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Ranjit and Chad or Racist and Sad?

By: Rajesh Oza Email By: Rajesh Oza
September 2010
Ranjit and Chad or Racist and Sad? Dear PMG:

My desi buddies and I have been debating the merits of a television commercial for Metro PCS “starring” two Indian characters trying to sell a phone service. Most of us think that this is harmless fun. We laugh at the goofballs Ranjit and Chad, their hilarious Bollywood dances, their retro clothes, and, yes, their vedy, vedy Indian accents.

But just about as many friends say that we should protest this phone company for being racist. These guys, whom I like, but happen to not agree with, lecture the rest of us with phrases like dominant majority, subordinate minority, and cultural imperialism. I confess that I don’t know what all these sociological theories mean, but I do begin to understand my friends’ position when they ask how Mexican-Americans would feel if there was a commercial poking fun at José and Pedro riding on a burro.

There is also a small number who say, “Chill out! It’s just a commercial. Instead of whining about stereotypes and racism, let’s celebrate our contribution to American capitalism. Maybe this commercial can help expand American culture to include Amma and amrakhand, as well as Mom and apple pie.

I’ve heard that Gandhiji had a great sense of humor. Would he laugh at all this or call for a boycott?

Dear Friend,

“The truest test of civilization, culture, and dignity is character?.” (M. K. Gandhi).

When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhiji responded, “I think it would be a good idea.”

I imagine that the puckish freedom fighter enjoyed using his wit to lighten the burden of leading India’s independence movement. At the same time, I imagine that the British thought of Gandhiji and his impish smile as being not very funny thorns in the empire’s crown. And I imagine that indigenous people throughout the world were inspired to use humor to defeat the military and economic might of those who claimed to be their colonial masters.

In our post-imperial world, advertising is the new empire. Valued as an annual market of over $800 billion, advertising influences not only what we buy but also what we laugh at. It is an integral part of the media that defines our global civilization, and thus shapes culture at many levels: family, friend, corporation, and country.

As you decide what you want to laugh at and who you want to laugh with, please consider how much power over your identity you want to cede to advertisers. You have a choice of how to think of the commercial’s two actors: Memorable buffoons? Front men pitching a product? Or sad court jesters whom the “king” and the king’s advertising “mad men” use and abuse? What’s at stake is more than a couple of television characters. What’s at stake is the dignity of your own character.

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