I recently had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel at the National Communication Association conference alongside one by Professor Charu Uppal on the subject of – Priyanka Chopra. This paper, unlike Barkha Dutt’s selective intervention, was the whole deal, a complete analysis of the global celebrity apparatus with its ruthless, shameless, avaricious system of inclusion, exclusion, objectification, packaging, and denial
The Washington Post recently published (along with an op-ed about the “living nightmare” that India has supposedly become for Muslims) two pieces about a case of American media racism pertaining to India, or at least an Indian celebrity.
The first of these stories tells us that an American magazine called The Cut deleted an article it had earlier posted calling Priyanka Chopra a “global scam artist.” The second is a passionate op-ed by Barkha Dutt entitled “Who’s afraid of Priyanka Chopra?” and touches on issues of race and gender in the world of global celebrity with forceful conviction and principle.
Dutt’s critique seems to be that the white world is unable to accept the success of a brown woman, and her marriage to a white celebrity at that. It reminded me a bit about the hate that Yoko Ono supposedly got decades ago when she was perceived as having stolen John Lennon away from the Beatles, although there the issue was perhaps not only the white-Asian race equation but also, well, the break-up of the Beatles.
However, as Dutt notes, the author of The Cut article was not white, but an African American, a discovery she instantly explains as a case of “internalised racism”. Since that time, the author of the piece, Mariah Smith, has apologised in a tweet to Chopra, Jonas, and readers, and has said that she does not condone racism.
This interesting set of events involving a black American writer apologising after being accused of racism against an international celebrity by an international celebrity journalist herself comes in the wake of another controversy about identity and privilege: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s recent visit to India where he posed with a sign about “Brahminical” patriarchy.
Even as this controversy was swinging between protests, apologies and protests against apologies, another white American person wandered into the issue seemingly equipped only with half-baked knowledge and fully overblown presumptiveness. The editor of the once respected Mother Jones magazine Clare Jeffery tweeted about a Dalit speaker who reportedly said that “almost all US tech company hires of Indians were hires of Brahmin (sic.), in essence gaining diversity points while perpetuating a caste system in theirs.”
Apart from the most likely factual inaccuracy of “almost all US tech company hires of Indians” being Brahmins, what is quite revealing here is the latent racism of her comment; that somehow a set of brown-skinned people (the ‘Brahmin’) working in the US are somehow there on ‘diversity’ grounds, and worse; that by their very existence – not by any specific deeds or statements – they somehow perpetuate a caste system in “their” country (India). I asked her on Twitter about this, and while she apologised for her “usage” of “Brahmin” she did not come up with any examples of how exactly such a techie might “perpetuate a caste system”.
I mention these two examples, that of a black journalist being forced to apologise for racism because of a silly jab at a celebrity of formidable privilege, while a white CEO and white editor are somehow let off the hook even as they mount quietly on their own privilege to target a section of brown people as somehow innately casteist and patriarchal.
Simply put, would a white CEO (of a liberal Silicon Valley tech company) or editor (particularly of a formidably progressive publication like Mother Jones) fail to mind their own privilege when it comes to talking about any other people of colour like Africans, Arabs, or other Asians even? Why does the civilising restraint of guilt for white privilege suddenly vanish, allowing for a full-on status display of raw racism and envy when their attention turns to Indians, and to Hindus in particular?
This is where we need to interrogate the complicity of the rarefied and privileged world of the group of people I call the ‘brown one-percenters,’ the transnational class of mostly Indian-origin and Hindu-named people who participate in the continuing perpetuation of racism and a superficially secularised religious supremacism against the one billion barely privileged people of India and the diaspora who happen to be Hindu. Do they not deserve the power of representation? Are they not subaltern? And most importantly, if you are a journalist, activist, or academician, should you not be concerned about falsehood and ignorance in your profession?
The brown one-percenters are unfortunately profoundly disconnected from the world around them, of their village ancestors, their immediate neighbours, and most of all their workers and servants. Like Amartya Sen’s biographical note in The Argumentative Indian about growing up in a household with no Hindu shrine and ceremonies, we have an elite that has so deeply bought into its London-New York-New Delhi textual attitude (Edward Said’s phrase from Orientalism) towards India that it has no clue that the word “Hindu” is not some elite Brahmin conspiracy but a profound reality whose definitions in current Indian law and evocations in global media profoundly affect the dignity and lives of hundreds of millions of not so elite people, women, lower castes, workers, barely middle class, rural, small town, however you look at it.
And when they come to America to work, what sticks out is their brown skin, no more and no less.
Yet, somehow, for the brown one-percenters, the racism against Hindus as a people of colour doesn’t make any sense. They are ready to speak against Islamophobia, which is fine, but shrink from any acknowledgment of Hinduphobia, which emanates most foully of all from their own industries and professions.
Just compare, for example, the positions advanced by Barkha Dutt and The Washington Post on a range of issues pertaining to the lives and representations of Hindus. When Priyanka Chopra participated in a script that advanced the preposterous idea of a Hindu terrorist trying to blow up an American city, did Dutt even acknowledge the pain and fear of an American minority community overwhelmed by the burden of motivated negative depictions in the media, from the Jew-Christian-Muslim-Hating priest Mula Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the Muslim-massacre-endorsing child Rama in Slumdog Millionaire to the Hindus-are-worse-than-cannibals CNN programme Believer and of course, the relatively benign but goofy Apu from The Simpsons?
And when Hari Kondabolu made his engaging documentary (The Problem with Apu) which he presented as a defence of good people with accents like his parents, did he, or his fellow Brown South Asian actors such as Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling, and others, spare even one drop of attention to the fact that the stereotypes they were critiquing weren’t just of some generic ‘Brownness’ but also of ‘Hinduness’? No. Not one word in that documentary, and not one word about Hindu stereotypes in the dozens of articles and reviews that the documentary got in the American newspapers.
So what does this glaring, ugly, formless, spreading cesspool of evasion and denial tell us about the complicity of those who wallow in it, grow in it, maybe even derive their nourishment from it?
Are they sincere in their standing up for the rights of the marginalised, the oppressed, and the discriminated?
Or is it just a wealthy celebrity like Priyanka Chopra who they feel the need to stand up for?
I recently had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel at the National Communication Association conference alongside one by Professor Charu Uppal on the subject of – Priyanka Chopra. This paper, unlike Barkha Dutt’s selective intervention, was the whole deal, a complete analysis of the global celebrity apparatus with its ruthless, shameless, avaricious system of inclusion, exclusion, objectification, packaging, and denial.
Simply put, Prof Uppal’s paper shows us how the journey of Priyanka Chopra from Ms World to Quantico can be seen in relation to the neo-colonial conquest of India as a market by multinational corporate interests. It was one thing that India suddenly found its beauty queens on the world stage as the commodities came pouring in after 1991, but the double-cost of this process of colonisation was not just about the capture of Indian women’s imaginations (and purses), but of the terms of their entry into the global stage as well. By erasing her accent, as well as whatever possible history the writers could have given her character, what Chopra became with Alex in Quantico was the hollowed-out cipher that the Indian today is expected to be with the West and in the West.
In some ways, this path has been in the making for several years now (see the book Re-Orientalism by Lisa Lau and Cristina Mendes on the bizarre phenomenon of self-exoticisation by Indians in the upper echelons of international publishing). While most scholars, journalists, and public figures from non-Western nations strive to enter the global field acutely aware of the burden of representation they bear, South Asians of Indian origin seem to mostly chart a different path altogether.
When Arabs and Muslims speak to America, they dare to call out Islamophobia. Similarly, Jews have called out Anti-Semitism. Blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, almost every identity group in American media and academia has represented itself against a clear dominant formation of white Western privilege as its historic adversary, for better or for worse.
But the globally anointed celebrity Indians of the media, somehow, seem to dwell in a little false bubble of privilege that gives them a superficial honorary whiteness (“White guilt without white privilege” as someone once wrote on Twitter). They seem to act against dominance only when one of their own privileged friends seems to be in need of it, and not for a people or a nation as a whole.
The rest of the time, like the slimy Stephen in Django Unchained, they enjoy their closeness and complicity in the last unchallenged bastions of white privilege and racism today, allowing so-called liberal and progressive whites to let off some righteous racist-religious-supremacist steam at the heathen Hindoos by pretending to be suddenly and briefly post-white. Even worse, some of our Stephens in the global media frequently blame the victim (just recall some of the op-eds in WaPo, USA Today and elsewhere telling American Hindus “We told you so!” or “let this be a lesson” when poor Srinivas Kuchibhotla got killed in Kansas City in early 2017.
That last example is actually staggering now that we think of it once again in the light of the Priyanka defence. A young Indian is murdered, and our world-media-voices tell us the problem is not the hate first and last, which festers in America from parts of the Right and from Left, but actually the voting choice of a section of Indian Americans. A global celebrity launched into orbit by worshipful fans in India is slighted in some vague article after her celebrity socialite wedding party, and suddenly we are told there’s a problem with American racism!
The problem I think is really with some of our own.
Last Updated 12:26 PM IST