The other day I was on Jeopardy! and accidentally flipped off Alex Trebek and the American viewing public. I’d like to write about the experience of being nationally infamous.
First, there’s an important and meaningful disclaimer I feel compelled to say. Jeopardy! was an amazing experience and everyone there was lovely and Alex Trebek is a boss and the other competitors are fantastic people.
After we taped the episode, Mari (another contestant) asked me if I meant to do it. I’m not smart enough to think about Jeopardy strategy, talk about differential geometry, and connive to make a rude gesture at the viewing public and a national icon. I was oblivious, and I promptly forgot about it.
When Jeopardy tweeted a video of my contestant interview the day it aired, I was reminded. And it was hilarious. In the Internet age, the thing to do in this situation is make gifs and memes, so we complied. That was as far as I thought it was going to go.
Later that day, my brother sent me a link to a BroBible article about it. And then UpRoxx, the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, E! News, etc. It’s worth noting here that of all these news organizations, only a single freelance writer reached out for comment. Twitter was aflame and Instagram lit up. Some of these articles jokingly conjectured that I had won a bet or that my finger cramped. All of this was fairly entertaining and I certainly relished the attention.
But the fun ended fairly quickly. Public life in America has a dark side and I’d like to give you a taste of it.
It started with simple disrespect in the vein of “You are a moron and a disgusting example of children not taught respect. Ashamed that you are from Texas.”
“Spoiled little rich boy! The poster child of arrogant millenials that thinks he’s so cool he can make obscene jestures in public, probably on a dare from another spoiled child. We don’t need your type. Go back. You’re here just to take advantage, not contribute.”
But as the last one started hinting, the messages quickly went from vaguely insulting to specifically racist.
“Where were you born?” was a subtle one.
“You are a disgusting example of education in 2017. Go back India and worship cows.”[sic] was not.
“Stupid fucking muslim. Don’t disrespect Americans.” was a bit off base.
The single word “ISIS” was concerning as well.
But “you may have given alex and the viewers ‘the finger’ but those two asians you played against gave you ‘the boot’. you got your ass whipped bad. i always thought asians were smarter than indians (i think that’s what you are) and you proved it in your last two jeopardy games. the country did notice you wearing the same shirt under your college sweatshirt for your three appearances. now we can safely say that you and your shirt stink!!! was that an hawaiian or indian shirt? you have set stanford admissions back greatly with your appearance. not a fan of yours!!!
signed, an almost as stupid as you caucasian guy.”
took the cake, if the cake was made of cardboard and frosted with shit with the words “FUCK BROWN PEOPLE” written in lighter shit frosting on the top of this shitty cake.
Also somebody called me “trailer trash,” which was confusing.
I have a few thoughts about all this. Race in America is a confusing topic and certainly not something I have always handled well.
First, I’m surprised by how inconsistent the messages were. Some people thought I was a Muslim and that by itself is a dirty word for much of America. Others knew that India and the Muslim Middle East are different places. I have no real explanation for “Trailer trash.”
The optimistic view is that racism is predominantly a fear of people who are different. The fact that these people felt the need to find me on the internet and hurl slurs at me without any real understanding of who I am or what race I am makes me hope that if someone told them what race I am and why it’s pretty chill and that all I really want is a steady supply of Mexican food and to spend time with people I love and do work—then they’d stop hating.
But there’s also the issue of what happened the next day in Olathe, Kansas. Two Indian software engineers watching basketball at a bar were shot without provocation after being told to “Get out of my country.” I love bars and I love basketball and I’ve worked as a software engineer.
I was also born in Ohio and raised in West Virginia and Texas. I have a Texas flag on my ceiling. It seems inconceivable to me that I could go to ‘my country’ and it not be this one.
To be honest, I’ve elided the question of my own race and its meaning for my entire life. Growing up the son of wealthy parents in predominantly wealthy neighborhoods usually tends (not always) to insulate you from these kind of problems to the point where the only racially motivated question on my mind was whether White girls would like me.
And I think Indians in general don’t ask these types of questions too often. We all know that there are hidden prejudices and biases, but in my experience the primary reaction is to keep our heads down and work harder. This needs to change.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room here. Since the election of Donald Trump it has once again gotten easier to see America as a nation of White people with interloping people of color. There’s no Black president to point to. There’s preferential treatment for getting Christians out of the Middle East. There might soon be a wall to the south to keep out the brown folks down there.
A nation with a Statue of Liberty in its greatest city and a wall on its southern border is a conflicted one where stuff like what happened in Olathe will continue. I’d like to end on a happy note. But I don’t have anything super positive to say about this. Even though Jeopardy! was a dream come true for me and I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life, even though today I cashed a check for $25k, and even though I got my fifteen minutes, I’ll also remember Olathe and my inbox.