Joel Stein, we are not laughing: The South Asian legal community responds

Filed under: Pop culture,Talk About Race |

Humor writer and journalist Joel Stein’s recent piece in Time Magazine, “My Own Private India,” has received a lot of well-deserved criticism.  Indeed, one of the (only) good things to have come out of the fiasco of Stein receiving a public forum in which to express his “sense of loss and anomie” upon encountering brown people is the loud and nearly unified voice with which we have responded.

Below is the letter that the South Asian Bar Association of New York, along with several other SABAs from around the country, submitted to Time Magazine in reaction to Stein’s piece.  It was tremendously heartening and inspiring to see how quickly this letter was drafted, how immediately chapters signed on, and how unanimously we agreed that Stein’s brand of humor is not funny; it is racist.  As I’ve written before, the South Asian legal community has not always been at the forefront of challenging racial injustice in America.  But Joel Stein may have rattled our complacency.  My hope is that long after the controversy of his essay has died down, we will continue to fight against the various forms of discrimination—latent and manifest, structural and behavioral—that plague communities of color nationwide.  After all, Joel Stein is not the problem; he is its symptom.

Dear Editor:

The South Asian Bar Association of New York (“SABANY”) writes in response to Joel Stein’s column published in Time’s July 5, 2010 issue and entitled “My Own Private India.” Mr. Stein, in a clumsy and misguided attempt at humor, not only offends Indian-Americans but also manages to make light of the entire immigrant experience. And as the resulting public outcry on behalf of the South Asian community demonstrates, his attempt at satire and humor has failed miserably.

First, and most simply, jokes about “dot heads,” like other jokes that use racially derogatory terms, are not funny. Nor do they become funny when used as a lead-in to a secondary joke about a “group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” More importantly, Mr. Stein’s use of the term “dot head” harkens back to a time when gangs in New Jersey beat, harassed, and assaulted South Asians who had moved into “their” cities. Just as an attempt to make light of the racial violence of the 1960s would encounter justified criticism, so too does Mr. Stein’s column fail to acknowledge the real struggles encountered by the South Asians who arrived in this country during his childhood. Rather than paying tribute to this immigrant experience, he chooses instead to talk about the kid from his hometown who drove down the street yelling at Indians to “go home to India.”

Finally, while the debate over immigration rages, Mr. Stein draws his line firmly in the sand – he is tired of losing his hometown, his strip malls, and his restaurants to South Asians. Ignoring the fact that our country was built by immigrants, Stein tolerates only those immigrants who are “dorky enough” to play Dungeons & Dragons with him. To Stein, immigrants are fine but only if they come in small enough numbers so as not to upset his precious childhood image of Edison, New Jersey.

As we at SABANY seek comprehensive federal immigration reform and look to the courts and legislature to repeal or block S.B. 1070, Arizona’s new immigration law, it is especially disheartening to watch Stein perpetuate the worst stereotypes about immigrants, especially South Asians, under the guise of an ostensibly humorous column. There are certainly times when our society stifles good-natured humor in the name of political correctness, but this is not one of those moments. Stein’s column is racist, humorless, hurtful, and misinformed.

Stein’s myopic and provincial anti-immigrant commentary runs counter to the spirit of the history of immigration in the United States.  It attacks, ridicules, and stereotypes the South Asian experience in America, and Time Magazine has exercised poor judgment by publishing it.  In fact, that error in judgment was only confirmed by Mr. Stein’s lame attempt at an apology: “Didn’t meant [sic] to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing.” We respectfully request that Time Magazine and its Editors issue a full apology for publishing this column, rather than the perfunctory statement of regret that was issued on June 30, 2010.


South Asian Bar Association of New York

/s/ Rahul Agarwal

Rahul Agarwal
Chair, Advocacy Committee


South Asian Bar Association of Arizona (SABA-AZ)
South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston (SABA-GB)
Indian American Bar Association of Chicago (IABA-Chicago)
South Asian Bar Association of Colorado (SABA-CO)
South Asian Bar Association of Delaware (SABA-DE)
South Asian Bar Association of Las Vegas (SABA-LV)
South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey (SABA-NJ)
South Asian Bar Association of Ohio (SABA-OH)
South Asian Bar Association of Philadelphia (SABA-PA)
South Asian Bar Association of San Diego (SABA-SD)
South Asian Bar Association of Toronto (SABA Toronto, Canada)


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

2 Responses to Joel Stein, we are not laughing: The South Asian legal community responds

  1. Let’s understand that this guy is making a pathetic attempt to be humeros – when you get desperate, you’ve got to say nasty things.
    To be sensitive to other cultures, one needs to be cultured in the first place. Let’s dismiss this “humerist” with a sub-par intellect, with the contempt he deserves…..

    July 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm

  2. Pingback: Help Fight JMS « Words, Maybe Pictures

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