This post at Gaba's Notebook and the interview mentioned therein (with its banter about the term "Indian" in the current political climate) reminded me about a personal incident highlighting the utter ridiculousness of political correctness.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I worked with an Indian - not what the British would call a "Red Indian" (American Indian) but rather a guy from the Indian Subcontinent. Prayag, a Hindu, was born in the black-tea-producing State of Assam and grew up in the exotic mountainous and Christian State of Meghalaya, where Khasi women practice archery and work while the men take their wives' names, stay home, drink beer, and raise the children. Prayag and I shared an office in Rye, New York, and became very close friends.
He shared a small apartment on the Upper East side of Manhattan with another non-Red Indian, a hilarious and sharp-as-a-tack Bengali Muslim guy named Bhaya. These two guys spoke more languages fluently than most people have fingers on one hand. Prayag's sister also lived in New York, after working in Belgium for a few years having learned French from tape recordings. My Indian friends loved everything from Pink Floyd to the the Jerky Boys from Japanese food to Times Square. A bunch of us from work (which included a Dane and a Finn for good measure) took ballroom dancing classes and used to try our hand Salsa dancing in Manhattan's Latin night clubs. That is another thing I learned that I am miserable at. But we all had a great time.
My Indian friends in particular were a lot of fun, and were quite remarkable. In hanging out with them, I learned to appreciate such things as Assam tea, fine sandalwood incense, and tandoori chicken - and I was imbibing and making chai long before you could buy it at the local Starbucks. Prayag and I once took a road trip together from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. On the way back, his car broke down in Lumberton, North Carolina. The tow truck operator was a Lumby Indian. I remarked at the irony that I was sitting in the middle between two guys who were both called "Indians," offering that I was a Cleveland Indian, and my maternal grandmother was part Cherokee. God has a sense of humor - especially when Prayag had to learn the hard way that there are places in America (such as Lumberton, North Carolina) that are "dry" - upon checking into a local motel while the car was being repaired and trying to order a beer at the restaurant.
Thanks to my friendship with my Indian friends, I also once got a free taxi ride in New York because I was able to chat a little with our driver in Hindi. Even knowing just a few conversational words was enough of a novelty to tickle the driver's funnybone. Then there was the road trip from Manhattan to West Virginia with five of us in my little Ford Escort after being rear-ended by a cab at 5:00 in the morning.
Anyway, after a few years, Grace and I were living in Philadelphia, and Prayag was still in Manhattan. We both landed a consulting job halfway between the two of us near Princeton, New Jersey. We were having a blast working together yet again as subcontractors for EDS - which, if I remember correctly, was Ross Perot's old company.
We were programming on the IBM AS/400, and this was before anyone worked with the Internet and e-mail on their computers. But the AS/400 had a way to send messages (sort of like IM) to other people on the system. Prayag and I had a running joke about Indians. It involved General Custer's alleged last words: "Where did all those #$%^& Indians come from?" Needless to say, Indians dominated the IT scene at that time, and our project was no exception. Prayag, ever the card, sent me a private message of the punchline of the Custer joke. A couple hours later, we were both summoned into the boss's office. Our project manager was a rather dour and humorless blond-haired-blue-eyed young EDS exec. Not that he was in the Hitlerjugend or anything, but he could have posed for a period painting. He informed my dark-skinned colleague that he was fired, effective immediately. I don't know why I was in the office, maybe to send me a warning about being involved in such high-jinks in the future.
Prayag was stunned, and asked "Why?" Our Germanic-looking manager triumphantly produced a printout of the illicit communication. Now, he wasn't miffed that Prayag used the computer to send a private message, nor even about the profanity. The reason was that he used an "ethnic slur."
"You're firing me because I used the word Indian?" Prayag inquired wide-eyed. "Yes" the boss said authoritatively. "But, I'm an Indian." "It doesn't matter." And this exchange took place many years before Mike Judge's Office Space. But then again, Office Space worked so well because it was so true to life. Well, this was a pre-incarnate Office Space moment.
Prayag was immediately escorted from the building and state troopers even followed him out of the parking deck and for several miles along the highway.
That was a Friday, and so Mrs. H. and I took a trip to New York that evening to commiserate with our friend. We walked around Manhattan and visited several establishments with a group of Prayag's buddies and my former co-workers. Prayag continued to be baffled, but we all found a way to laugh at the preposterous situation. He would tell complete strangers: "I just got fired for asking where all the #$%^& Indians came from." "But you are a #$%^& Indian," was the inevitable New York reply.
I continued to work for the blond-haired-blue-eyed humorless Aryan for a few more weeks until the job ended. It just wasn't the same without my friend, the #$%^& Indian.
Ironically, the real Aryans were actually Indians. I wonder what ever happened to the Humor Nazi from New Jersey. EDS was eventually bought out by HP. I suspect his job was, at some point, outsourced to Mumbai.
That would have served him right.