Monday, July 19, 2010

say things like, "aren't indian women beautiful?"

This is a guest post by Epi Tales, who writes at a blog of the same name, where this post also appears. She writes of herself, "I can’t stop reading. I hate life unless I'm being propelled through the pages of a book in parallel to my 'real' life. As a kid, I read Harriet the Spy, and I was infatuated with the idea of writing. Constantly. Insatiably."

After all the internet hoopla following Joel Stein's "My Own Private India", I am more confused than ever about the racism I experience. The silver lining is wittiness, specifically Kal Penn's now-famous, incredibly sarcastic retort published on the Huffington Post.

Hold on, I’ve got some nostalgia, bear with me: all these mentions of Edison, NJ engender some serious gastronomical and linguistic longing. Walking into restaurants or sweet shops with my then-fiance, I was never addressed in English, only Hindi. It never felt presumptuous, rather inclusive, with the undertone of “I know you know this” and “we share something, whatever part of India you’re from”. Isn’t there some comfort in that?

Now I’m walking around Seattle, which is white enough to find an Indian interesting, yet cosmopolitan enough not to call me a dothead (I think this term is out of vogue anyway). Instead, I find hilarious, yet racist, moments. Last weekend, my mother and father-in-law were browsing jewelry in a booth at the Freemont fair. A kindly older man looks up and says, “Do you speak Hindi?” to which I answer, “yes”. He tries out a few phrases on us, and his accent is respectable. He tells us about his time in India. I groan inwardly -- why is it that every non-Indian male who starts a conversation with me seems to have an insatiable urge to tell me about that one time they were in India? Or how they know Ravi Shankar? Or how I must eat ‘such spicy food’? Yes, one billion of us possess miraculous abilities to eat food spicier than anything you could comprehend. And we’re uniformly spiritually advanced yogis too. Then they want to go to India. And close the conversation by saying how I’m beautiful because I’m Indian. Oh, and throw in an Aishwarya Rai reference, as well as the one Bollywood flick they’ve ever seen.

I’m still rolling my eyes when we leave the dry shelter of the jewelry booth, pressing forward in the now-familiar Seattle drizzle. A curly brown-haired young hippie-looking guy, holding a guitar, loudly addresses us in Hindi, “NAMASTE! Sabkooh sapna hai” except that we could not understand his Hindi, due to his accent. We turn towards him, confused.

“I think he said, ‘sabkooch samne hai’ [everything is in front of you]”, I ventured, to my MIL.

“Wait, really? Not ‘sabkooch apna hai’ [everything is mine],” she responded. Apparently exhausted with our own conjecture, we turn back to the hippie-looking, guitar-holding guy, and ask, “wait, what did you say?”

“Do you guys speak Hindi?” Whoa. There’s that line again. Is this how Seattle-ites greet strangers?

“Yes, of course. What were you saying?”

“Everything is a dream,” he responded. Oh goodness, I thought to myself, he’s starting to flirt, and I am standing here with my in-laws. Who hits on someone with her parents watching? (And, for the record, I wear a wedding ring on my left hand). Polite banter followed about -- guess what -- Ravi Shankar. Eager to end this rain-soaked insipidity, my MIL and I turn to leave. He then turns conspiratorially to my FIL and comments, “aren’t Indian women beautiful?” Really? This dialog actually took place out of a comic strip?

More comedy: at my office, anytime someone speaking to me refers to a project in India or Indian food, they gesture towards me.

While I’m grateful that these anecdotes are neither traumatic nor hate driven, they constitute racism in that I am viewed first and foremost as my race. Similar to how dripping water can wear away rock, or how well-being erodes when faced with verbal abuse (just ask the French government), these small barbs injure a sense of individuality and belonging over time. Place the idea of complete assimilation in this context, and it quickly becomes obvious that integration cannot happen without an accepting environment.

Looking back at the ill-placed Time piece, I can’t quite get angry at Joel Stein even though his piece does an astoundingly good job at missing the point. He opens with “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.” (italics added) where he explicitly condemns a particular branch of immigrants. He then insults them, saying:

In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Then he admits that Indians have helped his precious hometown survive economically.

Stein continues to demonstrate his complete ignorance, blessed as he may be with his titular “own private India”, by saying that one billion Indians are “familiar … [with] instruct[ing] stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.” If you ask the vast majority of Indians about routers, they might stare at you blank-faced. India is not all Bangalore and high-tech. Still though, reading about Stein’s sense of dislocation when his “town is totally unfamiliar to me [him]” draws real sympathy, even from a member of the group he feels so threatened by -- but isn’t this the reason for all the aphorisms about change? And isn’t this perceived threat the most neatly circumscribed definition of xenophobia? And this is precisely why the scars of immigration remain, even two generations later. But this comes full circle: this is also what Stein and these immigrants share, in addition to the more tangible, crowded space of Edison, NJ.

Calling Stein’s perspective or my experiences offensive isn’t the right word -- nothing that’s outlined here is blatantly mean-spirited, just severely misguided. To my boys, the idea that any generalization can be made about Indian women, i.e., half of a billion people, is indescribably ludicrous. And Stein: nice blinders -- are they hip right now? Because so is the other side of the story.


  1. THIS is a smack down of epic proportions. Love it.

  2. Love those folks' generalizations. Yes, India is a big monolithic bloc with one culture, one language, and one ethnicity, lulz.

  3. @Kraas re: "Yes, India is a big monolithic bloc with one culture, one language, and one ethnicity, lulz."

    This isn't really unexpected, though, right? It is characteristic of any in-group to notice distinctions between in-group members but to lump out-group members together, in appearance, belief, behavior, or what have you. That's why it is a genuine experience of WP that all [fill in the blank] look alike (and I imagine that the reverse is true as well when WP are the out group). The problem is that we WP don't think there's anything wrong with that, even in a society that bills itself as multicultural, as accepting of all on an equal footing. And we ignore the very serious consequences of this tendency, such as misidentifying criminal suspects due to our inability to discern differences between members of another racial group.

  4. @bloglogger

    That's why it is a genuine experience of WP that all [fill in the blank] look alike (and I imagine that the reverse is true as well when WP are the out group). The problem is that we WP don't think there's anything wrong with that, even in a society that bills itself as multicultural, as accepting of all on an equal footing.

    WP tend to assume that their tendency to be blind to differences in out groups (different races, ethnicities) is a universal human tendency. It is not. It is a power dynamic.

    It IS a universal tendency in dominant groups to not bother to distinguish between individual members of subordinate groups. Why make distinctions when you don't HAVE to?

    For the rest of us, our very survival often depends on being able to recognize which members of the dominant group are which (e.g. which WP can be trusted and which must be avoided, which need to be catered to, which ones offer no threat at all...) Not to mention POC are forced fed the minutiae of white culture on a daily basis, so we get to know WP better and make distinctions more easily whether we "wish" to or not.

    But whenever a subordinate group is forced into regular interaction with the dominant group, the subordinate group ignores distinctions among members of the dominant group at its own peril.

  5. No, not unexpected :( It still bugs me, though.

  6. You beat me to it, Jane Laplain, and said it far better than I could have. The power dynamic/hieracrchy is crucial there.

    This post hits on something I've noticed about a common white male attitude toward Indian women. Right, it's so often "they're so beautiful!", in a way that's different from how they often speak of the (stereotypical) desirability of other "Asian" women. I remember one white guy (a real horndog, actually, a man-whore) who was dying to go to India. "I hear the women there are so beautiful!" he said, of course. "But, I also hear that you rarely see them. They stay inside a lot, out of sight." This latter, rather preposterous idea seemed to make Indian women even more exciting for him. Ugh.

  7. @Jane Laplain re: "WP tend to assume that their tendency to be blind to differences in out groups (different races, ethnicities) is a universal human tendency. It is not. It is a power dynamic."

    Yes, thank you. White people are never a real out group in US society in terms of being subordinate in the power structure. Actually, I can't think of a place where white people are an out group in a society where the in group doesn't have to be aware of distinctions between white people. I was imagining places where there is an expat white community, but due to the history of imperialism, even they are not typically at a power disadvantage vis-a-vis the majority.

  8. sam, the flying arabJuly 19, 2010 at 6:59 PM

    I'm not Desi myself (Arab, actually -- but Americans seem to think they're the same thing?), but so many of the things you touched on ring true for me. I grew up in a town that had a steadily growing high-tech presence that coincided with an influx of immigrants from India, Pakistan, & Bangladesh. These were highly educated people, and the kids I went to school with (mostly first- and second-generation) were generally excellent students, but ranked low on the social-status pecking order. The racism was INCREDIBLE. Back then (and by "back then" I'm talking 2008 -- when I graduated HS -- and earlier) no one thought Indian women were beautiful. Indian people had accents that were totally hiLARious to make fun of, too much body hair, and, most of all, they smelled like curry. I can't tell you how many times I've heard WP go on and on about how "Indians smell." I remember being deeply troubled and embarrassed by it as a young teenager -- not particularly because I felt solidarity with Desi youth, but because Arabs and Indians were so often perceived to be the same thing and guess what? I didn't want to be one of the smelly people. I used to think up all sorts of ways I was "different" or "superior;" for instance, my father and I attended a mosque in which the majority of the worshipers were wealthy (or wealthier than the daughter of a high-school educated immigrant, anyway) Desi professional-types, and we took solace in the fact that though we had the lone chevy in a sea of mercedez-benz, at least we could recite the Quran in proper Arabic. I remember wrinkling my nose in annoyance whenever I heard an Urdu accent over the PA system. And this all while I had some very dear Desi friends.

    This is quite a tangent, but I guess I mean to say that the whole fetishizing-whilst-pretending-to-respect-Desi-culture thing is new to me, because most of what I've experienced is pure vitriol and degradation. Even in my super-liberal college bubble, I still hear complaints about our Indian professor's mysteriously difficult-to-understand accent (and I say mysterious because you know what she teaches? WOMEN'S ENGLISH LITERATURE). I still hear whitesplanations like "I would date an Indian guy if I met any that were attractive or didn't try to act black." Hell, people still get Arabs confused with Desi people ("wait...they don't speak Arabic in India?") -- but personally, I'm dealing with that a little better than I used to. All in all, I wonder if the general attitude about this stuff depends on where one is, particularly in the US? Or perhaps it's really all in the fad -- "it's so hip to like Indian women right now," or, "dothead! isn't that so funny?"

  9. I hate that "[nationality] women are so beautiful!" shit. I am a Hispanic girl and I swear, it's embarrassing to hear stuff like that. A teacher of mine once said "Hispanic people are so pretty! If you go up north, you'll see that all the white people are so pasty." I also just read this on a forum: "My teacher, Ms. Garcia, had the perfect Latina body." Ugh, and let's not even get started on the "Latin Lover" stereotype. No, I don't find it flattering. I find it creepy, stereotypical, and annoying.

    Reading that "How to date an Indian" article, I almost thought "This must be a parody. Nobody would be so clueless as to actually write something like this." I was unfortunately wrong. :/

  10. Jane Laplain said...
    “For the rest of us, our very survival often depends on being able to recognize which members of the dominant group are which (e.g. which WP can be trusted and which must be avoided, which need to be catered to, which ones offer no threat at all...) Not to mention POC are forced fed the minutiae of white culture on a daily basis, so we get to know WP better and make distinctions more easily whether we "wish" to or not.

    But whenever a subordinate group is forced into regular interaction with the dominant group, the subordinate group ignores distinctions among members of the dominant group at its own peril.”

    I agree one-hundred percent.
    If a white man shows up in my neighborhood (and I’ve seen a few in my time) to pitch a home improvement loan to me, or security system or aluminum siding- roof or windows; I know better than to trust the man behind the smile. I have been burned by white men more times then I want to remember- and each and every one of them wants you to believe ‘he is your best friend’ and is only looking out for ‘your’ interests. I’ve learned to stay away from white used car salesmen who go by the name “Honest John.”

    Ostensibly a white man’s actions do not have to match up with his words. He can lie in your face and still sleep peacefully at night for deception is simply part of the game- “defrauding people?” simply the cost of doing business. Non-whites therefore learn to view any white man they encounter with a generous amount of cynicism unless proved otherwise. We non-whites make it a practice to observe- watch and read whites because our very livelihood could depend on it.

    To show just how saturated our lives are within a white dominated world simply take your remote control and start from the lowest position on your television set (for those with cable) and count how many non-white faces you come across during the course of your journey. Flip through any mainstream magazine or your local newspaper and see how many stories/articles cater to non-white interests. Pay particular attention to the movie/entertainment section and again count the non-white images/stories.

    Consequently, a network news head might decide for a certain piece he’s going to need an ‘angry black man’ to counter-balance a calm and rational white pundit. “Better get Al Sharpton on the phone.” Alternatively a white casting director might decide she’ll need a ‘sassy black negress’ preferably heavy-set, to act as foil to the white male protagonist. We are relevant only when whites decide that we are; and only when we non-whites fit into those narrow definitions/labels whites have set aside for us.

  11. M. Gibson; You're so right about the W domination of media. This is something that I as a WP reflect on a lot. It seems to me that those who create the films and TV shows like to use other cultures and people from other cultures-as well as American Black culture especially-like a kind of 'condiment' or seasoning.

    Show getting a little stale and dull? Bring in a jivey BP to energize things a bit(but not TOO much). It can even be animated-like 'Shrek'. WP tend to find this sort of thing comforting for some reason, I've noticed. Maybe it's a safe, contained, manageable venue for them/us/me to get our mmeasured dose of Funk.

    But then there are shows that seem to really just sort of 'glory in' Whiteness; like all this 'Twilight' vampire-y stuff, right? There are no POC's on that, are there(I never watch), no Indians, no brown skin...

    It's just all about sleek, pristine, ULTRA white chicks.

  12. Whites say things like that about women from other white ethnic groups too -- I've heard many many white men and women comment on the beauty/handsomeness of the French, the Germans, the Russians, etc. Pretty much everyone except the English... we're stereotyped as being fat and ugly with crooked teeth and overly pasty or ruddy skin. Not fun.

    We also have a bad habit of lumping entire continents together. Europeans talk about Americans/Canadians as if they are one homogeneous people, North American whites talk about Europe the same way, and as everyone here knows, both Europeans and North Americans have a bad habit of discussing Africa or Asia the same way, as if these entire continents contain only one ethnicity, language, and/or culture.

  13. Im an Australian living in Europe and the MINUTE people find out Im not German, i get the inevitable, oh my cousin lives in Melbourne, oh, i travelled through Ox in 1985, oh, did you hear about the Australian shop in blahblahblah...And at work, yeah if there is anything Oz related, I am ALWAYS mentioned, or asked for info, resources etc. Does this bother me? no...I mean, thats the way it is right? Then I thought about the power dynamic, and i guess i realise that i dont give a shit if people think im german, irish, english, whatever. Why, because i have never come into a situation where its a problem if i AM any of these things, im always welcome, my life is rosy, and if im an Australian lving in Europe, it only adds to my worth, cause we are like, you know fun, and laid back, good at sport, happy go lucky...

  14. I read this post to a (white male) friend of mine who had just come back from serving with the Peace Corps in an indigenous community. He pointed out that when he was there, he was constantly bombarded with questions about the U.S. and stereotypes about being the tall white guy. This didn't bother him, and he didn't see why this post's author should be offended by people "asking if she spoke Hindi." When I pointed out that he was a visitor to that country, being treated like an outsider, he countered with the fact he wasn't there on vacation but lived as a member of the community for 2 years. I felt unsettled by his easy comparison between his experience and the experience of the poster, but couldn't put a finger on it, but I knew it had something to do with power dynamics and his privilege to not be bothered/fearful of/harmed by/disadvantaged the questioners.

  15. There's a difference between the stereotypes people have about people from other countries, and racism, right? As a white North American living in Europe I encountered the same type of ignorance that Ozzie describes, aka people assuming things about me based on stereotypes: namely - I am an American woman so I must be easy/slutty/inconsiderate/ignorant about the world. These are annoying misconceptions to have to deal with, but I don't think it can be placed in the same bag as what the OP is describing. (namely: racism)

    I am a white woman. I am guilty of thinking to myself when I see an Indian woman on the street, "She is so beautiful." And along with this I usually have some sort of feelings of envy for her "culture". I know there is a lot wrong with this. I'm trying to work it out, and I'm sharing it in hopes that it might help other white people who do/think this way to work on their own racism. First there is the mistaken assumption that because a woman looks Indian that she IS or identifies as Indian, not North American. I have come to realize that I make racist assumptions about peoples' cultural affiliations based on their appearance. This is wrong. Along with these cultural assumptions comes a sort of envy, like "I wish I belonged to a culture that is xyz [insert what are probably incorrect assumptions based on stereotypes here]". I think these feelings involve the messed up subconscious perception that there is no such thing as White culture. I feel culture-less. But I'm learning that this is because my culture is the dominant culture. Feeling envious of non-white people and their "culture" or their "beauty" is just another aspect of my privilege working its way into how I perceive the world, and the end result is that I am not seeing people as people. Until I catch my thought processes and say "what the hell, racist thoughts" and start trying to work this all out.

  16. I agree with what Jane Laplain and with others that have said Whites inability to distinguish between members of other races is a function of white supremacy. For example. Black Americans have a huge diversity of physical characteristics. Blacks are a blend of west Africans, western Europeans, and Native Americans. We have a ridiculous number of ethnic groups in our ancestry. Not only do we have different facial features, body shapes, height, & weight but we are all different skin colors and skin is the largest organ on the body! White people may have different eye colors but you can't see someone's eye color from across the street. Yet you can see skin color from farther than that. Yet white people swear all black people look a like and they can't tell us apart. *rolls eyes*

    White people can't even tell the difference between the religious attire of a Sikh and a Muslim. Even I can see that and I don't belong to either of those religions.

  17. @ foodforthought

    the problem with his statement is that being treated like a foreigner, when you are a foreigner/visitor/missionary is not the same as being treated like a foreigner when you are in your own freaking country, for him to equate the two is very dismissive of the suffering of Americans who are just trying to live their life without being harassed and systematically discriminated against in the housing/job market/judicial system. He has the money and power to leave whenever he feels like.

  18. @Ozzie - I think you hit the nail on the head with respect to my unease with my friend's analogy between his experience being stereotyped as a white american male and the poster's experience being stereotyped as a female POC. Thanks, and thanks to Macon for this awesome forum!

  19. @modest-goddess - Yes, I think you're right. There's a world of difference between being in your own country vs. being in another country and being treated as an out group. Thank you.

  20. I AM happy to hear the guitar-dweeb asked if you spoke hindi or not. Not every Indian does, even northerners.

    However, the rest is laughably lame. I usually get sick to my arse when (usually women) gush about how gorgeous and lovely saris/SKs/bridal ensembles are. What's even worse is when they conflate all things Indian with that ONE bollywood movie they saw (probably Marigold) and presume all desis are Hindu Indian Hindi speakers. They tend to shift nervously if confronted with a sikh.

  21. A question: I have read the term Desi (I think I've sometimes seen Desai?) in a variety of places and know it refers to people from India, but I'm not sure how to pronounce it and whether I as a non-Indian White person should try to use it and, also, am not sure exactly to whom it applies. All people in and from India? Overseas Indians? Indian Americans?

  22. "I wish I belonged to a culture that is xyz [insert what are probably incorrect assumptions based on stereotypes here]". I think these feelings involve the messed up subconscious perception that there is no such thing as White culture. I feel culture-less. But I'm learning that this is because my culture is the dominant culture.

    The wish to acquire what other peoples have for oneself, that IS white culture. The problem is as soon as white culture acquires the thing they wanted from the other culture, they get "amnesia" about where they first got it from. Inevitably white culture gets bored and goes hunting for the next culture to admire/exploit/plunder.

    Whiteness is NEVER satisfied with what it has. It must always have "better" and "more" in relation to others, and it must jealously guard what it acquires from others which it deemed "better" and "more." Feeling deprived, bored and envious is the engine of white culture.

    Mind you I say Whiteness wants this, not individual white people want this. But WP are influenced by Whiteness and this power-over dynamic informs their individual beliefs and actions in telling ways.

  23. @Jane Laplain

    Thanks for pointing this out.

  24. I think I see why people often co-relate and confuse political correctness and manners, or the lack thereof, with racism. There are social norms for how we are supposed to behave and treat each other from intimate family to strangers.

    Racism allows whole groups of people to only apply social rules to their own group and "permission" to break those rules in regards to strangers.

    And if you're a part of the privileged group, then it's now perfectly ok to walk up to another person and start quizzing her about her attire or hairstyle, even thought everyone knows it's patently rude to do so. Or to assume that because someone "looks" a certain way, it's perfectly fine to walk up to them and start speaking in another language than English when you're standing in America.

    I don't mean this lightly, but every day acts of racism are like the ultimate in rude behavior. The problem is when people merely write off that "rudeness" as mere impoliteness when it's the epitome of rudeness - dismissing another's humanity and reducing them to being less than how you would regard yourself.

    Which is part & parcel of the definition of racism.

  25. olderwoman: I'm not Desi, and I've never really gotten a clear idea of whether a white person using the term would be inappropriate. My general feeling is that it's fine--but there are a billion people in India, and so there are probably some somewhere that would object to it. To say it, rhyme with "messy" but a slightly softer S. (Desai is a common Indian surname, not related.)

    Epi Tales: Good post, that got me thinking. I try not to be the douchebag who approaches Indian people and tries to impress them with all I know about India. But I wonder if too many white people try too hard not to be that douchebag, and so don't get to know the people they meet.

    In India, on the other hand, people have no difficulty asking prying questions of Americans. It's natural to notice, and unnatural to pretend you don't notice. So I think your point about the gesture may not be as comedic as you think. If I mention something about Indian food, and there's an Indian person in the room, I don't want to pretend they aren't the experts in the conversation.

  26. If I mention something about Indian food, and there's an Indian person in the room, I don't want to pretend they aren't the experts in the conversation.

    Yeaaaah, but on the other hand, there's no good reason to assume that just because they're Indian, that means they ARE the experts in the conversation.

    (Not that you're necessarily saying that there is a good reason to assume that. Just a point of clarification.)

  27. "Mind you I say Whiteness wants this, not individual white people want this."

    Yes WP have a history of forceful acquisition and all the rest, and so we carry that around with us as whiteness. But I think the modern culture envy expressed by WP comes as a result of our own dominance. We have no call to think of ourselves as even having our own culture because we have never been singled out because of it.

    And even if that's not the case. Culture envy is something WP actively participate in as people as a by-product of being white. I think it's because we just aren't aware of our own culture. Maybe our dominance of other groups has created an empty space where cultural identity and pride are supposed to reside in people, But I wouldn't know.

  28. @jas0nburns

    I think it's because we just aren't aware of our own culture. Maybe our dominance of other groups has created an empty space where cultural identity and pride are supposed to reside in people, But I wouldn't know.

    Jason, Dominance IS your culture. Being isolated and thus clueless about the other cultures that just "happen" to be subordinate to yours IS your culture. You cannot escape the concept of dominance as fundamental to WHITE culture. We don't call this "=White Supremacy for nothing.

    Couldn't it be that this cluelessness and feeling of emptiness about white culture white people feel is due to the fact that looking at yourselves exactly the way I described above is much too threatening? It's much easier to feel "lost" or "clueless" or "culture-less" in relation to everybody else, than it is to feel RESPONSIBLE for the active oppression of everybody else.

    White doesn't just "happen" to be dominant. In terms of Race, White MEANS dominant. White Supremacy isn't the "byproduct" of Racial Dominance it **IS** Racial Dominance. Dominance by the very culture who created the concept of Race in the first place and then billed themselves as the Master Race, maintaining this status by force ever since.

    Now if by White Culture you mean the various European traditions and sense of ethnic groundedness in one's "homeland" I imagine this was lost after the Race Concept was created. I imagine you lose feeling like you belong somewhere once you have the power to be everywhere. There is no way to be White AND racially innocuous or neutral. Feeling "white" and feeling "culture-less" is a disassociation from REALITY.

  29. @ jane

    That's kind of what I was trying to say but obviously I can't say it as well.

    Your right about what white culture is of course. Except, I was thinking the feelings of culturelessness and responsibility aren't mutually exclusive. I can be aware of my whiteness, know that it is in fact my culture, and take responsibility for it 100% because i know my privilege obligates me to do that.

    But none of that actually serves the purpose of cultural identity which is supposed to make you feel like you belong to something positive. So WP will always still FEEL culture-less even if we KNOW we are not.

    This isn't like, a complaint or anything btw. That would be gross. Clearly we've made our own bed.

  30. It's fascinating to me that when people say "women from this ethnicity/nationality are beautiful" I find it difficult to distinguish as to whether this is sincere appreciation of beauty or an issue of type of fetish.

    As for that "How do date an Indian" article. It's another one of those examples where thinks they're being flattering, but ends spewing BS. I mean "Indian men are social creatures?" WTF? Also, I'm sure not all Indian men like Bollywood.

  31. @jas0nburns

    But none of that actually serves the purpose of cultural identity which is supposed to make you feel like you belong to something positive. So WP will always still FEEL culture-less even if we KNOW we are not.

    I'd like to think that if WP were collectively willing to give up the power and control they've come to depend on as a substitute for identity, that would be enormously positive.

    But that would take convincing yourselves that whiteness really is harmful to self and others, that the things you have were not earned fairly and squarely, but seized and coerced from others. That you really aren't the norm, the center, the Gold Standard of human civilization. That's a tough sell when beliving the exact opposite of all that must feel damn good, on some level anyway.

    Many (most?) white people I've encountered who are otherwise angered by racism and what it does, basically want to know how to still be White, but without hurting anybody. They don't wish to oppress but they don't wish to fundamentally change anything about their lives. They don't wish to challenge their racist relatives. They don't wish to modify consumption habits that exploit immigrant communities or sweatshop labor overseas. They don't wish to move away from their all white neighborhoods and all white towns. They don't wish to stay in these locations once non-white peoople start moving in ("nothing personal, but property value is going down, can't afford to keep the investment... etc..) They don't wish to deprive their children of privileges. Amd whenever they occasionally have children with POC, they rarely prioritize their own relationships with the POC relatives of their own non-white children. Even if all of those things are directly responsible for the oppression they feel so badly about.

    I think WP could CREATE that something positive to belong to if they so wished. But they would have to surrender white privilege to do it. Not happening.

  32. It strange how whites segregate themselves into groups- factions and neighborhoods and yet feel they don’t have a culture. You’re over-represented at NASCAR- Gun shows and Sci-Fi events, yet you don’t have a culture? You’re overly represented on the Nashville Network, The Military Channel and almost every other channel and yet no culture? You participate in Civil war reenactments and westernized medieval jousting tournaments; you frequent/operate Dude Ranches and Nudist communities for pleasure and recreation.

    You participate in all-white boating events sequestered on private lakes surrounded by mountains- reveling in your freedoms and privilege, yet you’re convinced you have no culture. Annually you engage in drinking/fighting festivities at the Preakness sharing a commonality of sorts; now certainly that has something to do with culture. You ski for God's sake! You're Goths and Vampires, Hipsters and Surfer Dudes- Geeks and Online Gamers. Yeah, I think you have a culture.

    The most segregated hour in America is still 11:00 am on Sunday morning, and I’m convinced culture has something to do with that. Whiteness is very much a culture having ‘its own unique traits and characteristics’ which seem to appeal to a mostly white populace. Even when Allegations of Egregious Misconduct come to light, ‘culture’ is definitely a part of those clandestine activities.

    Separated in part by intense bigotry, these like-minded individuals are proud of their race and traditions. They bond through activities, sharing a common heritage and belief; convinced of their own superiority. Immersed in a ‘common culture’ without any outside interference.

  33. " NASCAR- Gun shows and Sci-Fi events, the Nashville Network, The Military Channel ,Civil war reenactments and westernized medieval jousting tournaments; Dude Ranches and Nudist communities, Goths and Vampires, Hipsters and Surfer Dudes- Geeks and Online Gamers.

    lol that's white culture? kill me now.

    don't forget about this...

  34. Sir Vidia's BladderJuly 20, 2010 at 5:31 PM

    Hi all, first (and probably last time) commenter who has been annoyed by this seemingly innocuous behavior since childhood. I am of Indian and White parentage.

    My most recent, slightly disturbing experience involved my roommate's girlfriend, who dropped out of grad school and moved in with us (they've since moved out). I tolerated her presence, even though she was a bit of an entitled slob, and I got the feeling that even though she had sufficient booklearnin', there were certain things she didn't get.

    One night, my roommate, the gf, and I are chatting. Out of nowhere, the girlfriend announces that Hindu temples smell bad because milk is poured on idols and never cleaned up. I don't get offended, as I am well aware of how bad things in India can smell (I don't relate to the comment though, as I've been to tons of temples, and never been floored by the stench of rotting dairy); I simply wait for her to stop, as the comment was apropos to nothing, and doesn't appear to be leading anywhere.

    She gives us both a grave look, and says, "The caste system is fucked up." I am amazed that I am getting educated about the caste system, as someone whose family has been rent asunder by caste prejudice. I tell her that I identify as a Hindu (this changes from week to week), and she asks "really?" and pauses for a bit.

    But it's not over. She says, "I bet I've spent more time in India than you." I think she had a yearlong Rotary scholarship there, but apparently she wasn't aware that I have visited 8 times and lived there for a year when I was 7. I make this information clear. "Oh." This would be a good opportunity to retire with a modicum of grace, but no. "Well, a lot of Indians don't care about India, and don't seem to know about it." I have to explain to her that though my heritage is important to me, I'm under no obligation to watch Bollywood movies nonstop, cook curry, and wear slacks with sneakers. The funny thing is, she had tried out Hindi lines on me before, but not in the context of, "Do you mind if I speak Hindi with you?"––precisely, once, she said, "Hey, or I should say, Ap kaise hain?" (Ironically, my father's family speaks one of the many Indian languages that is not Hindi, and I had to learn it as a labor of love in college.)

    Then she asks if I am familiar with the tiny town where she lived, and I say "Yes," even though it's the equivalent of asking an expert on America "Do you know Hockessin, DE?" I could tell that she was waiting with bated breath for me to say no.

    I'm waiting for her to just go to bed. I've already tried to explain (to no avail) several things, among them the concept of "privilege" and the logical notion of "negative evidence" (Just because I don't speak Hindi doesn't mean that I can't speak it). And then, in typical unwitting racist form, she makes it all about her! She goes into some anecdote about how she went to a place in North India (where sexual harassment of white women is notorious) and was propositioned constantly. Resisting the urge to say what bad taste the men of that city have, I cluck sympathetically. And then she's gone, this being her Parthian shot.

    This is one experience, but it fits into a trend of "Culture: Use it or lose it." It is a disturbing thought that you can "forfeit" your culture if you don't outwardly steep yourself in it––even if you know virtually everything about it but just don't feel the need to broadcast it (cont).

  35. Sir Vidia's BladderJuly 20, 2010 at 5:31 PM

    My experiences with this "enlightened" yet benighted stereotyping were innocuous, but I can imagine the harm that could be done by an idiot who's read a couple of sentences in a book, and thus feels entitled to talk about Africa, or Native American affairs. I guess it boils down to the most basic plea regarding cultural appropriation: Enjoy my culture, learn about it––you can even make it your own (truer for some cultures more than others), as long as you don't try to take it away from me! I assume I'm preaching to the choir.

  36. jas0nburns said...
    lol that's white culture?
    kill me now.
    Don't forget about this...

    Oh my...
    No... Kill me now!
    Nice link

    What I meant was..those events draw a mostly white demographic, so culture has to figure in there somewhere. They're not just hobbies..

  37. @Jane and M. Gibson:

    Of course whites have a culture -- many cultures, in fact -- but I think there's more to it than that.

    One reason why I personally feel removed from my culture is that I was born in a different country. I was born in North America, my parents are from Europe. I'm sure all children of immigrants will understand when I say that I do not fully belong to either culture. This is not uncommon among whites, since many feel linked to one or more European countries even after they have been in North America for several generations.

    In Europe, despite the tremendous white cultural diversity, many whites have been taught since childhood that any culture that does exist in the nation is not theirs. That is to say, it belongs equally to them and to newcomers of any race. They are also taught that they do not exist as an indigenous people, race, or anything of the sort: British politicians have even said as much. Needless to say, this leads to all kinds of interesting identity issues... and different people deal with those issues in different ways.

  38. It's worth noting that most of American culture is either cobbled-together bits of various European cultures or has since been integrated into numerous other cultures to the point it really can't be called "American" any more...

  39. Jane Laplain, your analysis, as always, on point...Are you on Facebook? gets hot and heavy over there; if you're not on it, you might wanna weigh in...

    Jas0n Burns, there may be hope for you yet...

  40. Teratornis said...
    "It's worth noting that most of American culture is either cobbled-together bits of various European cultures or has since been integrated into numerous other cultures to the point it really can't be called "American" any more..."

    When whites brought us over here by way of the Middle Passage they gave us good Christian names and erased (so they thought) our culture, replacing it with their own. Even if whites couldn’t put their finger on what exactly comprised ‘the dominate culture’ there certainly was one; together with rich histories and tradition. Slaves were whipped- raped, murdered and coerced into conforming to that culture to make them more docile and manageable.

    After Reconstruction whites imposed Jim Crow laws, and 'black codes,' compelling blacks to genuflect to the prevailing customs and cultural norms. A dominate culture exists in this country and whites have no trouble telling non-whites how assimilating into ‘that culture’ is preferable if you truly want to be an American.

    It may in fact be a mish-mash of non-traditional values- beliefs and practices, but whites dominate it- define it and force it down the throats of non-whites. As Jane Laplain so eloquently put it, its the essence of white supremacy.

    To quote one judge: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it (obscenity) when I see it…”

    Consequently, Whites might not be able to put their fingers on the essence of ‘White culture’ but whites know it when they see it, and demand our conformity. Whether you want to call it ‘Pop Culture,’ or ‘Mainstream culture’- or even the Sub-culture; its there. Subsequently, by the time whites have appropriated certain aspects and restructured it to suit their needs, it looks nothing like the source; so it stands apart by itself... alien to non-whites- but a culture nonetheless.

  41. Epi Tales, can't write much now (working, and all that), but I just wanted to say, wonderful, wondeful post and I will DEFINITELY be checking out your blog on my downtime.

  42. This fetishization of Indian women is not uncommon. I'm not Indian, but I do possess a number of physical features that people mistake and mischaracterise as stereotypically Indian.
    One physical trait is long, dark hair.
    I have extremely long, thick, dark hair.
    The other day I went to the salon to ask how much it would be for a haircut.
    The hairdresser screamed, seriously, she screamed "NO! You can't cut your hair!" and then went on to explain that I couldn't possibly cut my hair because it's so long and that my hair was so beautiful.
    Listen, lady, I want a haircut. Badly.
    I know you think you are being complimentary and maybe you genuinely think I shouldn't cut my hair. But it's not your hair. It's my hair. And part of the reason I want to get my hair cut is that when people see long, dark hair on any woman who happens to be darkskinned, they assume she is Indian. I'm sick of being called a curry muncher because of the way I look and my hair is part of the reason why I am called that.
    I don't want to be told why I shouldn't cut my hair by someone who can possess long and dark hair but be free of the racial implications because of their whiteness and who would instead be celebrated for possessing an "exotic" physical feature whilst still being white (Angelina Jolie springs to mind).

  43. @Ronnie Brown

    No facebook for me. I abandoned it after I realized my potential employers were checking me out and my arcane privacy settings were NOT set to where I thought they were. Imagine my horror! Haven't missed it ever since.

    I enjoy the CONTROLLED atmosphere of discussion here. I enjoy the fact that, for the most part, the commenters here are genuinely interested in analyzing racism and (for the most part) respectfully stating our views. Forums on race that actually involve heavy NON-TROLLING WHITE input like these are hard to come by. Other blogs I frequent tend to be POC dominated, which meets a different need for me (safe space), but this is probably one of the few blogs where I feel WP, the actual benefactors of racism, really are LISTENING to POC critiques. This is exceedingly hard to find, online or off.

    I'm open to suggestions if there are other places I should know about tho!

  44. @ olderwoman:

    "Desi" is pronounced "They - see" and refers to people from South Asia (and at times, people from South-Central Asia and Central Asia, such as Afghanistan and Iran). I think a direct translation would be, "from the motherland." Usually, those of us who live in the Indian subcontinent don't use the term (unless we're talking about a brand of clarified butter). "Desi" tends to be associated with the South Asian Diaspora in various parts of the world.

    As BAW said, "Desai" is a last name (which is used in several parts of South Asia, not just India).

    As for the general question of whether a non-South/South-Central Asian white person may use the term, Desi....I, personally, am not comfortable with it. I have one too many white acquaintances who callously throw around the term with no clue as to what it signifies or how it is pronounced, which is why I am often weary of WP who choose to use it.

    Hope this helped.

  45. “Do you guys speak Hindi?”

    Well, at least he got the name of the language right. I'm usually asked, "Do you speak Hindu?" which I have at times replied, "No, do you speak Christian?"

  46. My condolences to those who have to deal with this.

    About having/not having culture, though: I am an immigrant (when I was a child) from a European country, and I do feel enriched by feeling that I have *two* cultures; I also can't help feeling that only having one culture is somehow boring. So maybe that's what white Americans feel - it's not a lack of a culture per se, but the lack of something special and their own that's not everywhere around them. (I personally can't imagine what it would be like to have the same culture within one's home as outside.) Though maybe they don't see it that way because the word "culture" is never applied to the dominant culture... about which I take all your points above, as that is one of my cultures.

  47. @olderwoman - siah pretty much cleared it up, except the way I pronounce it is more like "day-see" (don't buzz the "s" like a "z", accent on the first syllable).

    It means "local" and applies pretty much to anyone of "former Raj" ancestry; though it's been coopted to apply largely to PIO (people of Indian origin). However, a Sri Lankan, Nepali, or Pak would all still be desis...not so sure about Afghans or Persians, though. Persians would definitely not call themselves desis, but desis might (?).

    I'm not familiar with it being offensive. In fact, it's way less offensive to use it as an adjective than it is to presume the object in question is Indian (person, food, music, art, etc.).

  48. @ Siah - really, firangs using "desi" is troubling? In what context? It's hard to get the meaning wrong, though I can see how it may be used as a crutch to avoid ethnic or religious (or caste) details. Is that the issue?

  49. @Jane Laplain, can u use a pen name, with just enough info to log on?...i can friend you and you can peek in at your leisure...yeah, i know i'm lobbying, but if you feel that strongly about it, i understand...apart from Facebook, i also admire this blog for the reasons you stated...but i'll keep lookin' for other sources.

  50. @ Tik

    We are all guilty of not reading before we post, or not thinking before we post. What you said was VERY patronizing and offensive.

    You have every right to cut your hair, and stylists who cannot appreciate your time and bucks are not ppl you need sit for anyway.

    But I can't get over how skevy your reasons are.

    You want to cut your hair because you are tired of being associated with the worst stereotypes of a minority people. Stereotypes wrong and misguided. Stereotypes these ppl cannot simply cut away. You aren't THEM, and EVERYONE should know it but a cut!

  51. @ronnie brown

    are you talking about a Facebook group? Just curious because I've never seen anything resembling the discussions here on FB

  52. @z I think you're probably right, at least about the lacking something special part: white Americans who I've interacted with have generally seemed to have a fairly strong cultural identity - but I'm British and have never been to America, so all the Americans I've interacted with offline have been outside of America and in a cultural context where they did have a distinct culture from the one around them (either mine or someone else's).

    I think you also have a point about only having one culture being boring - but finding one's own culture boring doesn't necessarily equate to not feeling as if you have one. I definitely feel as if I have an 'English' or a 'British' culture - but my friend who immigrated here as a child does too: the difference is that she has a Korean culture as well, and that's what makes only being English seem boring sometimes. It's not the English, it's the 'only'.

    I don't know if the same applies to Americans - I know a lot of my sense of having a culture is tied into the length of our history, which white Americans don't have, since after a certain point a few centuries ago at most, it turns into where they came from before there was 'America'. Which might make it harder.

    There is also the fact that [white] American culture has a dominance and a reach even outside the US. So my experience of my identity as a [white] British person is still partly based on having something to identify it against - American films and American food and American literature and American spelling and American music. So being a white person outside of the US is a different experience from being one inside it - there's still something to define yourselves as 'not', which there isn't for white Americans. Especially if their culture does involve a lot of imported European influences, because they can't even then look over this side of the Atlantic and go 'well, we're not them'.

  53. Hi All-
    I've been lurking for a couple of weeks and have really enjoyed reading.

    A couple of things:
    Very early during my first year in college, I met someone (white guy) who immediately started asking me about India--I'm brown, and my parents immigrated from India. The first time, I was mildly flattered (not only was I not as savvy/cynical then, but I was also eager to make friends). But when this guy brought up India every time that I saw him, I realized that I wasn't much more to him than a racial fascination--an exotic fetish. As other commenters have discussed above, that's what I think is racist about the situations in the OP and in others that commenters have posted. Similar to Jane Laplain's comment about WP being blind to differences in out groups, it's essentializing members of the out group and treating each one as nothing more than a generic member of the larger identity group--maybe an analogy would be asking each white person I met if they watched Friends growing up (hmm, there's got to be a better example than that, but I can't come up with one at the moment).

    I found the subtext to your post to be offensive. It sucks that people confuse your racial identity, but I get the sense that being taken for a South Asian (or a "curry-muncher"--first I've heard that term) is a step down for you.

    On the word "desi" (courtesy of the South Asian American blog Sepia Mutiny): "It's slang for the cultures of South Asia and the diaspora. It's similar to homeboy, paesano or boricua. Etymology: deshi, Hindi/Urdu for 'from the country,' 'from the motherland.' Pronounced 'they-see,' it's the opposite of pardesi, foreigner."

    And, for what it's worth, I'm not so down with people from outside the community using the term. Not that big of a deal, but it's just like they're trying too hard, you know? But I don't find it to be offensive. I recommend this post for further enlightenment. Well, at least the original post; the comments thread descends into ugliness.

  54. Oops, sorry, messed up the hyperlinks in my last post. Those should be:

    Sepia Mutiny


    this post for further enlightenment

  55. Indians are a very diverce people.Its as if spanish english persian chinese living in the same country .By THIS I MEAN that there are a lot of misconceptions about indian people(PEOPLE FROM THE SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRY INDIA).MOST of the north indian people are verry fair skinned specially people from the PUNJAB region.In north eastern india people are mongoloids i.e they look like chinese or korean.

  56. As a POC I am just as guilty of lumping people together as others. However I am actively working to stop this urge. I enjoy listening to Punjab music, so maybe I should take the time to start learning about te various differences in music in the country first. There is so much changing we all could do to make the world a better place, I'm trying my best and boy is it a job! It's nice to come to blogs like this and to attempt to better myself and feel like it's appreciated.

  57. I'm a little late to the party, and I appreciate what the author is saying (well-written post, by the way). Using someone's native language as a pick up line outside their native country is lame, for sure.

  58. DESI. They-see. NOT day-see. Refers to the South Asian diaspora. Indians living in India would never call themselves that although Indians living in the US often will, signifying a tie to the "desh" -- country or motherland. Usually refers to expat Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. I have rarely heard Sri Lankans or Afghanis refer to themselves as desis. Desai is a (unrelated) common surname.

    PARDESI. Foreigner.

  59. I'm Pakistani, and I see much of the same doesn't help that I usually wear salwar kameezes instead of American clothes.

    There's nothing wrong with being Indian, but it can be really really annoying when, no matter how many times I correct someone, they won't stop calling me that.

    After performing a dance, one Arab girl came up to me and asked if I could teach her some steps. I showed her some simple ones, but after a short while she got frustrated and stopped, saying she just wanted to learn, "I just wanna look sexy! Teach me belly dancing or stuff like that." She then wiggled her hips in an exaggerated motion. It was...insulting.

    It didn't help that she then asked if I spoke Pakistani.

  60. Ah, the well-meaning racists. Even if it's not hate-driven, it's still irksome as hell.

    I guess it all depends where you live as well. I'm from a little country where the majority of the population is white, and Polynesians, Asians and Indians make up the rest. I've never been to America but I guess there's not many Indians there if they're compelled to say such well-meaning, but nonetheless stupid, things to you.


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