Friday, July 2, 2010

Kal Penn vs. Joel Stein

Joel Stein's article in the latest Time describes the demographic shift in Edison, New Jersey and in the process, highlights ethnic norms and pokes fun at racial stereotypes. He references the "dot-heads" and mentions gods with multiple arms and an elephant nose. He discusses his past in Edison and compares it with the current, Indian-ized town. 

In a word, Stein engages in socio-cultural satire. 

Unfortunately, that's not how Indians across the country have taken it. 

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) has issued a public statement and online petition condemning Stein's words. Specifically, it reads, "most offensive is his remarkably blasé tone about the discrimination and hate crimes that targeted the New Jersey South Asian Community during the 1980s." 

Similarly, Kal Penn wrote a sarcastic piece in a HuffPo earlier today that essentially calls Stein a racist and is defensive in its tone. I'll be the first to admit that I've grown up with a crush on Kal Penn (since "American  Desi"...) and I'm a huge fan, but his article was a huge blow to his persona for me. If Kal claims himself to be an intellectual, then why isn't he deconstructing the essence of the post and instead dwelling in the superficial nonsense that Stein usually spews (I've read his columns for years now, and they are all emphasized by his slapstick sarcasm and bizarre cultural or social references). 

Here's my point. All of that stuff is true. Stein doesn't lie nor does he display the race in a negative way. Instead, he references terms and facts that have been construed as negative or offensive. Penn's narrative functionally asks you as the reader to condemn any references to the dot-busting incidents of the 80's (which are IMO of vital importance to the diaspora of the South Asian in America) and chooses miniscule battles of Stein's wordings and references instead of seeing the bigger picture. 

To take it a step further, I find Stein's rhetoric as oddly space-making and emancipatory for the race. Why can't we as South Asians embrace our immigrant history, our assigned stereotypes to create and revolutionize our identities as South Asian Americans? Instead, why are we becoming sensitive to our racial positionings, or even worse, taking it in the wrong way? This hinders our progress and distracts us from the bigger questions and the path of racial and cultural understanding within the American framework. 

As a matter of fact, Kal Penn is the last person to be criticizing racial stereotypes. As Taj Badalandabad in Van Wilder (remember that?) he played on EVERY SINGLE Indian stereotype in the book for his role; he's presented himself as the normative "South Asian" in almost every role he's had (from 24, to NYPD Blues, the Namesake) and built his career off of the ethnicizing of the South Asian. 

I stray from my point though: I think there IS racial and cultural space within American society for the South Asian. Although Kal Penn may not know this, he's one of the figures that has played ping-pong with his media-racial identity, and I think it's ended well for him and for us. Characters are portrayed in the media now as mainstream more than foreign (for example, compare Apoo from the Simpsons who was the stereotypical Indian with his thick accent and funny name, to Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford in Parks and Rec, who is known first for his quirky character and only much later in the series, as being a South Asian). Stein's playful references, however interpreted, are actually a sign of South Asians becoming relevant to American society and an integral part of its ethnographic array. I think, therefore, that a lot of this anger is misplaced and that we as a culture/race/ethnicity need appreciate these public mentions as forums through which we are "normalized" and simultaneously accepted for our cultural quirks. 

Most importantly, Stein ends his article by ironically drawing lines of similarities between young Indians and the more established Italians from the area (by again drawing on another racial stereotype of the "Guido): "gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians." Yes, I can be petty and talk about how hurt I am, along with the nation of Italy. But honestly, I think of this as a full circle for Stein - he sees things changing superficially, but ultimately, sees the similarities in the EDISON culture that DEFIES racial lines. 

Penn compares Stein's remarks to Jewish or African American jokes and hints that they should be treated just as gravely as racial attacks. Kal, in the article, Stein also alludes to being a transvestite hooker....


PS: there go my chances with Kal Penn. <3 <3 <3 :(

PS: I understand that a lot of Indians/South Asians disagree with my points, and I'm happy to hear your views. 


duryo said...

In a word, Stein engages in socia cultural sattire

satire :humor using ridicule irony and sarcasm

Stein's apology

I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.

your whole post seems to be written with a false assumption.

Meghana said...

Duryo, not sure what you mean actually. I've read that comment and the fact that he says immigrant life has enriched American culture shows his piece to be satire...

duryo said...

I think stein's apology shows that he didn't write it as a sattire, that he was actually confessing that he feels uncomfortable about his changing town. He is totally honest about it, and he wants to confront it instead of hiding it.

this is entirely laudable - I feel weird everytime I go back to my hometown, with the increasing population and the reduction in the number of people using my mother tongue.

I agree with you that the reaction by south asian community is over the top but I don't think that is because 'its just a joke, chill already' which is what you seem to hint at the top of the post.d

Meghana said...

Hmm, I have to disagree with you about that. Yea he's uncomfortable, but he pokes fun at stereotypes and norms of South Asians. In my opinion, it's satire. Either way, I think the argument is overkill if we're analyzing it within the framework of SAALT's and Kal Penn's response.

Also, my argument IS NOT that it's a joke, chill out. It's that we need to find revolutionary/redefining/creationary space within commentary like this instead of bitch and crib about its political correctness. This is a huge public tale of Indians coming to America and most importantly, acculturating to the way of life in Edison (ref: the guido ending). That's huge and I think people are underestimating the lines of similarities and the complexity of each culture that Stein touches upon

badass1 said...

I didn't even read Penn's response until now, but my friends and I have been discussing this article for some time now. I think the consensus is that when taken at face value, this article would offend the average "American Indian" but then again when's the last time our culture has ever seriously been antagonized? Sure we've all been called Apu or Gandhi at some point in our lives (mostly the boys while growing up, and the latter I later realized was a complement) but we've never been truly degraded in the others of our fellow Americans. As Indians, we could brush off such harmless statements because we were raised to believe that we were the smartest kid in the class, or that one day we would be making more money then any of our peers. We were never really the subject of derogatory jokes (like Blacks, Jews, etc. have been for some time now) until this article came out. Then every Indian (including those 'smarter then our peers') freaks out because it's the first time they've been publicly criticized and they don't know how to react.

I think it's normal to be angry at first (I know I was), but I also feel that as intelligent students raised in this country, we shouldn't take everything at face value but either brush it off or try to see what the purpose of the article was. Stein's articles are meant to portray issues to the general public in a humorous light. If we can't see his real intentions, then there's no need for a public outcry against one man's opinion. We are all aware of the freedoms we have in this country (including religion which allows us to have beach-wide Diwali celebrations and press which allows one man to express his thoughts about how his hometown has changed). I say at the very least, don't let one man's words make you lose faith in the system. Perhaps his words will echo in the feelings of some conservative Americans and anti-immigration sentiments may rise. But then again, isn't that how many of us (Indian Americans) feel about Illegal Immigrants from Mexico? Who are we to get worried about how some Redneck want to deport us when we are really expressing our ethnocentric views via another outlet.

This response seems to be a bit scattered but I guess the point was that I absolutely agree with your response and kudos to you.

Oh and hey Meghz!

Meghana said...

Lol, who is this? And yep, I totally agree!