How to Piss Off an Indian (Advice from an Indian-American Feminist)

7 Jun

For me, this recent HuffPo article really struck a nerve. Cleverly disguised as flattery, this article so effortlessly reduces Indian people to their “datability” and crushes a culture of 28 states, numerous faiths and hundreds of languages into one spiffy little assessment.

The author, Andrea Miller, who is married to an Indian man, mentions 7 things that she thinks any non-Indian who wants to date an Indian should know. Those 7 things might resonate in different ways with different Indian people. Some might agree, some might disagree, others might want to puke. I, personally, want to puke. Here’s why:

I hate being essentialised.

There I’ve said it. To be reduced to some part of my culture or heritage that’s superficially charming to someone outside it, is NOT fun. It does not make me feel good. It takes away the fullness of my life and reduces it to what YOU like about it.

I don’t care much about Miller’s list, or her assessments. I understand that they’re tongue-in-cheek. I understand nuance and the fact that she reduces Indian people to our quaint and charming social customs and exuberance for life, is supposed to be a lighthearted and loving how-to. (For a much more fun “how-to,” see here.)

The point is, however, that the very idea of a HOW TO in regards to dating, presumably, one person from such a diverse culture reeks of arrogance and privilege. Not all Indians love Bollywood, Bhangra or their families. Some Indian food is delicious, some is gross. Some of us are damn fine — others, bless their hearts, not so much.

And that’s where this article really makes me angry: all those references to the Kama-Sutra and snagging yourself a sexy, exotic Indian. This is not funny and it’s not flattering. It’s objectifying. I am an Indian woman and more times than I can count, people have touched me without permission, while commenting on my eyes, hair, or skin. They’ve commented on my presumed sexual expertise.  They have told me how they’ve always wanted to “have” an Indian. I have friends that have been violently assaulted by people saying these very things .

So while, the jokes about communicating with cabbies, and the quips about bhangra are pretty annoying, what is insidious about essentialism is the fact that it removes a person’s humanity. It makes them an object. As a crunk feminist, I know that objectification, whether it be in Hollywood, Bollywood, or a dumb HuffPo blog is actually DANGEROUS. It reduces people not only to their “databilty” but to their body parts in ways that actually lead to physical, mental and emotional harm. It’s not funny and it’s not cute.

It’s a political act, and it’s not a feminist one.

…..

Post Script, for a little levity:

Because Miller spends a lot of time discussing Bollywood, I can’t resist making one vehement statement about it myself. I have a complicated relationship with Bollywood. I personally love Shah Rukh Khan and as many of my dearest friends can attest, ALSO love Kal Penn. So, #*%$ you: HE DOES COUNT.

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16 Responses to “How to Piss Off an Indian (Advice from an Indian-American Feminist)”

  1. MB June 8, 2010 at 8:21 AM #

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am more and more disturbed by the trend in the media that amounts to “I know this is racist and because you know that I know it’s racist, I’m gonna say it and then we can all laugh because we both know that it’s racist!”

    The audacity to not even name her whiteness (or maybe I missed that) is so telling. She imagines her audience to be only other white people who would be interested in adding a little spice to their next relationship by picking up an Indian. It’s like people of color are exotic ingredients that add flavor to the bland meal of whiteness, “eating the other” as bell hooks would say…

    The more things change the more they stay the same. Sigh…

  2. Now if only the world would stop essentializing Black men.

  3. vero June 8, 2010 at 11:15 AM #

    “So while, the jokes about communicating with cabbies, and the quips about bhangra are pretty annoying, what is insidious about essentialism is the fact that it removes a person’s humanity.”

    YES! preach it, girl!

  4. eeshap June 8, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

    thanks for the support, MB and vero! we have a long way to go, indeed.

    yes, this is a big issue. it applies to men and women of color, as well as to queer folks. we are NOT your cultural experience!

  5. Asha June 8, 2010 at 5:00 PM #

    Thank you for this! I read the original post and I don’t know why I’m surprised at the writer’s audacity, but I am. So much idiocy gets excused in the name of poorly-written satire, but this wasn’t even funny. She even said “creatures” !!! WTF? So thank you for your post, which gives me beffer words than WTF.

    • eeshap June 10, 2010 at 2:36 PM #

      thanks Asha. i also cringed at the use of the word “creatures.” like we’re a different species or something…

      also, thanks for calling this out as poorly-written satire. i think you’re spot on. good satire can be really fun, interesting and challenging. but this is just racism and essentialism dressed up as satire!

  6. GingieBee June 15, 2010 at 1:24 PM #

    Say it loud and say it again!

  7. Gargoyle June 17, 2010 at 5:18 AM #

    Ummm… doesn’t Andrea Miller’s article just have the usual level of shallowness prevalent in any “how to”, “top ten tips” dating advice scenario? Every such article removes the individual from the equation and paints everyone with one, dumb brush. If you check out her website (yourtango.com), the overall idiocy of the features can make you cross-eyed. I would say this article is merely silly, rather than racist. The world is always going to have idiots mouthing off about things; all of it does not warrant this kind of serious interest.

    • Jay June 17, 2010 at 8:43 AM #

      P.S. – I forgot to add this link in response to your last point “The world is always going to have idiots mouthing off about things; all of it does not warrant this kind of serious interest.”

      See: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/
      (May I draw your attention to the introduction particularly with reference to how this operates horizontally)

      Also see: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/#moreimportantly

  8. Jay June 17, 2010 at 7:26 AM #

    I shared your post on Facebook and another East Indian sister (I’m East Indian too) made the following comment.

    “…Ummm… doesn’t Andrea Miller’s article just have the usual level of shallowness prevalent in any “how to”, “top ten tips” dating advice scenario? Every such article removes the individual from the equation and paints everyone with one, dumb brush. If you check out her website (yourtango.com), the overall idiocy of the features can make you cross-eyed. I would say this article is merely silly, rather than racist.”

    While I intend to respond from my perspective and maybe she’ll see that the response to her questions is quite literally in her question\comments I wanted to let you (and other commenters) decide if you wanted to respond as well.

  9. Jay June 17, 2010 at 7:52 AM #

    Oops! I just realized that she (Gargoyle) has already posted her comment, it’s just above mine. (Doh! Sorry about the repetition)

  10. Jay June 17, 2010 at 8:21 AM #

    @ Gargoyle
    We agree that shallowness and idiocy are the hallmarks of most how to, top ten or dating advice pieces. Let me see if I correctly understand the two primary points you are making.

    1. Silly and shallow actions/thoughts/words are separate from racist ones. They do not overlap. Consistent patterns of silliness cannot result in racist thoughts and actions, also racist attitudes cannot manifest in silly thoughts and actions.

    2. Painting a group of people with a broad brush is shallow and dumb but definitively not racist. A broad brush reduction of a group of people is something that is distinct and separate from racist or racialized thinking and attitudes. Broadbrushing a people is not informed by racist attitudes it is just dumb.

    To help me understand more fully would maybe you would help me with the following questions.

    1. When is something clearly racist versus clearly only silly? Can you illustrate how to make this distinction so I can understand the difference?

    2. When considering the question of whether something is or isn’t racist (never mind the extent to which it is or isn’t) are the following to be considered?
    a) Impact\Consequence – The intangible and tangible impact it has on members of the group
    b) Context – The historical, sociological and ideological context in which a particular action is carried out.
    c) Intent – The “conscious” intent of the person carrying out the action. If the person didn’t consciously and clearly think racist thoughts then would it automatically nullify Consequence and Context?

  11. eeshap June 17, 2010 at 8:48 AM #

    Thanks, Jay for your engagement and excellent response to Gargoyle’s question. And thanks Gargoyle for the question itself.

    I agree completely with the points that Jay raises about the uneasy distinction between silliness and racism. I would add one thing, about seriousness.

    Ultimately, I find very few things to be silly enough not to warrant serious interest. On this blog, we look at culture and politics with a critical lens. It may seem as though music videos, how-to dating blogs, t.v. shows etc. are not serious things, but here we demonstrate that they are. We show that, collectively, they comprise our culture.

    As I said in the post, not only are they serious because they fly under the radar so often, but they reinforce dangerous notions about certain types of people. And it takes only several such seemingly-silly ideas, to create a culture in which certain people are dehumanized and reduced to only one facet of their existence. Dismissing words as merely silly only reinforces the power of the speaker and allows their perspective to go unchecked.

    Given that, I won’t ever make any apologies for taking things seriously. It is my own approach to challenging power and refusing to be silenced or dismissed.

    • Jay June 17, 2010 at 10:37 AM #

      Thanks eeshap and FYI here is Gargoyle’s response on Facebook:
      ———————————
      “I did not say or imply that it was “definitively not racist”, Jayshree. I’m saying that *every* silly thing that’s said is not racist, even if it happens to be about race. It’s called perspective. I may see this as “silly rather than racist”, you may not. That does not make you right and me wrong, or vice versa. The world is not made up of neatly labelled cardboard cut-outs. So rational thought is more useful in reacting to it, though less conducive to rhetoric and grandstanding.”
      ———————————
      I have to run now. Have an appt. in 22 minutes so I’ll have to see how this is going later.

      • Jay June 17, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

        My response to Gargoyle’s comment:
        ———————————
        My entire response to your comment is situated in the context of this post on HuffPo and does not reference “silly things that are said” as a generic abstraction. I’ll rephrase part of my earlier question – Are you saying the silliness of the author of this piece cannot be rooted in racism and conversely that racist attitudes and ideology cannot inform the silliness of the piece?

        I didn’t constantly reference the HuffPo piece through all of my comment so I could keep it short. My assertions are specific to your comments about this particular sorry piece by whats-her-name.

        Your perspective is that the HuffPo piece is “merely silly rather than racist” and my perspective is that it is not a simple case of it can merely be this and not that. I’ve already illustrated why it isn’t simple and in my comment I’ve outlined the line of reasoning I applied to reach the conclusion I did.

        Repeating my earlier request – If you could give me an example that you think is rooted in racialized thinking and show me how the HuffPo piece when compared to it is clearly only silly and not racist I can better understand your rationale and perspective. I share your passion for rational thought and I also value nuance and the very messy gray areas where one has to make a judgment call. Stating the obvious – yes, my judgment call is different from yours. I’m explaining what informs my call and asking if you’ll do the same while I affirm your right to have a different perspective and make different calls.

        Coming back to the core of your comment where you make the general assertion that “All silliness is not racist even if it is about race” are you implying that this logic can be extended to conclude that the HuffPo piece is merely silly and not racist? That particular line of reasoning doesn’t square in my mind, which is why an example would help illustrate how you see it differently.

        It will be productive and nice to keep this exchange on topic, so I’m going to set aside everything in your comment beyond the first four sentences since those bits do not add anything to this discussion.

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