In case you missed it last week, Time printed a piece from humor columnist Joel Stein in which he describes going back to his New Jersey hometown after two decades and finding it with a 7 percent South Asian population. Hilarity ensues, if by ‘hilarity’ we mean “white dude evoking stereotypes that don’t belong to him, in an effort to be funny.”
The reaction was a resounding Bronx cheer.
Kal Penn said, on the Huffington Post: “Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I’d get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell ‘go back to India, dothead!’”
Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing: “As a growing population that has been consistently made fun of by mainstream media, policed both before AND after 9/11, ignored, strategically propped up as a model minority and a community that provides so much of the labor, both working class and white collar, at statistically lower income rates than the average American, you would think Stein could do us a solid by noting some of that.”
Tom Scocca at Slate: “This is the plight of secure young upper-middle-class Jewish funnypeople, who have inherited the sharp humor traditions of an oppressed minority without inheriting very much of the oppression.” Anna at Sepia Mutiny just went off on Stein. And the South Asian Bar Association of New York demanded an apology from Time.
Stein initially pushed back on Twitter, saying, “Didn’t meant [sic] to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing.” Bazinga! Later, appended to the article, he apologizes in a more interesting way. He experienced knee-jerk jingoist feelings upon seeing the change in his hometown. He was shocked and discomfited by his reaction, and suddenly understood the kind of unquestioned race-based fear that’s dominated our country’s conversation on race and immigration. He knew that it was important to address what he was feeling, but he didn’t have the tools to talk about it. He knows that he failed, but he tried, because it was important to try. (I’m giving Stein a lot of credit here, but why not.)
And that’s probably the best we can get out of Stein for right now. Time, on the other hand, said:
We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by this humor column of Joel Stein’s. It was in no way intended to cause offense.
Isn’t this an incredible bit of syntax? No acknowledgement of content, misdeed, or even complaint, really. Just: We’re sorry you were offended. How useful! We’re sorry your son had a negative reaction to the bullets. Or, Stop hitting yourself.
I’m not that worried about Joel Stein. He’s just one author, and he’s either learned his lesson or he hasn’t. I’m more concerned about Time’s editorial board, both for letting this get published and for the sidestepping apology and what that means for how communities of color get written about and whose complaints get counted. And as non-establishment publications fold under the stress of the death of journalism, moneyed outlets like Time will increasingly be the only voice out there. Blogs aren’t necessarily better; see Shani Hilton’s excellent response to Joel Johnson’s Gizmodo post titled “Why I Stalk A Sexy Black Woman On Twitter (And Why You Should Too!)”
Ultimately, situations like this come down to privilege — white privilege, establishment privilege, majority privilege. And while Time did apologize, it doesn’t mean much it they tell us in the same breath to stop being offended. Working for a world where words are free of pain is a noble goal, and yes, being able to say whatever one wants would be a side effect of such a utopia. But more often than not, it seems like some of us are content to leave the ‘change the world’ work to others, while we incur some debts on our presumably forthcoming ‘get out of racism free’ cards.
Jay Smooth has a great video that seems to speak directly to incidents like these.
Illustration by John Ueland for TIME