In response to the recent Ashton Kutcher/Popchips/racist Indian ad controversy, I wrote this open letter to Pop Culture in the New York Times last week.
Dear Pop Culture,
I’m sorry, but do we amuse you?
We Indians, with our purportedly funny accents and bobbling heads, our
spicy food and penchant for dancing on demand-are we just comic
relief, dispensed solely for your entertainment?
I refer most recently, of course, to the Ashton Kutcher Popchips debacle of weeks past.
The offensive ad went viral. Then ensued, in predictable order, outrage, protests, apologies, and the rather successful effort to wipe all traces of Mr. Kutcher’s portrayal of a chai-dipped, lecherous Bollywood producer “Raj” clean from the annals of Internet memory. It’s just about blown over by now. All has been forgotten… until the next racially insensitive blunder. Which knowing you, Pop Culture, is imminent. It’s just a matter of when.
In the company’s first attempt at an apology, Popchips said it was all
in good fun. “[The campaign] was created to provoke a few laughs…We hope people can enjoy this in the spirit it was intended.”
Translation, for those whose English may be, well, accented and therefore, naturally, impaired: Can’t you guys take a joke? The problem is, a joke that’s not particularly funny in the first place is even less so when you’re the butt of it. Some of the first people to tweet about the subject were the comedians Hari Kondabolu and Aziz Ansari — two guys who I’d say have a pretty good grip on what’s funny.
So I’m sorry that it took all this to point out to you that, actually, this really isn’t very amusing at all.
“The real controversy is how we look at comedy,” said Shilpa Davé, author of the forthcoming book “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American TV and Film.” “What the PR firm said was, ‘Oh, we just meant to be funny.’ That’s something that everyone uses these days when they make an inappropriate racialized portrayal. A lot of it has to do with comedy and how it’s used as a method to laugh off racism.”
After complex histories and struggles, certain races have become off-limits in comedy – blackface is almost certainly taboo – but Indians seem to be fair game. Perhaps we have become, as the comedian Hasan Minhaj declared in a particularly hilarious (and expletive-laden) rant about the ads “a clownable minority.”
“They’re basically using us as a punchline,” Mr. Minhaj told me. “They
knew they couldn’t get away with blackface. In pop culture right now, it’s socially acceptable to clown certain minorities. It’s almost like we’re not even human, we’re fodder for people to laugh at.”
Fahim Anwar, one of Mr. Minhaj’s co-collaborators in the sketch comedy
group Goatface that produces “The Truth with Hasan Minhaj” series, added, “You’ll never see a nonblack person doing a black joke. It’ll come to a screeching halt.”
The point is, Pop Culture, that by putting on brownface, or mimicking an accent, you reduce an entire race and civilization to a parody.
If anyone were to take you seriously – and I’m sure there are plenty who do, since for many swaths of American society, encounters with Indians are limited to interactions with telemarketers – they would assume that Indian women are little more than highly sexualized and docile objects, while Indian men are emasculated, socially awkward losers who are patently undatable and revolting to women (trust me, Pop Culture, in reality many of them actually have entirely too much game).
“Brownface doesn’t treat Indian culture or people as individuals, instead it treats them as objects and accents that people wear, put on, that they can buy,” said Ms. Davé.
It’s not just our humans who provide an endless fountain of mirth.
Indian gods are fair game too, apparently, evidenced by a Burger King ad depicting Lakshmi eyeing a burger, Ganesh and Kali decorating toilet seats , and supermodel Heidi Klum donning blueface one Halloween after years of dressing up as a cat, vampire, witch and alien.
When you come up with these “characters” time and time again, how, exactly, do you think we’ll react? Do you expect us to bobble our heads, say “Jolly good, I want arrange my daughter’s marriage to this Raj fellow,” and then burst out into spontaneous choreographed musical numbers attired in matching polyester ensembles? Or are we that utterly invisible that you only think of us when you need a prescription, or when the blue screen of death descends upon your computer?
And how is it possible that no one, at any point of the misguided Popchips process-from the conceptualizers, to the makeup artists, to the agents, to the editors, to the sound guys, to the intern bringing Mr. Kutcher his coffee-said to themselves, “Hey, maybe this isn’t the best idea…”
So why, you might wonder, are we so outraged now? After all, we’ve dealt with Hank Azaria putting on “brownvoice” to play Apu for decades, without eliciting the same level of mass indignation. (A spokesperson for The Simpsons declined to comment for this letter.)
Pop Culture, you’re filled with instances of brownface and brownvoice, all in the name of what you deem a good laugh: Peter Sellers in “The Party”, Fisher Stevens in “Short Circuit,” Arte Johnson as Rabbi Shankar in “Laugh-in,” Mike Myers in “The Love Guru.” Even Vice President Joe Biden received flak for his unwarranted mimicry of a call-center employee earlier this year.
“Minorities like South Asians don’t have the infrastructure. We don’t have an Al Sharpton, or a professionally offended Indian people’s group. There isn’t a culture of public grievance for offense toward Indians or South Asians,” said the writer and entrepreneur Anil Dash, one of the first to speak out on the Popchips controversy, and one of the most successful, as Popchips founder Keith Belling reached out to him directly for advice on how to handle the aftermath. “I didn’t say that Ashton Kutcher is racist, or that Popchips are racist. I think people who aren’t racist made a racist ad. And Joe Biden was very telling – it’s something you wouldn’t do to a culture you respect. The vice president of the United States would not put on a woman’s voice to make fun of women.”
Mr. Minhaj described the trajectory of minority depictions on screen as “a three-tier thing: First they don’t exist at all, then they exist in a stereotypical fashion, so people are just grateful they’re there-like in blaxpoitation films. Then they start to emerge as nuanced characters. In the last level, you surpass race, and you become a Will Smith or a Laurence Fishburne, where you’re more than your ethnicity.”
“We’re still stuck,” he added. “This ad brought us back to that bottom level.”
So let’s figure this out together, Pop Culture. You can still get it right. While we may not have a “professionally offended Indian people’s group,” since that’s just not our style, we’ll work on changing the paradigm from within, but we need your help.
We hope you’ll pay attention to Mindy Kaling’s new television series that was just picked up by Fox a few days ago, where we’re optimistic she’ll show you what normal brown folks are really like. Social media are changing the game. Had people been able to mobilize around a cause like this two decades ago, perhaps Apu would not have lasted more than a few episodes.
And if we raise our voices loudly enough, we’re sure we can educate people in businesses and positions of power so that they finally see us differently – as we really are. Groups like Goatface will continue to promote more nuanced – and legitimately funny – portrayals of Indians and Indian Americans: “The brown community has come far in mainstream entertainment, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to eat a lot of crap along the way,” said Aristotle Athiras, one of Goatface’s founders. “But there’s little versions of us that are 7 or 8 watching TV, and they’ve got no shot if we don’t contribute this.”
“We’ve been a privileged minority in how we’ve been able to be a part of American society,” said Mr. Dash. “We came by jets by choice, not in ships by chains. Let’s appropriate our place in the culture in a nuanced way. We don’t want to build an infrastructure by grievance.”
The thing is, Pop Culture, you might be wondering why I’m the one to write this letter, what with my ethnically ambiguous features, fairly-difficult-to-butcher name, and accent that’s distinctly Clueless as opposed to Slumdog Millionaire. But here’s a little story:
When I was 13, I moved to India for two years. And middle school kids there are like middle school kids everywhere, I learned quickly, when my Valley Girl twang became frequent grounds for ridicule and torment.
“Say ‘Begumpet’! Say ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’! Say ‘Mera naam Sarah hai’!” they’d command between classes, then burst into peals of giggles when I readily obliged. So I get it. Accents are a constant source of juvenile humor across the globe.
But that’s just the point, Pop Culture, Popchips, and everyone else out there who doesn’t quite get it: sure, accents can be funny. To a 13 year old. Isn’t it time to grow up?
P.S. Don’t worry, I still love you. I just think it’s time you loved me back.