A humour column that appeared in the July 5 edition of Time magazine sparked outrage and allegations of racism among the Indian-American community, prompting the article’s author, Joel Stein, and the magazine to issue embarrassed public apologies.
The article, titled “My Own Private India” was meant to be a funny description of how an influx of Indian immigrants has transformed Stein’s hometown of Edison, New Jersey.
Nearly a third of Edison’s population is of Indian descent.
But Stein’s jokes — which include riffs on the spiciness of Indian food, large Indian families, hate crimes that occurred in the 1980s against Indian-Americans, and India’s poverty — prompted furious petitions and letters from Indian-Americans. The magazine ran an apology on the same day, saying, “[The article] was in no way intended to cause offense.”
Stein wrote in the original article: “When I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison... For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses.... In the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins... 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.”
But his most controversial joke took aim at Dotbusters, thugs who perpetrated violent hate crimes against Indian Americans in Edison in the 1980’s.
Stein wrote, “My townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians’ dot heads.’... In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”
The advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) launched an online petition asking the editors of Time to organise a panel discussing the article's impact and to dedicate a special space in the magazine’s upcoming edition to response from the Indian-American community.
Hollywood actor Kal Penn shot off a column in the online magazine The Huffington Post, in which he slammed Stein’s article for using cliche jokes.
Ishaan Tharoor, who works for Time international and is the son of India’s former junior foreign affairs minister Shashi Tharoor, tweeted, “just fyi, Time international did not run joel stein’s ‘my private india’.
In an addendum dated July 2, Stein wrote, “I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes immigration has enriched American life ... I was shocked I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.”