The 26 essays in Lunch with a Bigot (to be released May 15) are Amitava Kumar’s observations of the world put into words. A mix of memoir, reportage, and criticism, the essays include encounters with writers Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, discussions on the craft of writing, and a portrait of the struggles of a Bollywood actor.
The title essay is Kumar’s account of his visit to a member of an ultra-right Hindu organization who put him on a hit-list. In these and other essays, Kumar tells a broader story of immigration, change, and a shift to a more globalized existence, all the while demonstrating how he practices being a writer in the world. Shared by permission, the excerpt below is from the essay “On Being Brown in America.”
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On April 17, two days after the bombs went off during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring almost 200 others, CNN’s John King went on the air to say that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.”1 In the CNN video, which shows that the time of the broadcast was 1.15 p.m. on Wednesday, we see King pointing to a photograph from the front page of the New York Times. A positive identification had been made based on a surveillance video from a Lord and Taylor store just outside the frame of the picture in the Times, King said. A little later that afternoon, King would assure viewers that a subsequent arrest had been made.
No one had been arrested that day, of course, and, alas, there was no dark-skinned male. What is remarkable is that even while first reporting his piece of exclusive news, CNN’s King felt it necessary to qualify what he was saying. The qualifications he offered were not about the haste with which he was sharing a piece of misinformation, or the be wildering lack of specificity in his description, or even the absence of adequate verification. Instead, his remarks appeared to suggest to his viewers that he couldn’t be more open with them because of politically correct sentiments that complicated open disclosures of “game changers” that the police had uncovered.
“I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. . . . The official used some other words. I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that.”2
Some people! Who are they?
Frankly, I’m not among them. I was listening to King and wishing we were back in the days when we could say what we were really thinking. I mean the good old days even before television. Consider, for instance, W. Somerset Maugham’s famous short story from the 1920s about an Englishman, a detective named Ashenden, charged with the responsibility of catching a dark-skinned male named Chandra. Chandra was an Indian nationalist plotting against the colonial rule, a man “at the heart of plots to embarrass the British in India.” He had also been involved in two or three bombings that had killed “a few innocent bystanders” and, more seriously, shaken “the nerves of the public and so damaged its morale.” Here is the detective’s response when shown Chandra’s picture: “To Ashenden, unused to Oriental faces, it looked like any of a hundred Indians that he had seen. It might have been the photograph of one or other of the rajahs who come periodically to England and are portrayed in the illustrated papers. It showed a fat-faced, swarthy man, with full lips and a fleshy nose; his hair was black, thick, and straight, and his very large eyes even in the photograph were liquid and cow-like. He looked ill-at-ease in European clothes.”3
Vivid language. And such ease of description. This is an advantage of being white — one of the advantages, at least, although I know I’m merely speculating about a large group — you can judge others and yet never suspect that you are merely telling your version of the truth. Even I, with my swarthy skin and timid soul, am taken in by the pose. And I nearly fall over with gratitude when, a paragraph later, looking at another photograph of Chandra, Ashenden concedes that “in his turban and long, pale tunic he was not without dignity.”4
I’m inclined to feel a bit sorry for John King, ruffled by the sensitivities of others. But the fact is that he needn’t have worried about at least a portion of his audience. Even after his mistake had been corrected and the Tsarnaev brothers identified as the suspects, the Internet presented stark examples of bigotry and ignorance: “I Can’t [sic] believe that pair in the Boston bombing was not Towel heads!!! They are Czechoslovakian!”5
So it would appear that some Americans cannot tell the difference between nations. An even larger number, certainly thousands of users on the Internet site Reddit, were unwilling to distinguish between individuals. The amateur detectives on Reddit saw fit to declare from the photographs circulating on the Web that they had identified the suspect as a Moroccan American youth, Salah Eddin Barhoum, a spectator at the marathon. Others found it equally easy to spread the entirely baseless rumor that the FBI was saying Suspect No. 2 was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student missing since the middle of March.
This behavior isn’t entirely the product of the Internet. In fact, it is not even new. It has its roots in history and, arguably, in law. Let us go back to the days even before Maugham had his detective Ashenden looking at the photograph of a dark-skinned male. I’m referring here to the 1917 Immigration Act in the United States — also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act –which regarded as undesirable aliens all those individuals who had their origin in Asia, a region spanning the so-called Middle East to the Pacific Islands, thereby lumping them in with “homosexuals,” “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” “criminals,” “insane persons,” “alcoholics,” “professional beggars,” and others.6
You’ve heard the words of the old blues song: “They say if you’s white, should be all right, / If you’s brown, stick around, / But if you’s black, mmm mmm, brother, get back, get back, get back.” That old racial imaginary is changing. Brown is staining the edges of the racial divide. Richard Rodriguez has written, “Brown bleeds through the straight line, unstaunchable — the line separating black from white, for example.”7 If we are going to be optimistic, we can even say that brown is the color of the future.
From Amitava Kumar, “On Being Brown in America,” IndiaInk Blog, New York Times, April 25, 2013. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
- CNN’s John King can be heard engaging in baseless conjecture in video hosted by Huffington Post and others (“John King: Boston Bombing Suspect A ‘Dark- Skinned Male,’ ” accessed September 24, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/17/john-king-boston-bombing-dark-skinned-male-ifill_n_3102195.html).
- “John King: Boston Bombing Suspect a ‘Dark-Skinned Male,’ ” Huffington Post.
- Somerset Maugham, “Giulia Lazzari,” in W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories (1921; New York: Penguin, 1977), 3:88–89.
- Maugham, “Giulia Lazzari,” 88.
- The Tumblr account Public Shaming collected screen captures of this and similar Twitter posts following the identification of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on a post titled “The Definitive ‘People Who Thought Chechnya was the Czech Republic’ Collection,” at http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/post/48547675807/the-definitive-people-who-thought -chechnya-was-the. Accessed September 24, 2014.
- Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 2.
- Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America (New York: Viking, 2002), xi.
Amitava Kumar is Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. He is the author of A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and Nobody Does the Right Thing, all also published by Duke University Press.