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Maureen Chao's remarks: Racist or just poorly worded?

August 16, 2011 |  1:31 pm

Jayalalithaa and Clinton

Maureen Chao, a U.S. vice consul in Chennai, India, has given a speech that's being interpreted by some as racist and by others as an unfortunate gaffe.

Here's what happened:

On Friday night, Chao, a former Fulbright scholar who has worked with foster children, refugees and low-income and homeless populations around the world, spoke to a group of students starting a study-abroad program in Tamil Nadu in the southern-most part of the Indian peninsula. During her talk, she recalled her own experience as a study-abroad student in India 23 years ago. All was totally fine and normal. Initially.

But according to media reports, she also humorously recalled what was supposed to be a 24-hour train trip from Delhi to the eastern Indian state of Orissa. "But, after 72 hours, the train still did not reach the destination," she said.

And here's the part she now probably wishes she had omitted: "and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians." (Some accounts quote her as saying "like a Tamilian.")

According to students who were there, applause broke out in the audience.

"Everybody at the auditorium felt that it was meant to be a jovial comment. It is a normal student behavior to applaud if one group is commented upon," T.V. Gopal, the dean of international relations at SRM University, where the speech was given, told IANS.

But by Saturday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa (pictured above with Hilary Clinton) was calling for Chao to apologize for her remarks, which the minister deemed racist.

In a letter to U.S. Consul General Jennifer McIntyre, Jayalalithaa said:

This remark which smacks of racism is highly condemnable. You will agree that this remark of the Vice Consul is an affront to all Tamils. I would like to request you to impress upon Ms. Maureen Chao that she has to withdraw this remark and also apologize for having made such a comment on the Tamils.

The U.S. consulate did not hesitate to reply. The consulate posted a statement on its website apologizing for what it called "inappropriate" remarks.

"Ms. Chao deeply regrets if her unfortunate remarks offended anyone, as that was certainly not her intent," said the consulate in the statement.

Unsatisfied with the apology, the Communist Party of India is demanding the withdrawal of Chao, according to AFP.

A former diplomat tells Yahoo's Envoy blog that such gaffes happen all the time: "I've seen this type before -- idealistic middle-aged person with an NGO or Peace Corps background who joins the Foreign Service without an awareness that everything s/he says is subject to be pounced on, scrutinized or twisted."


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Photo: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa shown in July with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Chennai, India. Credit: Associated Press