Funny or Racist?
I had been hearing about Joel Stein's article in Time Magazine, My Own Private India, for a few days but until just a few moments ago, hadn't read it. Why read about a dust up involving Indians in Jersey when I feel that I'm living in one dust up or another involving a whole lot more Indians in India itself? For whatever reason, sitting here in Bangladesh inside a substandard hotel, I decided to read Stein's piece; perhaps the bad Indian food in Chittagong that has me throwing up stirred me to it.
There is a lot of outrage about what Stein wrote. While I understand that feelings were hurt within the Indian community, I can't necessarily understand the outrage. Many have said that Time should never have published the piece. I disagree. It has its moments of humor, partially reflects the jokes Indians tell about themselves, and doesn't shed the most positive light on the natives the immigrant Indians have replaced (i.e. "There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.")
Sure, Stein's references to Arizona, and understanding how people there could support a draconian and racist new law can be viewed as hurtful. His message can be viewed as unfunny, his viewpoint misguided. Or, we can hear the guy out and laugh as much as we can about life and the people who live alongside us.
I am a North Andover, MA native, and must admit that the town has changed a lot over the more than 30 years I've lived there. I can't stand many of the new people who have moved there. They bring traffic, higher property taxes (because they have kids who actually require good public schools as opposed to just relying on the good ole Pike Schools of the world), and tons of new traffic lights to the sleepy little town I once knew and could speed through. Now, I could have said that I don't like the new white people who have moved into town (most of the new folks are, after all, white). Most of you who know me would have laughed because you know that I often interject race into humor to force people to laugh about the topic. It is the only way that I believe we will ever be able to tackle the much more complicated issues of race and religion in America and around the world.
Stein could also have left race out of his piece, and many would argue he should have. But then it would have just been a dry piece about his hometown growing up and evolving. Who reads stuff like that? His humor is overdone, for sure. But underlying a lot of his perhaps poorly executed humor are real facts: Indians who came here in the 60s and 70s were far more accomplished, on average, than the relatives who followed them more recently. That's not a necessarily important phenomenon to explain; after all, there are plenty of dumb white folks in Jersey too and they didn't need to move there, they've been there for a while. Did he need to explain that fact in this particular Time magazine column? No, but comedy routines, whether delivered in an article or as part of a stand up gig, never really need to do much, except make people laugh -- sometimes uncomfortably.
What I guess I don't get is that Russell Peters, the Canadian comedian of Indian origin that pokes fun at almost all races, does similar stuff. Perhaps his comedy is a touch different, perhaps a touch better executed. But underneath the humor is a lot of racial stuff. We laugh because he's a comedic looking Indian guy that pokes fun of every possible race including his own. Doing so may be funny, but it is also is eerily similar to Stein's humor.
I'm not defending Joel Stein. I'm just suggesting that perhaps we can all learn a thing or two by sometimes attempting to laugh and in the process see a different perspective and not assuming that everyone that brushes up against our racial sensitivities is a racist. I don't give a shit that Stein lost his town to a whole mass of Indian immigrants. They have as much right to be in Edison as he does. What I do care about is the ability for society to continue to laugh at itself and others in an effort to notch down the rhetoric that we see around us. Surely, there is racial humor that crosses the line into racist territory. While I don't think Stein does that, I also don't think that we should stop trying to poke fun at things that might be a touch thorny.
The great thing about America is that our freedoms allow us to speak openly and candidly and debate issues of significance (or even insignificance). During my recent travels in Bangladesh, I spoke to the owner of a TV channel that has been shut down for broadcasting, on live TV, views the current government finds offensive. Better we allow Stein to speak, and then respond -- either using humor, or when appropriate, otherwise -- than to censor and disallow because sensitivities may be affected.