Mr Trump, Howdy Pard­ner

The prob­lem with the ‘In­dian ac­cent’ isn’t the ac­cent. It’s the stereo­types that come with it

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Sandip Roy

In­di­ans have no rea­son to feel left out any more. They’ve shown up on Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump’s spit­ball radar. The Trump has no­ticed them and the Trump has mocked them. The Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign has sprung to their de­fence.

We had to wait our turn be­hind Mex­i­cans, Mus­lims, women, gays, the dis­abled, the Pope. But bet­ter late than never. Now we fi­nally know that we mat­ter.

At a rally in Delaware, Trump de­cided to air his In­dian ac­cent as he took a knock at call cen­tres. He said he called up his credit card com­pany to fig­ure out where their cus­tomer sup­port was based. “Guess what, you’re talk­ing to a per­son from In­dia. How the hell does that work?… So I called up, un­der the guise of check­ing on my card, I said, ‘Where are you from?’” He mim­icked the re­sponse in his best faux desi ac­cent. “We are from In­dia.”

In­di­ana is Great, or is it In­dia?

Trump quickly qual­i­fied his state­ment to say, “In­dia is a great place.” His beef was with wicked com­pa­nies of­fload­ing jobs to In­dia.

It still led to a slew of head­lines about Trump’s “ter­ri­ble In­dian ac­cent”. The Clin­ton cam­paign has tut- tut­ted that it’s “typ­i­cal of the dis­re­spect he has shown to groups across the spec­trum” even as it launched In­dian-Amer­i­cans for Hil­lary. Frank Is­lam, an In­dian-Amer­i­can bundler who has raised more than $100,000 for Clin­ton, called it “de­mean­ing and de­mon­is­ing” to him per­son­ally. Only the In­dian-Amer­i­cans for Trump po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee seems not to have re­acted yet.

I lis­tened to the clip. And I lis­tened to it again. Hon­estly, I feel a lit­tle short­changed. As ac­cents go, this is not even in the Simp­sons’ Apu ter­ri­tory. If Frank Is­lam wants “de­mean­ing and de­mon­is­ing”, he could check out In­di­ana Jones and the Tem­ple of Doom. Ac­tor Kal Penn has said other chil­dren never wanted to sit next to him at lunch in school. They were con­vinced the good veg­e­tar­ian Gu­jarati Kalpen Modi from New Jer­sey had mon­key brains in his tif­fin box.

Trump’s clumsy foray into mimicry is peanuts com­pared to Maine’s Repub­li­can gover­nor Paul LePage’s com­ment that came just a day later that In­dian work­ers are the “hard­est” and “worst ones to un­der­stand”. But of course, In­di­ans are “lovely peo­ple”, just as In­dia is a “great place”.

In­di­ans have oc­cu­pied a pe­cu­liar place in US po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. On one hand, no politi­cian wants to be seen in favour of out­sourc­ing US jobs to Ban­ga­lore. When Asian-Amer­i­can veteran Mike Honda — no stranger to dis­crim­i­na­tion — was chal­lenged by desi Ro Khanna in Sil­i­con Val­ley, Honda’s cam­paign tried to tar him with the out­sourc­ing brush.

On the other hand, the In­dian-Amer­i­can is the model mi­nor­ity: wellbehaved, law-abid­ing, spell­ing bee- win­ning. Ev­ery can­di­date, even Bobby Jin­dal, would be happy to have their money. The can­di­dates re­sort to a great In­dian rope trick of a bal­anc­ing act.

Barack Obama wanted to end tax sub­si­dies for com­pa­nies that moved jobs over­seas but had to apol­o­gise when his cam­paign mocked Hil­lary Clin­ton as ‘sen­a­tor from Pun­jab’ be­cause of her fi­nan­cial ties to In­dia. Joe Bi­den tried to say he was ac­tu­ally ex­tolling di­ver­sity when he quipped, “You can­not go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts [in Delaware] un­less you have a slight In­dian ac­cent. I’m not jok­ing.” And in 2012 he, too, tried out his best In­dian ac­cent to mimic, what else, but a credit card call cen­tre worker? Déjà vu, any­one?

I’ve a Stereo-type Ra­dio

An ac­cent is an ac­cent. There’s noth­ing good or bad about it per se. Comic Rus­sell Pe­ters could have been talk­ing to Bi­dens and Trumps when he said, “In­dian peo­ple are fully aware of what their ac­cent sounds like. We don’t ac­tu­ally need YOU [to tell us].”

The prob­lem is not the ac­cent, it’s the stereo­types that come as car­ryon baggage, in this case job-steal­ing BPOs, lack of deodorant and pen­nypinch­ing Patel mo­tels. That’s why a French ac­cent is charm­ing and an In­dian ac­cent is down­mar­ket snake- charmer. I will guar­an­tee that if ‘rock-star economist’ Thomas Piketty spoke with a heavy Gu­jarati ac­cent in­stead of a sexy French one, his lit­er­a­ture fes­ti­val ap­pear­ances would be far less packed.

In 2006, for­mer Sen­a­tor Ge­orge Allen threw a young In­dian-Amer­i­can out of his rally call­ing him ‘ma­caca’ and then claimed he’d made up the word when ac­cused of racism. Allen lost the elec­tion and ‘ma­caca’ was anointed Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect Word of the Ear by Global Language Mon­i­tor.

But in a cam­paign where Trump has given us Mex­i­can rapists and drug-run­ners and calls for a ban on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the US, this lat­est salvo seems Trump Lite on the in­sult-o-me­ter. I don’t think it will even tor­pedo the In­dian-Amer­i­cans for Trump po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee.

In fact, here is a small flicker of hope. In the old days, call cen­tre work­ers called them­selves Joe or Nancy and put on strange Amer­i­can ac­cents to cre­ate the il­lu­sion that they were sit­ting in the Mid­west. I say it’s a small sign of progress that they are com­ing out of the closet and ad­mit­ting they are in In­dia.

By the way Mr Trump, ever spared a thought for the poor call cen­tre worker who had to de­ci­pher what YOU were say­ing in your blus­ter­ing Amer­i­can ac­cent?

Birdie num num Amer­ica!

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