New York Times Apologizes for Racist India Space Program Cartoon

"Knock Knock." "Who's there?" "Prejudice."
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Recently, India became only the first country ever to put a spacecraft in Mars orbit on the first try with their Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). While Mars needs MOM, no one needed the New York Times cartoon about India’s maturing space program.

I get it. I get that India’s space program is a young upstart that is capable of participating with the major, established players, but there are approximately infinity ways to show that in a cartoon without being condescending and racist. The Times of India wasn’t too pleased with it, either:

The NYT cartoon sketched by Singaporean artist Heng Kim Song takes stock of India’s successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – albeit, in a rather condescending manner.

While we concede that there are still many cattle-rearing citizens in our country, you’d be hard pressed to find any at the Indian Space Research Organization – the space agency that launched MOM.

India still counts as the first nation to have successfully made it to Mars in its maiden attempt – and to have done it at a fraction of the cost incurred by other countries.

And so dhoti and turban clad or not, we’re still teaching a thing or two to the ‘elite space club’, who judging by this photo, appear to be a bunch of stodgy, xenophobic fogeys.

And the thing is, I’m willing to believe that the intention of the cartoon was to depict the space “establishment” as just that: stodgy old fogeys who could learn a thing or two but aren’t really listening. But the tone-deaf portrayal of India isn’t really made better if it was unintentional. In fact, that kind of makes it worse.

Accidental racism—or any prejudice—can be the most dangerous kind, because it’s less indicative of the singular motivation of the person or publication responsible and really reveals the lens through which our culture sees the world. It’s a prejudice that has become so accepted that it’s seen as reality, and that’s troubling. Speaking of unconscious prejudice, I’m sure you’ve also noticed that there are three people depicted in the comic and all of them appear to be male despite the involvement of women in space exploration.

I’m absolutely not calling the artist or the Times themselves racist, but whether it was intentional or not, the comic is.

The New York Times responded with an apology in a clarification on Facebook:

A large number of readers have complained about a recent editorial cartoon in The International New York Times, about India’s foray into space exploration. The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr. Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text – often in a provocative way – to make observations about international affairs. We apologize to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon. Mr. Heng was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens. We appreciate that readers have shared their feedback, which we welcome. — Andrew Rosenthal, Editorial Page Editor

Meanwhile, India’s space program is probably going to keep kicking ass and taking names as the orbiter, Mangalyaan, continues to study the Red Planet and send back awesome post cards.

(via io9, image via Heng/New York Times)

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct Geekosystem (RIP), and then at The Mary Sue starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at Smash Bros.