The Human Race Condition

This post is about (really, really) bad television, senatorial gaffes, and melanin. Mainly about melanin. For whatever reason, this Superbowl weekend (yes, yes, go Colts) a lot of people wanted to talk about race with me.

Ordinarily, that’s not really a topic I am likely to broach of my own accord. Mind you, I’m not reluctant to talk about race. If I was tongue-tied when put on the spot, it was mainly because my mental machinery takes time to warm up to the subject. This weekend, I distinctly felt that people were asking me my opinion because of my own melanin content — that is, because I’m Indian, the intrepid conversationalists assumed that (rightly or wrongly) I must have something interesting to say about the subject of race. And maybe that’s not a far-fetched assumption.

Something must be going on in the collective zeitgeist (and note that it’s also Black History Month). I got roped into two discussions on the subject, not to mention the fact that race issues featured at the Superbowl as well (e.g. see the numerous stories about the respective coaches). But here’s what happened this weekend, and here’s what motivates my current musings.

While getting my hair cut in Noe on Saturday, my barber talked about race relations in New Orleans. She described affluent white families who would “deb” their daughters during Mardi Gras on floats, and about the snide comments she endured about having a black boyfriend.

Then, a few hours later, an acquaintance of T’s enthusiastically solicited my opinion on the Shilpa Shetty/Celebrity Big Brother UK maelstrom. Wasn’t it terrible the way some people in the UK viewed Indians, he wanted to know? I hemmed and hawed, but didn’t really commit to a stance on the subject. I couldn’t, at that instant, come up with a way to express my view. Was it a tempest in a teapot, or a huge deal? Governments were involved (with Indian government officials expressing concern to UK officials), and effigies were burnt. What did I think?

I don’t have to go to England to get my fix. Closer to home, Senator Joe Biden gaffed off with suspicious condescension about “Indian accents” in 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts, and followed that up by saying something really dumb about Barack Obama. And who can forget the Macaca thing? Even Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, mentioned it!

I was tongue-tied during these conversations because some of these issues are complicated, and aren’t just black and white (!), whereas some are pretty clear cut. New Orleans sounds like a place with clearly demarcated race lines — I still haven’t been (I really want to), and I wonder what The Flood has done to historic divides. In Big Brother UK, Jane Goody comes across as a grotty little woman, and she appears to have ganged up on Shilpa Shetty with a group of other women in a pretty spiteful, vindictive manner. But was it racism or merely ignorance, coupled with petty meanness? And what’s the difference exactly?

In Big Brother UK, Jo O’Meara asks whether it was in India or China that people ate with their hands. This was part of an extraordinary supposition she made about Indians being skinny because they undercook their food (and later she insisted this was a compliment). That’s probably ignorance. It’s annoying to deal with, but it’s not hateful. It’s not like Michael Richards exploding on stage with scalding, hate-filled fury.

I’d say the Big Brother UK issue basically unmasked class divides and paraded a lot of ignorance. But it also unmasked something that I’d call activist sensitivity. Shilpa Shetty herself insisted, in the final analysis, that the whole thing wasn’t racially motivated, and that she wants to leave the whole thing behind her. This irritated her so-called supporters, who were keen on rallying behind some sort of cause celebre. Shilpa attributed the whole rift in the house to a profound lack of education (one of Jane Goody’s claims to fame is her weak vocabulary), which I’m likely to do as well. So if Shilpa’s moving on and not calling it racism but merely ignorant meanness, why can’t others? Why insist on finding, in an epically silly TV show, evidence of a Big White Hater (and note that the infamous Goody has Caribbean ancestry)? That’s what I mean by activist sensitivity — what motivates it, exactly? Why not agree to let it go at the right time?

There are issues not accounted for by the arbitrary divide I’ve created between ignorance/racism. There are subtle questions of taste, which no person has a monopoly on. Is it cool to make fun of an Indian accent, like Danielle did in Big Brother? I remember laughing till it hurt when I watched Peter Sellers’ “The Party.” I wasn’t offended. Sellers later did a German accent (amongst others!) in “Dr. Strangelove” and of course, there’s his Clusoe in the “Pink Panther” series. I love those movies, to this day. But I remember listening to a South Asian actor in LA bemoaning the constant “South Asian Minstrel Shows” by way of screenplays and plots that he was asked to look at; he felt too type cast for different roles. Hollywood has to move beyond the stereotype. Recently, at a big international conference, I was introduced by a friend of mine before I spoke. He put on an Indian accent to introduce me before the delegates. Sure, I laughed at the Indian shtick. It was done with enough affection to off-set the question of taste, but it made me really nervous suddenly. I spoke really fast during my panel discussion. It showed. Was I contributing to base stereotypes by rolling with it? And where do you draw the line? It’s a question of taste, and I leave that one hanging. My own feelings are clearly mixed. We should laugh at ourselves — I mean, we ARE kind of funny sometimes (and I use the royal we, and it’s an all-inclusive we that includes YOU). But there’s a but.

Bad TV in the UK gives me a metaphor to frame Joe Biden’s gaffes. His gaffes exemplify more ignorance still (like Goody and O’Meara), and not racism (as I see it), and are also just signs of really bad taste. I’m not hurt by his stupid statement, just really disappointed. Biden’s just not a funny guy, even if Jon Stewart cut him some slack. As for George Allen, I’m not so sure — I don’t think I can dismiss him as a mere ignoramus. His “America and the real world of Virginia” don’t sound like inclusive places.

Maybe that’s why I was muted this weekend. I have a LOT to say, apparently. By genetic design, a vox populi poll of the masses on the question of race is likely to reveal a riotous diversity of answers. Nestled among some of the many answers, I have no doubt there will be questions of ignorance, taste, and maybe even more complex elements, like outright bias and activist sensitivity.

[fr] Pour les francophones: a propos de tout ca, on me dit que Kamini est partout! Il est rigolo :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *