The seed for this article was planted when I was watching Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’: a clever, New York-based sitcom about a young, Indian actor trying to make it. Here was Ansari, a talented Asian comedian – who just by being himself – was getting the respect he deserved. Very few actors in Hollywood have been able to build their careers up to a point where they can claim producer/writer status; let alone those facing institutional racism. This guy had joined the ranks of Happy Days’ Ron Howard, creator of hit, indie show Arrested Development, and Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler, who went on to write the warm, bureaucratic satire Parks and Recreation. So why, despite all this, was I still feeling uneasy?
The answer lay, to my surprise and weariness, in the issue of cultural stereotyping: most noticeable for me in the episode where Ansari quotes Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It struck a chord with me on two, separate levels. The first was in the standard, expected way. This was also a novel that had been very close to my heart, and as all good literature does, gave expression to a part of me in a way I never could. The second, less universal, resonance was more painful: all the more so because of the promise of personal validation that had come with the first. A huge part of the reason why it was so moving to have Ansari reading this literature out on screen, to see him hanging out with a circle of multicultural friends – his best friend in the series is of Taiwanese descent – and conversing with his parents in a nuanced, everyday manner – void of curry recipes and oppressed mother narratives – was because finally the concept of a fluid identity was being celebrated in public. The thinking that liking individualistic writers, having relationships with your parents that any young adult might, and interactions outside your ethnic background could only be ‘white’ attributes/tastes was being superbly subverted. As the NR’s Emmanuel Agu states in his article, ‘Never Call me an Oreo,’ Ansari was highlighting the fact that ‘though our skin binds us in a shared experience’, people are also ‘subject to change between each individual’.
We are still not addressing the fact that traditional Indian/minority traits continue to be watered, and played down, in society.
However, Agu also rightly goes on to state that ‘it is the identity of ‘whiteness’ and the power that it holds over society that is the keystone for the existence of racism”, and it is here that we sometimes fall short, even in liberal imagination. While Aziz is certainly being himself, as I am when I tell you one of my favourite novels is Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian narrative ‘The Well of Loneliness’, and that I argue with my dad about which Alfred Hitchcock film is the creepiest, we are still not addressing the fact that traditional Indian/minority traits continue to be watered, and played down, in society. This is what triggered the discomfort in me. As I watched Ansari, I was also reminded of the unspoken, conditional acceptance I had been sensing. Yes, throughout university I had been able to talk about typically ‘white’ interests without feeling judged, but did I ever feel quite as free to talk about specificities of my Asian heritage without a) having proved myself capable of being ‘white’ first or b) modifying my accounts so they appeared entertaining? Though better than the complete political censorship of mainstream ideology then, only ‘half’ of me was being readily accepted, and this is still problematic.
Another factor is that people such as Ansari and I naturally display more western characteristics than Asian ones, and were always going to feel more socially accepted in liberal, western circles. This is partially why I believe Ansari has been able to accomplish so much with his niche, left audience. It was easier for me dismiss the cultural oversight; perhaps over time, I was even in guilt of internalising it myself. But what about those who do display more traditional Indian characteristics? Who celebrate Rakhi (a day for commemorating brothers and brotherhood), and Diwali, and Gurba, and live at home with extended family. In fact, let’s pitch an extreme example: what about someone with a heavy, Indian accent? Would this person gain the same momentum and popularity in our media? This is really the test: the barometer for where our sights as a community are truly set.
Lily Singh, a very smart and gifted YouTube entertainer, for example, is someone who possesses both traditionally white and Indian attributes, and has not gained anywhere near as much of an ‘alternative crowd’ following. Of course her style is very different. It’s more buoyant and ‘ghetto’, but that’s also the point. This is actually a specifically Indian way of expressing oneself: being open and unrestrained. My dad has this joke. He says there are two English gentlemen, and they are walking about lost and thirsty in the same desert, but when they finally do cross paths, they simply say ‘how do you do’ before carrying on their separate ways. Though facetious, it also brings to light the ridiculous level of respectability and composure that set the imperial societal standard, where by contrast colonialized peoples were perceived as dirty and desperate to affirm that artificial sense of white superiority. The fact that this dichotomy continues even in the so-called post-colonial era is not so hard to recognise in the stiff upper lips of the Tory front bench, and the Daily Mail’s hate-mongering around immigrants. But prejudice adapts and contorts to survive in new and unexpected ways. Though it is less overt, the snobby, dismissive standard persists in liberal culture; through the standard of what is considered ‘cool’. The connection to the Conservative concern with integrity and reputability is reflected in the arrogance of the word itself.
People are assessed according to what is considered up-to-date and ‘deep’, but this is still inevitably rooted in a western paradigm, where anything outside of it is viewed as alien. Aziz sophisticatedly discussing Indian stereotyping and the intriguing details of his parents’ immigrant narratives ticks the required boxes. My Pakistani friend wearing baggie clothes because she isn’t used to accentuating every inch of her body, as is the practice in western fashion – we actually have see-through, sorry ‘sheer’ tops did you know? – or not having heard of ‘The Breeders’ because the ATP music festival doesn’t tour on that part of the globe, or gushingly inviting everyone in her seminar to cook them dinner, does not sit so well with the social cred committee. It is as if she is being looked upon as too garish or backward.
This extends to personal experience. There are certain conversational topics that can’t be discussed with just any ‘white’, or indeed, liberal-identifying Indian person e.g. in Indian culture when a woman gets married, she might have to leave her family home to go and live with her husband. This is traumatic, independent of a political context, and requires sensitivity. At an immediate, human level there has been separation; the loss of a loving home. But as a woman of Indian descent, you might intuit that you’ll be judged – however unconsciously – and will keep discussing such topics for your Indian circle of friends. The fact that there will be ethnic cliques is then pretty much cut and dried.
But as a woman of Indian descent, you might intuit that you’ll be judged – however unconsciously – and will keep discussing such topics for your Indian circle of friends. The fact that there will be ethnic cliques is then pretty much cut and dried.
This is not to say that those of ethnic minorities don’t have their own responsibility in exercising and internalising a sense of entitlement, but more can be done from the other direction. Though discrimination is more passive, and without malice, a ‘white’ social premium continues to be propagated. At times, as independent thinkers, we’re also trying too hard not to see people as traditionally Indian, out of a pc respect. But this can be throwing the baby out with the bath water: for example with Miss Lily Singh. There is a tendency to reject her in-yer-face cultural set-ups, and accent sometimes bordering on regional, as corny and even offensive, but she is genuinely being herself: just in her ethnic entirety. We do tend to be more apprehensive of those leaning towards tradition, and without realising it, practice the old-fashioned ‘white’ intolerance for what is too ‘out there’. The answer is to be more open, changing that perceptive filter for bonding from translucent to wholly clear.
Cover image © femmeandfortune.com