HOT DOC: How I Became A ‘Repellant Racist’

—————————- Original Message —————————-
Subject: Saira Rao Posting.
From: “Rao, Nita”
Date: Mon, July 23, 2007 11:25 pm

I’m writing because on Monday, July 23rd, the writers, editors, and art
department at Phawker posted an interview about my sister Saira Rao’s novel,
and the experiences inspiring her book. The critic, Mavischambermaid-copy.jpg
Linneman, raised observant, provocative questions. There was no nipping, as if at Dorothy Parker’s heels. But the overall tenor of the piece was still quite agreeable.The deep shame of it — for Phawker, not Saira — was that all was utterly undone by the repellant racist illustration [pictured right] headlining the feature. With broad brushstrokes, the cartoonist managed to flatten Saira’s thoughtfulness, wit, and hard-won accomplishments in favor of a cheap bigoted joke.
If Mavis Linneman had been interviewing the fine Korean-America novelist Chang-Rae Lee, I wonder whether the accompanying picture would find him gussied up as Kim Jong-Il or in flowing Hanbok with skewers of bulgogi poking out of every bell sleeve, slanted eyes optional.To lampoon Saira [pictured, below left] as Vishnu, who makes up the Hindu Holy Trinity along with Brahma and Shiva, is despicable and shows an absolute absence of imagination. There must have been a hundred and one visuals to storyboard Chambermaid, whose plotline is only incidentally narrated by an Indian-American narrator. But Phawker’s editorial staff plunged ahead and satirized Saira’s ethnicity by sketching her in lotus position, with four hands extending from her body: one holding the scales of justice, another holding a gavel, and the two remaining swearing on what appears to be a law book, in reference to the oath of public service.
saira_biopicsepia.jpgTruly, I thought after Isaiah Washington and Trent Lott dumped parity back at the baseline, and Sacha Baron Cohen exposed our nation’s intolerance from mansions in Birmingham to trailers with hiccupping frat boys, that the situation could only reverse itself. But it is traumatic to be reminded, that the people ostensibly paying professional respect to your own sister have really just cast her as Peter Sellers in The Party. At least you did manage to pay homage, purely incidentally, to Saira by choosing to incarnate her as Vishnu, the god of mercy and goodness, who maintains the universe and cosmic order. She’s kind of a broad after his own heart. Decent, wry, self-deprecating, wrinkles her nose to nudge up her glasses a lot. The first person in a room to chat up the flowers clinging to the wall. Perhaps the next go round in Phawker we may expect Saira in the medium of Trompe l’Oleil, the art of faux finishes, a sari wrapped around her middle, and Padma Lakshmi shoving canap?s at the critic all throughout their t?te – ? -t?te.
Nita Rao
New York City

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Dear Nita,
First I would like to commend you on penning the most posh piece of hate mail we have gotten to date — and there have been some impeccably crafted forked-tongued missives, believe you me. (I was going say “articulate” but that would just open a whole other can of worms.) Second, I would like to make clear that the idea to draw your sister as Shiva (yes, I asked for Shiva, NOT Vishnu) was, for better or worse, mine and mine alone and I take full responsibility. It is my understanding that Shiva is both Destroyer and Benefactor and I thought that was emblematic of your sister’s broad satire of the judiciary.peter-sellersthe-party02.jpg
I would also like to apologize if I have offended Hinduism or, in your estimation, belittled the efforts of your sister and undermined the dignity of Americans of Indian descent. None of that was intended. But just to be clear, we were not “satirizing her ethnicity” we were simply incorporating it into the illustration. Your sister notwithstanding, authors are usually a tough sell visually speaking, as are books that nobody has read yet. Here at Phawker we pride ourselves on making the dense and the esoteric inviting and accessible, often with bold visual hooks and edgy headlines, or vice versa. Perhaps we are not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the thin of skin. At Phawker, we laugh at everyone and everything, but mostly we laugh at ourselves. And we expect the same of the people we write about and, for that matter, the people that read us.
Having said all that, I think “repellant racist illustration” is a little excessive, it is a phrase better suited to, say, something you might find in an old Ku Klux Klan pamphlet, The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion or an R. Crumb cartoon about tumescent-lipped hypersexual amazonian negresses. To be honest, I was thinking about the de-contextualized pop exotica of the Beatles’ Help. Perhaps I am guilty of the sin of kitsch, or even religious insensitivity (though I’m pretty sure God can take it), but “repellant racist” is like answering a slingshot with an atom bomb. As for equating Alex Fine’s illustration with Isaiah Washington and Trent Lott — well, if we had called your sister a “faggot” perhaps the former would apply, and if we had mourned the demise of the Jim Crow South, possibly the latter would apply. But let the record show, we did no such thing. I only bother to mention all of this because this is just the kind of reckless sophistry that muddies the waters and poisons debate, and, worst of all, it gives people like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the ammo they need to dismiss the entire issue of race as the “PC Police” overreacting. Providing a sane alternative to all that nonsense is why we started Phawker in the first place.
In closing, let me say again that I am sorry you got the wrong idea after coming to Phawker for the first time and seeing your sister drawn in a manner you find offensive. However, you should know that we are very much a Love All, Serve All, kind of place. Take a look around, I think you will see that we draw a pretty firm line in the sand when it comes to ignorance of every stripe and the intolerance it breeds. We do our best to fullfill H.L. Mencken’s dictum to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In the pursuit of which, we fully exercise our First Amendment rights and we reserve the right to riff on visual signifiers as we see fit.


Jonathan Valania

PS. Us Magazine is the problem, not the solution. Just sayin’.

PPS Peter Sellers is God. Not even kidding.

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