A couple of days ago, Black Girl Dangerous posted an open letter to “Aziz Ansari and other anti-black people of color,” in which the author states that Ansari and his co-writer(s) espoused anti-black rhetoric in a scene of the “Indians in America” episode of his Netflix show Master of None. I finally watched this episode last night, and while I agree with the author on some points like the absolute importance of non-Black POC to fight anti-blackness in our communities’ and to stand in support of and solidarity with Black people, I disagree with the author’s assertions that Ansari’s character Dev was being anti-black.
In the episode “Indians on TV”, Ansari’s character, Dev, runs into his friend, Ravi, at an audition, and they talk about Ravi has no qualms about faking ‘Indian accents’ for parts, something Dev despises. Later, when hanging out with two friends, Dev sees that he was accidentally forwarded an email chain from the producer of another show he and Ravi both auditioned for, 3 Buddies. In the email chain the producer claims that “there can’t be two” (meaning ‘two Indian people’) on the show and then makes a gross, racist “curry my favor” joke. Dev obviously is pissed about this and in discussing with his friends about whether he should leak the email, Dev says, “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black people or gay people…I mean, if Paula Deen had said, ‘I don’t want to serve Indian people,’ no one would really care. They’d just go back to eating the biscuits.” The author of the BGD article describes what follows in that scene, as such:
“When Denise [a Black, self-identified lesbian, who is Devin’s friend] pointed out that Paula Deen’s apology was insincere, your character [Dev] shut her down and made it about your own community’s lack of visibility, as if it is Black people’s fault or responsibility. Dev continued, ‘We don’t have a person like that (Al Sharpton). Like, who are you supposed to meet with? Deepak Chopra? The Indian dude from No Doubt?’
Framing the conversation as if Black representation is in opposition to South Asian representation stifled what could have been a valuable discussion. You shut down an opportunity for dialogue. You could have scripted a nuanced response. Instead, you scripted Denise to reply, ‘Who’s my girl? Like, Oprah? Or Beyoncé? Oh, shit, I got the heavy hitters. Nevermind.’ That final ‘nevermind’ took space away from Denise, who could have offered a rebuttal to your character’s anti-Black racism.”
In her critique of these scene, the author of the letter said it reminded her of an instance in which she and a non-Black man discussed #BlackLivesMatter and their protest tactics. Not that she needs a random person like me to verify how she should feel in that instance, but it certainly seemed like a clear case of non-black people intentionally speaking over and silencing black people, and of men speaking over and silencing women, particularly in this case because they were discussing a topic with which she probably has more experience as a black, queer Muslim woman and a participant in the protests. This type of silencing of people who have much at stake is common, even in activist communities.
But in the episode’s scene in question, the characters of Denise and Dev are in fact having a valuable discussion. In the context of the scene, Dev is speaking about the lack of public support and visibility for Indian people compared to other minorities, a topic one would think he has some authority to speak about, as an Indian-American man working as an actor. To me it just seems like Denise, as his good friend and a fellow POC, can see where he is coming from, can get that this invisibility is unique to Indian/South Asian people and that his frustration is legitimate. Dev doesn’t “shut her down and make it about his own community’s lack of visibility, as if it is Black people’s fault or responsibility” in expressing his frustration. The original topic of conversation was in fact his own community’s lack of visibility (to make it about Black people would have kind of derailed it), and if the blame is placed on anyone’s shoulders as this episode progresses, it clearly seems to be on the shoulders of white producers and decision-makers that limit the quantity and quality of representations of people of color in the media. Time and again, this is presented as a structural, industry problem in which white people are mostly the gatekeepers of representation, and never is fuller representation of one minority presented as in opposition to that of another. I never got a sense that anyone was fighting over crumbs.
Having a figure of your group in the public eye is certainly not enough to solve the deeper issues of race-based violence and inequality, but it’s a small step. Later in this episode, Dev’s friend mentions how a lot of gay people have played gay people on TV, and Dev’s character sarcastically replies “Ok, fine, maybe progress exists!” These baby steps of progress remind of this classic sketch by Hari Kandabolu from Totally Biased with W. Camau Bell, in which he celebrates that there are finally enough Indian-Americans in the public eye and that he no longer has to blindly support someone just because they’re brown:
In a show that is shares topics with his stand-up comedy and is based on his life experiences, Aziz Ansari and his team provide one of the few representations of Asian-American people that isn’t based on white media-makers’s fantasies and stereotypes. Though ultimately fictional, the show contains elements of Ansari’s (and his co-writers’) real life, not the least of which is in the episode “Parents” that co-stars Ansari’s real parents and contains a dramatization of their ‘immigrant experience.’ I can only hope that the thoughtful, funny and fresh yet relatable characteristics of the show is indicative of us inching ever towards actual diversity and creative control in front of and behind the camera. I’d, of course, like to see this more for other minorities, racial and otherwise. Latinxs have made a lot of progress with shows like Jane the Virgin and Cristela, but we have a long way to go.
I believe that centering anti-blackness in our shared struggle to eridacate white supremacy is important; that ‘when Black women are free, everyone is free.’ Anti-blackness is pervasive among Latinxs, and it’s something that many POC communities continue to normalize and that only some of us fight against and try to unlearn. It’s easy to just give in and accept and participate in the racist status quo. At the same time, to drum up every single disagreement between Black and non-Black people as an attempt to silence Black voices, or to blow up every instance of misspeaking, is unproductive and unfair. In this instance, a fictional character written and portrayed by an Indian-American man maybe got little too comfortable in his comparisons of racisms experiences by different groups of POC, but in the context of the scene he was speaking amongst close friends and speaking from experience. Black people cannot necessarily speak to the experiences of other POC or vise versa, especially due to the way race and racism are so complexly and constantly reconstructed. We can all experience racism differently, especially when it intersects with gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, citizenship, language, etc. For example, so-called ‘positive stereotypes’ and the ‘model minority’ image are harmful forms of racism that not every person of color experiences and that operate differently from negative stereotypes. We just shouldn’t let these differences and disagreements all be make-or-break moments or let them stop us from communicating and supporting each other. Like James Baldwin* said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
*Also, RIP James Baldwin, who passed away 28 years ago yesterday.