Monday, July 23, 2007

Black Like Me

Second-generation Indians in America have a strange relationship with the question of race, particularly that prominent sub-set of us who are the children of successful professionals. By and large, as our parents were doctors, professors, and engineers, who were educated, spoke English well and reasonably clearly, had a basic familiarity with Anglo-American values, we found ourselves acclimating reasonably well to our primarily white neighborhoods. There may have been ugly incidents in our youths, or related to us by our parents, but they lessened in frequency and severity as the years moved on, through the 80s and 90s - and I believe that much of the dislocation and discomfort that we experienced were byproducts of our immigrant experience, of our being foreign, and not necessarily of our being brown.

Culturally, Indian parents did not cultivate a strong racial identity growing up - the explicit identification as colored was and is rare as part of our learning. We were Indian, different, surely, but taught to self-identify more with achieving whites and immigrant children, and not with blacks, native Americans, or earlier generations of Asian and Latino colored immigrants who faced a legacy of racism in this country. Still, we acquired some race consciousness -- anecdotally, many young Indian males (myself included) tied themselves to hip-hip as teenagers, before that became the pervasive trend in suburbia, although that allegiance often faded into more mainstream rock as high school loomed. The identification of young Indian women with black and Latino culture is more pronounced, surviving well through college and into their twenties. From where the shared sense of experience comes from is often hard to tell - there is rarely a deep personal history of affront, but rather, the identification is empathetic.

In any case, you find that, for large portions of the Indian American population, the sense of being racially or culturally "oppressed" in America is not prominent, and is as often theoretically or empathetically derived than from actual experience. I make this assertion from personal experience, casual observation, and some probably unfair speculation and generalization. I don't mean to that exclusion or affronts on racial or cultural bases to Indians don't exist in America. Certainly, they do. Rather, I make this case as a backdrop to brief comments on two very different articles.

RM sent me this article from the Guardian, asking for comment. The article protests the "Apu/QuikiMart" co-marketing campaign launched by the 7-11 convenience store chain and The Simpsons movie. My initial take was that it was not worth my time, but the concluding lines of the argument got me thinking. Specifically, the author writes:
Racism or no, desi and non-desi franchisees alike seem delighted with the sales bump from the promotion. But one wrote of his outrage in a forum for 7-Eleven franchisees:
This is an absolute embarrassment for our company... The vast majority of franchisees are immigrants... [A]ccepting our portrayal of Apu is nothing less [than] accepting the images portrayed years ago in the US of black people with very black faces, big lips and white teeth... [T]hat image is considered racist, so does Apu [seem] to me... I cannot imagine any store willing to rebrand to Kwik-E-Mart even for a day... I am not proud to be part of this promotion.

Like the minstrel shows he refers to, other corporate mascots also began as caricatures of American slaves. Pancake mascot Aunt Jemima and rice maven Uncle Ben survived only after being softened and morphed into avuncular friends. Apu too has been grandfathered into America's affections after 19 years on television. But as Slate wrote, "It's worth remembering what these spokescharacters truly are: a final, living vestige of Jim Crow America." Today, we expect American companies to promote racial tolerance. Yet like an outbreak of a long-dormant virus, 7-Eleven is spending millions of dollars to push a crude ethnic stereotype well past its sell-by date. It's tin-eared and unconscionable. The company should cancel Apu and issue an apology
What strikes me about this, and tying back into my prelude, is the hollowness of comparing the racism that may exist in a caricature of an immigrant convenience store owner with the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. They are simply not on par, and while Indian Americans should fully defend their image in the public eye, making hyperbolic and irrelevant comparisons like this undermines our ability to engage in the American dialogue about race. And, speaking more from the American side of the hyphen of my Indian-American legacy, the Apu characterization is low in the priorities of this country's necessary racial dialogues. Unfortunately, I think articles like the one above stem from a lack of real understanding by Indian-American as to what the real legacy of racism in this country is, and an over-eagerness to lay claim to identity that is not all that abridged.

All that said, I do think there is a role for Indian Americans in the American dialogue about race, both narrowly discussing our own immigrant experience as brown people, as well as confronting the larger questions and legacies of the country -- and Mira Nair's 1991 movie, Mississippi Masala is an excellent example.

Having written a lot of words on a subject that I am actually not all that impassioned about, let me turn to a recent New York Times article that left me confused and disappointed. Sunday's profile of Rudy Giuliani's tenure as Mayor, and his lack of success in understanding and managing race relations in the city was a document of the dysfunction and collapse of racial dialogue in this country. And it was not Giuliani's failings, which were many, that were appalling. Rather, the baffling Times' editorial comment that Giuliani,
[...] more than any other Republican running for president, Mr. Giuliani has confronted the question of race, that most torturous of American legacies.
calls into question how warped our prevailing understanding of exactly what is the race question and how should it be addressed. By the article's own reporting, during his tenure Giuliani refused to meet with black leaders, made little effort to engage the black community, wrote off blacks as a electoral constituency, and engaged in behavior that was, at best, racially insensitive, and at worst, inflammatory. But because Giuliani's is brash and has cultivated a tough image, this is acceptable. Somehow, confrontational about a problem in the context of race has come to mean the same thing as confronting a problem. While the course of our culture is naturally changing our understanding of race, and perhaps abating some of the negative historical legacies, a shift in political sensibility where concerns of racial minorities is something to be shouted down, not addressed, makes no sense. Just because the problem hasn't been solved doesn't mean its gone away.

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