not everyone appreciates him though. A blogger at Deadspin had this recent eyewitness account from South Africa:

PRETORIA, South Africa — A few hours before the gut-roiling USA victory here, I witnessed a tense moment of another sort when two well-lubricated American yahoos tore into Sunil Gulati, the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation. Here’s how it unfolded …

Sometime after noon, I made my way to Hombaze, the pre-game boozing site for hardcore Stars and Stripes fans. And boozing they were. Waiters were bringing around six packs of Castle beer. The lads were downing lager as fast as they could lay hands on a bottle. Everyone was sauced and ebullient. Then Sunil Gulati turned up…

It was then, from the balcony of the bar, that an evil howling commenced. Even over the patriotic commotion you could hear it, an expression of pure animal rage that ran through the crowd like a dirty shank.

FUCK YOU, GULATI!… (Their complaints about Gulati, I would later learn, were manifold, and their origins were difficult to discern. They had something to do with the USSF and banners being prohibited in stadiums and ticket sales and Mexicans sitting in their section and not having “a seat at the table.”)… [Link]

Win or lose today, we here at SM appreciate all Gulati has done for the sport of futbol/soccer in the U.S. I like the fact that it is the hard work of an Indian American who grew up playing soccer in Nebraska that has in part led us to this game against Ghana’s Black Stars. Open Thread below for the game. Let’s go U-S-A!

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Today is Michael Jackson’s Barsy*

Sudarsan Pattnaik's Michael.jpg

As a child, when my father “celebrated” my grandparents’ death anniversaries, I felt even weirder and more out of place than I usually did. None of my friends at school did it; it seemed odd to observe such a sad occasion. As I matured in to a somber teenager, I grew to embrace what I once thought morbid, especially when I realized that it brought comfort to survivors. (That’s the biggest reason why I am prone to insulting half of my family** by joking about how Marthomites have no respect for the dead; I’m only half-kidding.)

As an adult, I didn’t just celebrate a single death anniversary; I couldn’t help but relive a death “week“. It’s strange how measuring time by the absence of someone in your life can warp your perceptions. In the beginning, I couldn’t believe it had been one, two, three years since I lost my father. Now it feels like it was a lifetime ago.

I didn’t realize what was significant about today until I fired up my browser and my Facebook feed declared that 31 of my friends had changed their profile picture. Kindly forgive me; I hadn’t had my kaapi yet so I wasn’t really paying attention. “I wonder if there’s a new fb game,” I mused. Then I noticed that two-thirds of those profile pics were of the same brown person, sporting an afro, and it wasn’t Sai Baba. Why were so many of my friends honoring “old” Michael Jackson? The next tab which loaded contained news and immediately provided me with an explanation for updated Facebook pages.

It was the first anniversary of Michael Jackson‘s death. Continue reading