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Is It Insensitive When You Say a Certain Ethnicity Owns an Industry?

The business world is becoming increasingly politically correct.  Discrimination we all get – it’s bad.   Any employment act or comment that speaks to a Title 7 protected group can and will be used against you in a court of law. 

So we start to be trained to say nothing.  And the politically correct people around us love to remind us when we show ourselves as biased - even when we're referring to a positive trait of a certain group of people. 

“I’d watch saying something like that.”

 “Other races do the same thing.”

The more we hear, the less we say. That’s just how we get trained as things evolved around us related to discrimination in the workplace.

But the question I have is this – why is it bad to say that a certain ethnicity seems to own a positive trait, discipline or industry - especially compared to other ethnicities?

Example - At my son’s school, kids of Indian descent (continent of India) absolutely own math.  They just own it.  Everyone knows it, and I think it’s cool.  My son was on a college bowl team at one point in middle school and when a math problem came up, the white kids, the black kids and everything in between would just look at the Indian kid.

“Go get it, Pritesh.”

So is it bad to say that a certain ethnicity seems to owns something positive?  Because I’ve got another one for you, half related to nationality and half related to family name:

The Patels own the hotel industry.

Travel for a living and stay at a business class hotel – think Holiday Inn Express and similar properties that franchise out, and you’ll see an endless parade of Patels as owners, operators and managers.

The Patels absolutely own the business class and below hotel industry.  So I decided to look it up, hoping the politically correct police don't come after me for being so brash.  Here's what I found - More from The Chicago Reader:

After a while it all makes sense. You've just entered the Patel Zone.

And you're not alone. "Patel," mutters a salesman in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. "They keep coming up....They got a grapevine."

Do they ever.

"People always ask me, 'Where do you guys come from?'" Jayshree says. "What's with all these Patels?" Anthropologists have been trying to figure that out for decades. So have the Patels.

"Well, I'll tell you," Jayshree says. "My mother and father were both named Patel, and so were my grandparents." She pauses briefly and counts on her fingers, then holds up seven of them. "It goes back seven generations! I guess it does seem funny, but it never struck me as odd. I like to think my daughter will marry a Patel, but I won't force her to do anything she doesn't want to."

Three thousand people named Patel recently descended on Miami for a convention weekend that surely would have perplexed every hotel clerk in the city if not for the fact that many of those clerks and their bosses are also named Patel. So are nearly 30 percent of all hotel owners in America, as well as at least half of all the convenience store owners in England and a growing number of Dunkin' Donuts franchisees.

"It's a common last name," says Bobby Patel, a former hotel manager in Chicago. "It's like Smith."

Except people named Smith don't go out of their way to marry other people named Smith, and the name Patel isn't nearly as common as you'd think.

The simple answer is that they're members of an Indian caste that emigrated here en masse. The complicated question is where do they come from originally, and how did they get all these hotels?

All Patels trace their ancestry to the Kansas-sized Indian state of Gujarat, but their declared homeland is the southern district of Kheda, which is smaller in area than the city of Chicago. Although one of the largest castes in Gujarat, they're far from being the largest caste in India. Still, just try finding a more common Indian last name in American telephone books. Not only are they plentiful here, they're prosperous. "Most Indians are lazy," says Nilam's grandfather, Somabhai Patel, whose Indian grocery store on North Kedzie was one of the first in Chicago back in 1977. "You go to India, and you see people sitting on the ground making little piles of stones when they should be building houses." He's only half joking.

The Patels own the hotel industry.  It doesn't mean they're limited to that.  They originate from India, and they've got a more focused identity they rally around. I think it’s cool.

More importantly, they're proud of it. 

Does it make you insensitive if you talk about an entire people related to what they're historically good at?  I hope not, because when you get out in America, that’s the way people talk.


Karen H

I agree KD. Why can't we talk about/celebrate success, even if it's a specific group of people? Is it insensitive to talk about certain sports teams historically being more successful than others? No. (And we all know that some sports have a higher percentage of one ethnicity over others.)

Somewhat related to your example Kris: The majority of dry goods stores found in small towns across the US in the first half to two-thirds of the 1900s were owned by Jews. Is that bad or insensitive? No, it just seems like it's more of a fact than a discriminatory statement. Maybe that was their niche, similar to the Patels. (My great-grandfather owned a dry goods store in a small town in MI, and he also was Jewish. Interestingly enough, I was not aware that small-town dry goods store owners were typically Jewish until I read about it around a year ago (from a biographical memoir).)


I hope it's OK because I've many times said that if I ever start a company, I'm hiring a bunch of Indians because they are some of the smartest, hardest-working, honest, and business-savvy people I have ever worked with. And, I've been exposed to more than just the creme de la creme here in the U.S.

My guess is that, like other race/nationality/gender/sexual orientation issues, the observer MAY take offense based on non-verbal cues and voice inflection. Of course this doesn't apply to folks anxious to control you. This is still ripe territory for them.

Interesting piece. I do know two Patels that married, and a buddy of mine named Patel retired from Hi-Tech to own some hotels!!!! It's a small world (but I wouldn't want to paint it it).


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