Antara Murshed is a senior environmental science major.
Let’s pick up some chai and samosas and have a discussion about Desis in American media.To clarify, the term Desi regards anyone born or descended from people born in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, or Nepal. The term Desi can be used interchangeably with South Asian. Having visibility on television and news outlets is an important aspect of feeling represented in the media. Desi representation has been increasing in the last fifteen years and you begin to see an interesting variety of portrayals of South Asians.
From the early 2000s, Kal Penn has starred in the “Harold & Kumar” franchise as a stoner, and has also portrayed a nerdy doctor on “House M.D.” Actual Doctor Sanjay Gupta has been CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent since 2003. Just this fall, two new television series were released with Desi actors playing lead roles. Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra plays an FBI recruit on ABC’s “Quantico.” Aziz Ansari’s new one season Netflix show, “Master of None” portrays Ansari as an actor trying to figure out love and life in New York City.
However, we also have Bangladeshi limo driver Ranjit Singh from “How I Met Your Mother” (2005). Ranjit Singh is not a Bengali name, as Singh is a popular last name originating in North India. There has been instances where white characters on the show hear him speak his “native language” and he is definitely not speaking Bengali. Or any known human language probably, as he is literally muttering gibberish. Would it have been so difficult to google some Bengali phrases? The actor who plays him, Marshall Manesh, is an Iranian-American man. In contrast, when “Lost” premiered the year before, Indian actor Naveen Andrews played an Iraqi soldier. Are all eastern brown men just interchangeable for each other?
The longest standing Desi character on American television has been Apu from “The Simpsons,” who has been on the air since 1990. He is probably the most widely known TV Desi and has been the most influential in shaping the American consciousness on South Asian stereotypes. And supposedly, stereotypes result from some form of truth. Absolutely, there are numbers of Desis who are limo drivers and taxi drivers and convenience store owners. However consistently only portraying these people as loud and obnoxious men with extremely thick accents gets a little old.
There have been a variety of roles that people from the South Asian diaspora have played on American TV with some roles being great, and others not so much. The challenge of fighting stereotypes in media portrayals is not a new one, not for Desis or for any racial minority in this country. Some representations have been so misguided and wrong it makes me want to say “Wow that was terrible, please don’t ever try to portray Desis again, I would rather be invisible.” But there has definitely been a nuanced development of portraying “Americanized” Desis. Examples include Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation” and Kumar from “Harold & Kumar” shown as young, accentless Americans who are not overbearingly obsessed with academics or their careers.
A Desi figure I wanted to focus on particularly was our favorite Customer Services Representative from Dunder Mifflin. Mindy Kaling has been a writer and actor on the Office for eight seasons. She has been playing the lead role in her own show, “The Mindy Project” since 2012. She has published three different books and she is definitely the most prominent Desi woman in American media. I’m a huge fan of her success and I think she worked very hard for it. In both her roles as Kelly Kapoor and obstetrician Mindy Lahiri, Kaling has portrayed these characters like many second generation Desi women are. She’s accentless and goes on dates and has all the same vapid, materialistic interests most middle and upper class American girls do.
However, as Mindy Kaling now has it made on television, it seems that the tables have turned. “The Mindy Project” has received criticisms based on the cast’s lack of diversity . I have only seen the first two seasons of the show, and I can definitely agree with this sentiment. On her show, her character exclusively dates white men. Anytime reporters ask Mindy Kaling about this issue, she has a history of becoming defensive and saying that discussing the issue of race detracts from good writing. However, the vast majority of primetime shows on television lack proper diversity anyway, so this problem is not unique to “The Mindy Project.” Yet Kaling’s show has received a lot more criticism about this issue than other shows have. Is it Mindy Kaling’s responsibility to singularly take on the burden of equalizing the media representation? That doesn’t seem fair. But the fact that this is such a touchy topic for her says something about the place that South Asians have in American society.
South Asian immigrants were not allowed to immigrate to the U.S. in large numbers until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed. This change in immigration law was mostly done to bring more skilled laborers into the country. That means immigration laws were set in place to selectively let in immigrants who were educated and skilled in certain fields and equipped to work in the U.S. In a very short amount of time, Desis have become the ethnic group with the highest median income in the country, according to multicultural marketing research group, Allied Media Corporation. Desis have certain class and economic privileges in this country that other minorities who have been in the U.S. much longer are still striving to have. While South Asians face discrimination and inaccurate stereotypes in media, there are many ways they perpetuate classism and racism in this country too. Mindy Kaling is only one very visible example of privileged Desis in America. Maybe the trend of positive, accurate portrayals of South Asians on television could provide a critical point for shedding light on certain privileges that Desis have but are not talked about.
Photo courtesy of Domnick D/FLICKR