MONTPELIER — A Vermont nonprofit housing group took down an online video ad Tuesday after criticisms that it played on stereotypes of people from India.
The ad on the website of NeighborWorks, a housing group serving Addison, Bennington and Rutland counties, had Vermont-based comic actor Rusty DeWees imitating someone with an Indian accent answering the phone.
It made the point that people calling the NeighborWorks HEAT Squad weatherization service will be answered by a woman named Lori from West Rutland.
“When you call HEAT Squad, you ain’t gonna get a hold of Rajiv,” DeWees said on the ad, before then beginning to mimic an Indian accent. “Hello, thank you very much for calling HEAT Squad. Are you having icicles building up on your artificial hibiscus plant? No, no.”
Ludy Biddle, NeighborWorks executive director, said Tuesday afternoon the group had taken the ad down.
“We heard today that our ad promoting the HEAT Squad was offensive to some people,” Biddle said in an email. “As a helping agency we do not EVER want to offend anyone so we have taken the ad down and offer our sincere apologies for causing any discomfort at all. “
Several lawmakers in separate interviews winced when shown the ad while it was still up.
“It took my breath away,” said Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington. “I was shocked at the implication that the only person you would want to talk to on the telephone was a white Vermonter.”
Some lawmakers called the ad demeaning to South Asians. Sen. Richard Sears, a Bennington County Democrat, said an agency getting government support — NeighborWorks gets federal grant money — should not run ads using stereotypes. “It’s inappropriate,” Sears said.
Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, said, “If the point was that it was local and not a foreign answering service, that’s a valid point. They could have made it without the stereotype.”
Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, who has been active as a legislator in human rights issues and whose father was born in India, commented in an email:
“I applaud NeighborWorks’ goal to improve the efficiency of homes in Rutland County, but to promote their work by making fun of another culture is in poor taste,” Ram said. “It also makes bad economic sense for our communities, as there are many Vermont residents and visitors of South Asian descent that would find this alienating and insulting. Perhaps comedians don’t mind being offensive, but a community organization in Vermont should.”
It was the second time in less than two weeks that charges of cultural or ethnic insensitivity had been raised in Vermont, which is more than 90 percent white. Earlier this month, the Caledonian-Record newspaper in St. Johnsbury came under fire for running a full-page banner supporting its local high school basketball team in a championship game against Rice Memorial High School of South Burlington.
The newspaper banner said “Go ’Toppers — Fry Rice,” with the latter two words printed in pretend Chinese script.
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