SHAH: Minorities do not need to be representatives
Opinions Column: Wait, Was that Racist?
Historically, the representation of South Asians in the media has been dismal. Growing up, my only role model was Princess Jasmine, simply because her skin color had the slightest resemblance to my own Indian skin. But that sob story about brown identity has been told time and time again, with no real results until very recently. This year seems to be the eruption of South Asian talent, as Hasan Minhaj took the stage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Priyanka Chopra’s breaks out into Hollywood with "Quantico" and, most recently, Riz Ahmed becomes the first South Asian to win an Emmy Award for acting. However, with this forthcoming of representation, there has been controversy as to whether all of the representation is purely positive and progressive.
In 2012, Mindy Kaling became the first South Asian actress to headline — act, edit and write — her own TV show "The Mindy Project," which follows her alter-ego Mindy Lahiri, an OB-GYN who gallivants around New York City. It may be progressive in theory, but the show has been openly criticized for never truly highlighting race issues. Mindy Lahiri dates many men, all of them being white, and beyond being visibly Indian, her race is not the focus.
Three years later, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series "Master of None" premiered, starring Ansari as Dev, a fictionalized version of Ansari himself, living as a semi-struggling actor in New York City. Diverting from "The Mindy Project’s" non-racial stance, Ansari acknowledges his race boldly, addressing race relations for Indians in a way that has never been done before. A standout episode is “Indians on TV,” where Dev faces prejudice in the acting industry because of his race.
Both "The Mindy Project" and "Master of None" are incredibly progressive. Being at the forefront of a TV show as a brown man or woman is prolific, regardless of whether one chooses to emphasize or de-emphasize one’s identity. Notably, Kaling reveals in an interview with the Paley Center for Media: “I try not to rely on or deny the fact that I’m Indian. You turn on the show, and you know that I’m Indian … And it comes up in the show sometimes, but as much as it organically would.” This relates to the two notable roles that Kaling and Ansari have portrayed on screen — Kelly Kapoor in "The Office" and Tom Haverford in "Parks and Recreation," respectively — who are ridiculous characters with eccentric qualities who just happen to be Indian.
While Ansari’s approach in "Master of None" is more racially focused than Kaling’s, and even his portrayal of Tom Haverford, it should not delegitimize "The Mindy Project" in any way.
And even though "Master of None" is decidedly more progressive, involving many POC creators such as Alan Yang and Lena Waithe, it still has suffered the wrath of many women of color — and Twitter users enraged on their behalf — because the women that Dev pursues tend to be white. To address the backlash, Ansari replied in a tweet, “No ethnic requirements on any casting. We just cast the best people.” This tweet, of course, ignited even more backlash regarding Ansari’s tone-deaf words.
So, regardless of Ansari’s wish to tackle race, even his attempts were not lauded as enough.
A pressing question to address becomes this: are we watching the show because there is a POC starring in it? Or are we watching the show because it is enjoyable? I’m assuming the latter. At the end of the day, isn’t it better that we have nuanced, dynamic portrayals of South Asians in the media in comparison to the vapid, empty stereotypes that have been prevalent until now, ranging from Raj in "The Big Bang Theory" to Apu in "The Simpsons?" Should we be harshly demanding these already-progressive creators to push for even more progress?
It becomes ridiculously unfair to ask every minority to take on the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and speak for their race when all they want to pursue is their own creative talents. Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Kal Penn and Kumail Nanjiani's sole purpose shouldn’t be to represent, but rather to create. They never asked to be the first. They never asked to be defined by the qualifier “brown” or “Indian.” Yes, it becomes easy to dissect everything as a matter of race or gender or general injustice, but sometimes we need to let these artists simply promote diversity rather than calling upon them to be our martyrs. In a way, when we force shows such as "The Mindy Project" and "Master of None" to be shows that have non-white leads rather than leads that happen to be non-white, we, in turn, view them solely through a racial lens. Ultimately, we fail in our quest to normalize South Asian representation in the media.
Progress is real, but it takes time. Hasan Minhaj’s comedy special on Netflix entitled "Homecoming King" is funny — but his identity is often a punchline. Yet, when he graced the stage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and his identity as a brown man was no longer center stage, his comedic talent was. Change happens and diversity is an ongoing quest, but it is never the duty of an industry leader to be entirely representative of their race, sexuality or their gender — that is far too great of a burden. Their duty is to do their job the best they can, everything else is secondary.
Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School first-year, double majoring in finance and political science. Her column, “Wait, Was that Racist?”, runs on alternate Fridays.
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