Before quoting Mahatma Gandhi, Hillary Clinton sought to familiarize him to her audience at a 2004 Missouri fundraiser by saying, “He ran a gas station down in St. Louis.” Drawing on the audience’s recognition of the predominance of a particular ethnic group in the running of convenience stores, the remark was racist because it sought to entertain a mainstream audience by casting a major figure from that ethnic group in a position of ridicule. The audience laughed, fulfilling the intent of the joke built on the back of the well-known stereotype in American media of the South Asian clerk. The South Asian community and others were rightfully offended and Clinton issued an oblique apology along the lines of “I’m sorry it was taken that way.” While much had been made of the event’s inherent racism, little was said of its elitism and that of the South Asian American community’s response. Clinton’s equation of Gandhi with the lowly occupation of a clerk failed to acknowledge the rising affluence of professional desis; and the community’s response advertised this fact in its desire to not only correct Clinton’s gaffe, but to also separate the elite among us from those who tarnish the shiny image of the model minority. Given a voice, how might South Asian clerks themselves have responded and would Gandhi not have felt more akin to them given his message of dignity in any form of labor and uplifting the underclasses? None of this excuses Clinton’s comment. Rather, it highlights the continuing problems of the representation of minorities in American media and the divide within communities along lines of class.
The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) claims nearly 150,000 shops under its aegis, with revenues close to a half trillion dollars. While there are no ethnic-specific surveys, many estimates by Asian-American trade associations and groups such as the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchisees underscore the evidence of a high rate of South Asian ownership in the convenience store business. This begs the question of why, despite the large proportion of South Asians and other minorities in the convenience store arena, we are yet to see a 7-Eleven or AM-PM commercial that acknowledges this fact by featuring South Asian employees or actors who play them. Evidently, actually matching the reality with self-made media representations would cause such companies to appear to have been overtaken by immigrants and one wonders if the misrepresentation is in fact an attempt to reinscribe Americanness by creating distance from the foreign other.
The reality of who runs convenience markets has been relegated, instead, to the fictional representations in any number of television programs and films that are mockingly xenophobic, etching the image of the middle-aged, sometimes turbaned, funnily accented, angry brown man and his hapless wife deeply into the imagination of the American viewing public. This has been proven nowhere better than with one of the most recognizable South Asians in American media: cartoon character Apu, Quik-E-Mart clerk of The Simpsons, who is voiced by a white actor. In their November 17, 2003, press release, NACS proudly claimed “Apu May Not Be All That Bad for Convenience Store Image,” citing the character’s work ethic as inspirational, and chiding him only for flouting commonly held theft-deterrence rules by having a rifle behind his store’s counter. Nowhere in the press release do they mention Apu’s ethnicity nor that of a large number of convenience store owners.
Even the films Clerks (1994) and its sequel Clerks II (2006), which glorify the profession, do not feature South Asians in the titular roles, made even more ironic because they are set in multi-ethnic New Jersey. And when a second-generation South Asian American youth came face-to-face with a first-generation, older, desi clerk being terrorized by young white bullies in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (2004), one of those rare moments in mainstream film history that acknowledges the diversity of immigrant identities, Kumar ambivalently flip-flops between aiding the clerk and then leaving him to the devices of the vagrants, taking advantage of the confusion to steal their car and continue in his pursuit of a burger.
Today, as South Asians become more noticeable in high-profile professions across the American economic landscape, their desire to prove they have made it often requires an overstatement of those aspects of the American dream which are marked by rising class status, political power, and visibility. It is often embarrassing, then, to be associated with the image and reality of the convenience store clerk, the taxi driver, and the motel owner. Even where South Asians now own such businesses, having worked their way up in classic immigrant style, the desire is to distance themselves from those roots and those who have taken their place. Particularly for some new immigrants, even today, these are the professions that give them their start. They are the South Asians most visible to the mainstream, given the prevalence of these small businesses, and they are also often the ones in the front line of criminal attacks, petty crime, and anti-immigrant violence, as made amply evident post 9-11.
The popular American media stereotype of the South Asian clerk is troubling in its uni-dimensionality. In representing a section of our population, it leaves out the many other roles played by members of our community, but it also does no justice to the clerk himself—his accent representative of his ability to speak more than one language; his curtness perhaps bearing testament to the long hours and late nights; and his work ethic being less about that (and him) than that he does this job to make a living and support his family.
R. Benedito Ferrao lives in Los Angeles and London, where he attends graduate school. His father used to be a convenience store clerk.