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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 13, 2006

Written by C.N.

Sen. Biden’s Comments About Indians

Recently, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware commented on a C-SPAN cable television show that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” Many Indian Americans found this comment to be rather offensive, while Biden explained that he actually meant it as a compliment to the Indian American community:

Biden’s office said the senator admires, supports and respects the Indian-American community — and also sought to explain his gaffe.

“The point Sen. Biden was making is that there has been a vibrant Indian-American community in Delaware for decades. It has primarily been made up of engineers, scientists and physicians, but more recently, middle-class families are moving into Delaware and purchasing family-run small businesses,” said Margaret Aitken, a Biden spokeswoman.

“These families have greatly contributed to the vibrancy of the Indian-American community in Delaware and are making a significant contribution to the national economy as well,” she said.

For now, I am willing to give Biden the benefit of the doubt and believe that deep down, he was trying to complement the Indian American community. However, at best, it should be clear that his comments were in rather poor taste and a very bad choice of words.

If he were trying to complement the Indian American community, he should have just said that he’s pleased to see so many Indian families moving to his state and contributing to the state’s economy and their community by buying small businesses, rather than use the tired, generalizing stereotype of “all convenience stores are owned by Indians.”

Hopefully this episode will serve as a lesson to public officials — that even if you think you’re making a compliment to a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group, using generalizations to get your point across can backfire and may ultimately cost you support among those you were trying to complement in the first place.