01 July 2010

Joel Stein's racism problem (sigh)

In next week's issue of Time (it's already up on the web and has been making the rounds of the blogosphere), there is a painfully unfunny observation column by Joel Stein called "My Own Private India." It's a comparison between the lilywhite Edison, NJ of his childhood and the much browner Edison of today. (According to the 2000 census, Edison has the highest concentration of Indian-Americans in the country at about 18%.)

I wanted to write a detailed post to explain what exactly makes me so uncomfortable about the piece but Sepia Mutiny beat me to it in a post that is as hilarious as Stein's article is cringe-worthy. My advice, seconded by SM, comes down to this: If you're going to toe the line between racism and comedy based on race, which is exactly what Stein is trying to do, then you have to have a point (or get a free pass by being a member of the ethnic group you're satirizing). That's what seems to be lacking in Stein's essay--no one on the web seems to be able to figure out why he would have written something like this except that the author thinks it's funny, which isn't enough when talking about race.

The only-touch-race-comically-if-there's-an-obvious-reason-to-do-it doctrine is something I came to understand after watching The Daily Princetonian, where I was a student journalist, get savaged over a "racist" parody article in the paper's annual joke issue (I wrote about the controversy for SAJAforum, the South Asian Journalists Association's blog). The staff of The Daily Princetonian were not racists, nor I'm assuming is Joel Stein, but that weirdly does not matter in the meta-conversation that consists of talking about how we talk about race.

Calling someone a racist immediately shortcircuits any argument just like drawing a comparison to the Holocaust. This concerns me because with few venom-spewing racists around anymore, the accusation of racism is constantly misapplied to thoughtful but critical commentary. For example, when I wrote for SAJAforum, my posts were sometimes on the receiving end of a kind of anti-racist posturing that also appears in the comments for the Sepia Mutiny post. Basically, whenever I wrote a piece that was vaguely critical of anything Indian, I got called a racist (never in so many words) and was blasted with a rhetorical broadside that proved in the comment writer's mind that India is the greatest country on earth and Hinduism is the greatest religion. A few readers corrected facts in my posts, which was helpful and appreciated, but the vast majority felt that facts were irrelevant as I was clearly a racist. I love India and I have strong ties to the Indian-American community (including marrying into it next year if all goes well), but that doesn't mean I think that India or Indian-Americans are above being subjected to thoughtful criticism. The same goes for the silly idea that Joel Stein is a monster because he wrote a tasteless piece. You can call him a hack but don't call him a racist. Reserve that epithet for people who deserve it.

And what is it about weekly newsmagazines and these controversies over identity? Remember Ramin Setoodeh, the gay Newsweek critic who claimed that gay actors can't play straight roles convincingly? I (and most right thinking people) think he's totally off-base, but when he was pilloried for his views, he was condemned nonsensically as a homophobe rather than as a rogue theatre critic who needs to recalibrate his aesthetic sensibilities. Worst of all, the article's untenable generalizations notwithstanding, Setoodeh raised legitimate issues about the difference in treatment of straight and gay male actors in leading roles, but these concerns were shouted down by the chorus of celebrities and commentators accusing a gay man of being homophobic.

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