Mr Trump, Howdy Pardner
The problem with the ‘Indian accent’ isn’t the accent. It’s the stereotypes that come with it
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!