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Not so long ago it seemed the only desis who protested anything were the religious ones. Granted, they had plenty to protest about. Every time you turned around, Hindu gods were turning into new unlikely avatars—footwear, beer bottle labels, toilet seat covers! Some of the protests felt justified, some were a little overzealous. Come on, if Goddess Durga could slay Mahishasura, she can take on some clueless Western marketer who tries to turn her into a kitschy lunchbox.
But there were some valuable lessons to be learned. How to organize. How to make noise, issue a press release, make your presence felt. And it’s helping to make the desi community a little more to reckon with.
For example, the recent sting operation targeting Indian merchants in Georgia accused of selling the everyday ingredients needed to cook meth. Activists complained that the Georgia cops specifically went after desi storeowners whose limited English made them sitting ducks.
The ACLU took up the case, charging racial profiling, but even when they lost that round, the activists didn’t give up. In November they took their case all the way to Washington, D.C., organizing a congressional hearing with the Asian Pacific American caucus.
Or take the macaca controversy. Sen. George Allen says he didn’t really know what the term meant when he called S.R. Sidarth one though he never quite explained why he was using it then. But certainly, the desi community got into action, guns blazing, as the video spread all over YouTube. Allen’s campaign manager first dismissed the controversy and said the senator had nothing to apologize for. It didn’t quite take him down like Trent Lott, but Allen was soon eating humble pie.
On the other hand, there was the rather sorry Dunkin’ Donuts episode with Joe Biden. The senator said, “You cannot go into a Dunkin’ Donuts or a 7-Eleven unless you have a slight Indian accent.” Hmm. A stereotype, certainly. But racist? Demeaning? I suddenly heard a chorus of voices saying that desis who objected to Allen but not Biden were just showing their Democratic bias. Double standards, complained the Indian-American Republican Council.
Really? Macaca and Dunkin’ Donuts are not quite equivalent. Sure, we have high-profile engineers and doctors and these days, even a Booker winner in the Indian-American mix. (Congrats, Kiran Desai!) But we also have cabbies and those who work the midnight shift at gas stations. And what’s wrong with working at Dunkin’ Donuts, anyway? What’s to be offended about? Is it just not good enough for the model minority?
Work is work, isn’t it? It’s not monkey business.