I am guessing that most people who read the title will not know who Maureen Chao is, but will have no problem remembering the incident for which she paid a heavy personal price. This piece could have had a number of different titles. Possible contenders include:
- Let Him/Her Who Is Without Sin Cast The First Stone
- Foot In Mouth Isn’t Racism
Maureen Chao was the Vice Consul in the U.S. Consulate in Chennai. On Aug. 12, in a speech she was giving to a group of students at SRM College in Chennai she said, “I was on a 24-hour train trip from Delhi to Orissa. But, after 72 hours, the train still did not reach the destination… and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians.” Apparently the students at SRM College thought it was humorous – as I will argue, this matters.
Reactions to Mrs. Chao’s comments were swift and spanned the spectrum. A piece in the LA Times asked whether she was “racist or just poorly worded?” But such uncertainty was a minority perspective. By and large, accusation, condemnation, and denigration came together as a bundled package, swift and clear. (a good representative of such judgment is a blog by one Mr. Ramani). General perceptions of Mrs. Chao were far from favorable. As First Post reported, “66 percent of Daily News readers’ responded saying Chao should be sacked as a US diplomat should show better judgment in public statements, while 17 percent felt Chao’s comments were misconstrued by the audience.”
The gut reaction was across the board. In the days that followed I heard many a conversation about the racist diplomat. A friend of mine posted a link to the story on Facebook with “What a bloody idiot!” as his/her comment. Responses to my friend’s FB post were
- Sadly, such deep-rooted racism (she remembered something that she felt 20 years ago!) will not go away with a single “cultural sensitivity” course.
- See my comments on us consulate chennai (sic) page.
- Read this a couple of days back. Crazy woman! I think Jayalalita demanded an apology and got it.
- How can US appoint a diplomat who is so racist? They should have sent her to the cultural sensitivity training before they sent her over. Now it is too late. Good for Jayalalita for calling her on it.
These reactions were not only understandable, but seemed rational. After all, as a State Department spokesperson had said by then, “”We consider the comments absolutely unacceptable. I think you saw that she apologized almost immediately. She’s voluntarily enrolled in a cultural sensitivity course. But obviously, they’re unacceptable and inconsistent with core American values.” Shortly thereafter we were told that Mrs. Chao herself had decided to leave her posting in Chennai in the near future by a US Consulate spokesperson.
At that time my attitude to the incident could be described as agnostic apathy. Agnostic, because I am always skeptical when I hear of people doing things which sound completely bizarre (the corollary of the ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true’ aphorism, is, ‘if it’s too bizarre to be true, it probably isn’t true), and apathetic because I really didn’t pay much attention to the incident.
However my desire to comment on this has changed over the last week. I met someone over the week who has worked closely with Mrs. Chao and assures me that the malice attributed to her is far from merited. Please meet Andrew Simkin, who was the Consul General in the Chennai U.S. Consulate till August 2, 2012 – exactly 10 days before the Chao incident. Mr. Simkin is an alumnus of the college where I teach and I was delighted when he visited us last week. I came to know Andrew when he was posted in Chennai and I was organizing study abroad programs for my students. Andrew’s sense of inter-cultural exchange and his delight with his stay in India are well reflected in his July 4, 2011 remarks in Chennai at the Consulate Independence Day Celebrations. When we met last week I casually asked him about the “unfortunate incident with the Vice Consul.” In his usual soft, measured tone he told me about how decent a person Mrs. Chao was, and how she was as far from being a racist as anyone could be. He told me about her family (she is married to an ethnic Vietnamese), and how her life journey and activities showed her to be a person open and warm to peoples of all cultural backgrounds. He felt that the State Department should have defended her, while clearly acknowledging the unfortunate words she should not have uttered. Andrew also pointed out that as a diplomat and Consul General he wanted his staff to go out into the community and meet people from all walks of life in their official capacities, rather than stay cocooned within the fortress that houses a U.S. Consulate. He was afraid that it is precisely the probability of backlashes of the Chao incident variety that makes diplomats say little and employ a ‘minimize the probability of the misspoken word’ strategy.
Andrew’s defense of Mrs. Chao impressed me and has stayed with me long enough for me to want to write this piece – no more apathy when it comes to this incident. Also, I am no longer agnostic when it comes to whether Mrs. Chao is a racist. I know I’m not the only one, but I do hope Mrs. Chao can see that at least one Tamil does not think she is a racist, and thinks she is the one owed the apology.
In conclusion four points are worth making.
- To judge people when they say things that should preferably not be said is problematic. People who actually bear malice and ill-will repeat their indiscretions often enough to form a pattern. Before ruining somebody’s reputation and good name let us look for a pattern of indiscretion, rather than jump in with simply one data point. A single, or even occasional faux pas should not erase numerous acts of decency and good will. Balance matters.
- The words people say matter, but the reactions to those words matter too. The social and personal costs of the errors of judgment should not exceed the social and personal costs of the errors of those being judged. It seems to me Mrs. Chao and U.S.-India/Tamilnadu goodwill and diplomatic relations have paid a much higher price (even though very small in absolute terms) than any harm Mrs. Chao’s remarks have caused.
- Words taken out of context look terrible. Even on paper, Mrs. Chao’s “and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians” means something very different if you simply insert a comma after dirty. And if you add the words that came before and after the unfortunate phrase (I have no idea what they were), and the mood of the room (the laughter and reaction of the students does matter – they did not seem to sense any hostility or ill will) maybe Mrs. Chao doesn’t seem a racist to even those of us who condemned her.
- And then there is the let ‘Him/Her who is Without Sin Cast The First Stone’ aspect to this affair. I for one (and many a person reading this blog can attest to this claim) have said far too many things which I prefer I had not said. Thankfully I have not received public opprobrium for any of my soleful words (foot in mouth), though…
None of this is to suggest that racism should be tolerated. I am arguing though that racism is so vile an offence that we should be careful and deliberate before concluding that someone, their actions, or even their words are racist. If they are seen as such after careful deliberation, then they should pay the price. But reaching such a judgment calls for more evidence than we had in the case of Mrs. Chao. In fact, it seems no such evidence exists in the case of Mrs. Chao.