White Indians


Over at n+1:

In a recent article on the lack of ethnic diversity on American television, the critic Emily Nussbaum paused from pondering the absence of blacks on TV — the usual complaint against homogeneity — to note the sudden ubiquity of South Asians. “Black and white are not the only colors of diversity,” she wrote, and listed roles accorded to desi actors in The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, Smash, The Big Bang Theory, Whitney, and The Good Wife. Never mind that at least two thirds of these shows suck. The mottling by occasional brown faces of the otherwise creamy expanse of TV whiteness, like the smattering of freckles on Pippi Longstocking, should be a sign of character — and progress. Nussbaum understands that diversity isn’t quite the right word for this. “At times I’ve wondered if this isn’t a psychic workaround: is brown safer than black?”

Every South Asian reader knew the answer. When even whiteness is freighted in liberal circles with maudlin guilt, no color is safer than South Asian brown. No minority presence in the US is more reassuring, or less likely to get angry or acknowledge your antiblack racism. The South Asian is sometimes the soft-spoken but intense professional— the alert-eyed and firm-jawed Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. But just as often the television South Asian echoes the gestures of the standard fawning coolie of yore: palms clasped together, head shaking from side to side, mumbling “sahib” through an apologetic smile crowned with an anachronistic mustache. Or she is a cartoon auntie flinging her sari over her shoulder as she hovers over a pot of steaming aloo methi, yelling to her son in Rushdiean patois: “Eat-na, why you no eat! Food is spoiling-goiling,” et cetera. Nussbaum didn’t mention that the show that for a while came after The Office in the NBC Thursday night lineup was called Outsourced. The show followed the comic travails of whites stranded in an Indian call center, but was chiefly humiliating because its South Asian actors had lined up eagerly, in possession of free will, to portray racist stereotypes. South Asians have done this proudly for years, chiefly in film: from the many who played monkey brain eaters in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Kal Penn as the repressed nerd in the Van Wilder movies, Dev Patel tomming through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the guy who literally played a coolie in The Royal Tenenbaums. Such minstrel figures paved the way for and now coexist with the accentless, “American” desi nebbish who fills the minority quota on TV.

But if we blamed the ghoras for their tacit racism, we’d only be going too easy on ourselves. The presence of desis on television isn’t just a sign of executives obliged to present diversity and doing it by stereotyping a docile minority.