SINGIN’ THE BOLLYWOOD BLUES…..Fine-tuning Diversity in “Post-Racial” America

| January 28, 2012 | Comments (3)

(Gentle Readers: After a pause of three months, I have resumed my postings. I hope you will find this one thought-provoking!)

Ananda remembers the moment as though it were yesterday. Twenty-some years ago when he was eleven, he and his family, devout Asian Indian Catholics, made a pilgrimage to the largest cathedral in Ohio, the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, near their home in rural Findlay.

He recalls the mystery and beauty of the  church’s sanctuary which he approached with reverence having been told by his father that he should light a candle, pray and make a wish. Igniting the candle’s flame, Ananda pressed his hands together in prayer and made his wish: that he would somehow become white.

Sitting in a trendy cafe in Manhattan’s SOHO  neighborhood two decades later, he smiles as he recalls this childhood memory with what seems to be a certain fond nostaglia, but there is sadness in his eyes.

In “post-racial”  America with a black man in the White House and African-Americans in positions of power and prominence as cultural icons, I listen intently with a sense of disbelief when I hear my friend recount what it was like growing up  as a dark-skinned Asian Indian in the  21st century in lilly-white, Norman Rockwell Ohio.

First there was his name. Nobody at his school seemed capable of pronouncing it – ANANDA. So what did they call him ? What else but GANDHI! Hey, Gandhi ! was the label he learned to respond to even though it bore no connection to his actual  name.

As he grew older the stings were deeper. Attracted to an Irish girl in his freshman class in high school, he was told by the object of his affection as she looked into his chocolate-colored face  that she did not like “dark guys.” Escaping the confines of the  mid-western heartland, the world remained the same for Ananda. Even in New York City he was treated like an outcast. Recently riding in the New York City subway, listening to tunes on his Iphone, a fellow passenger tapped him on the arm and asked ” I’m embarrassed to ask you this, but my grandmother wants to know where that wire’s going. You can never be too careful these days!”

Asians – in this particular case, Indians – seem to have ended up, as we enter the second decade of the  21st century two generations after the Civil Rights movement  peaked in the 1960s, at the end of the Equality Queue. When it comes to full acceptance and equal treatment, this singly most affluent group in the US seems to have retained the status of second-class citizen in the way they are portrayed – or not portrayed –  by the media’s neglect of their existence (how many Asian actors are featured on film and in television series ?). To be sure, Indians and other Asians are not told to ride in the back of the bus as they once were and the confinement of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during the Second World War is a shameful  episode that hurts to even speak about today. But there is no question that Ananda and his fellow Indians are not given the recognition and acceptance that they, and every other member of the American Rainbow, deserve. How did it come to be that all these Mercedes-driving doctors, lawyers and business people are often treated as though they do not exist ? Perhaps they have been too busy pursuing the American dream, too wrapped up in careers that have given them the best that life can offer materially, to sit back and demand  the respect and recognition they are due.

Seized with the firm conviction that you only move ahead by action – civil rights were only won by blacks and latinos after years of confrontation and protest – Ananda decided not just to talk the talk but also to walk the walk. Quitting a well-paying job at a prestigious company he has set out on his own to make a film that he hopes will raise America’s consciousness about what it feels like to be overlooked and misunderstood.

The Band Aid Web Series  (on youtube) is in production and plans to finish its first season later this year with eleven episodes. The film tells the compelling story of Cheriyan, an Indian-American student who arrives at Columbia University and is mistaken for a girl. Not because he looks or acts like one. He is masculine and Hollywood  (or perhaps Bollywood) handsome. But his name – Cheriyan – is read by the paper-pushers at Columbia as a girl’s name, Cherry Ann, and he is placed in a girl’s dormitory. With a mixture of humor and sensitivity, the story follows Cheriyan’s Ivy League career through the eyes of an outsider. At first the plot may seem more sitcom than sad tale, but in the end we are seized with the emptiness of people not being accepted by society inspite of abundant brains and beauty. And where did the title Band Aid come from? Ananda said he can never find a Band Aid the color of his dark skin. One of the products that remain “white bread” just like dolls which used to be all white with blond hair.

Watching this winning film today after I returned from a shopping trip to Chinatown gave me more than a bit of food for thought.  South of Canal Street the  thoroughfares were jammed with revellers celebrating  Chinese New Year, the beginning of the most auspicious Year of the Dragon. Only thing, most of the people who propelled the twisting 30-foot- long dragons and pounded the drums were  African-Americans  and Caucasians !   Were they being paid to “celebrate” ?Where were the Chinese ? They were watching the parade  and tending their shops and restaurants that lined the streets.

Maybe future Chinese New Year celebrations and Indian Day parades should have a more serious theme about acceptance and equality…or would that just spoil the fun ?








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Comments (3)

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  1. Bob Jones says:

    A very fine article, Sam. I have no trouble following your narrative on subtle racism. It is a pervasive cultural problem all over the world and can only be diffused through education and civil rights advocacy. If we want to eradicate racism, we must first address widespread ignorance. A very pertinent article that is not too kind to the conservative mind-set may be instructive:

  2. Liz says:

    While I am taken aback to know that so many of our family and friends still combat racial issues on a daily basis, I know the stories my parents tell me too well. And the stories all took place in this last decade. Even through my family’s racial struggles, I’ve overheard too many extended family member’s reference, “Negritos” and “chinos”. I’m happy to report that my family has taken my feedback when I hear them say things like this. So I know education is key; but so are personal actions to affect change within our spheres of influence.

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