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Biden's Gaffe: No Apology Needed

By Anil Adyanthaya

Last week, U.S. Senator Joe Biden caused a kerfuffle with his comment about the Indian-American population in his home state of Delaware. While on a visit in New Hampshire, Biden told an Indian-American supporter that "In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian-Americans moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking . . ." Unfortunately for Biden, his comment was on tape. The comment drew outrage from Indian-Americans upset at the perceived slur and from Republicans looking for another example of Democratic hypocrisy on race issues.

As an Indian-American and a Republican, I suppose I should be doubly outraged, but I am unable to do much more than chuckle at the whole incident. Who among us has not at least once said something unintentionally offensive? Unlike Biden, at least we had the good fortune not to have C-SPAN recording our words for worldwide dissemination.

I have no doubt that Biden's comment was unintended - he was in New Hampshire to gather support for a possible 2008 presidential bid, not chase it away. But, unlike many, I cannot label his comment offensive. For to do so would be an act of arrogance worse than anything Biden said.

The main uproar about Biden's comment was that it stereotyped Indian immigrants as convenience store and donut shop workers. The fact is, however, that many people of Indian descent work in such places and in other service industries. Hilary Clinton noted this when she once quipped that Gandhi used to run a "gas station down in St. Louis." But Democratic senators are not alone in this observation; Indian-Americans notice it too. For example, "hotels, motels and Patels" is a catchy phrase often heard in Indian circles that notes the success of one Indian community in America's economy hospitality industry.

So before criticizing Biden, Indian-Americans should reflect on the consequences of such criticism. Specifically, what message does it send to Indian-American service workers when fellow Indian-Americans in other fields are "offended" that someone suggested Indian-Americans worked in convenience stores and donut shops? Work is work and there should be no shame in doing honest work of whatever kind to support your family and to achieve a comfortable life. We do not need to recreate the caste system in this country. Besides, I am an attorney and frankly, I would be more upset if there were fewer Dunkin' Donuts around than if there were fewer law firms.

The worst part of what Biden said was that a person needed a "slight Indian accent" to go to Indian-owned convenience stores and donut shops. One could interpret that comment as Biden implying that Indian-Americans do not speak proper English. But a more innocent interpretation is that this was just Biden's way to make his joke. When confronted with such alternative constructions, it is important for Indian-Americans to take the more innocent reading of comments like Biden's and Clinton's. We should not live our lives in a perpetual state of offense. For a minority group to succeed in a country they must adapt to the mores and customs of that country. Teasing and joking are large parts of American culture. To demand apologies and retractions every time someone makes a joke at your expense is counterproductive. We are better served by focusing on our contributions to society. Becoming untouchable (no pun intended) is no victory. I for one do not want to live in a society where people are always on edge less they say something that offends me. That is condescension, not equality.

All this is not to say that we should sit by passively when true slurs are directed our way. Of course not. But it does us no good to assume malice or racism. Gandhi once said "The unity we desire will last only if we cultivate a yielding and charitable disposition towards one another." With that in mind, I would be happy to share a coffee and donut with Senator Biden. I will even order for him.

Anil Adyanthaya is a lawyer and writer who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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