The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the New York Times Opinion section, a sitcom streaming on Netflix — these days it seems like no matter where you look, Aziz Ansari is right there, talking intelligently and unapologetically about race.
The other night, the Indian-American actor and comedian left Stephen Colbert momentarily speechless when he joked that his presence on The Late Show marked an “all-time high for CBS” in terms of diversity. That same day, Ansari wrote an op-ed for the Times about the lack of diversity on TV and in movies.
“Sure, things are moving in the right direction with Empire and Fresh Off the Boat,” he wrote. “But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season.”
Ansari’s own TV show, Master of None — which started streaming on Netflix last Friday — certainly doesn’t shy away from tackling race. Its protagonist, played by Ansari, is a 30-year-old South Asian aspiring actor struggling against the same obstacles that Ansari himself faces as a minority in the entertainment industry.
But while Ansari may be the most visible celebrity speaking out on the lack of South Asian representation on television, he certainly isn’t the only Indian-American who has a TV show — and he wasn’t the first either.
Until now, Mindy Kaling was the only Indian-American actor with her own show, though her ethnicity has never been something she likes to highlight. Apart from a few one-liners here and there (Mindy “hates not being the only Asian in the room”), a discussion of race is largely missing from The Mindy Project.
When asked during a 2014 SXSW panel why there was only one female doctor and one doctor of color on her show, Kaling responded, “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?” And that is indeed an enormous achievement; if Kaling hadn’t paved the way for him, it’s possible Ansari would have had a lot more difficulty landing his own show.
But that wasn’t the end of Kaling’s response to the panel question. She continued, “It’s not like I’m running a country, I’m not a political figure. I’m someone who’s writing a show and I want to use funny people. And it feels like it diminishes the incredibly funny women who do come on my show… I don’t know, it’s a little frustrating.”
It’s true. Kaling isn’t running a country, and yet there’s still a lot of pressure on her to be the spokesperson for all minority women — an expectation that might not be entirely fair. It’s not her fault that she happened to be the first Indian American to create and star in her own television show. And as she said during an interview with the Paley Center, Kaling sometimes wishes her show had happened 75 years in the future, so she wouldn’t be expected to represent all Indian-American women.
She didn’t ask to be first.
“I think that it’s insidious to be spending more of your time reflecting and talking about panels, and talking more and more in smart ways about your otherness,” she told NPR, “rather than doing the hard work of your job.” Here, Kaling raises an important point: Why can’t she just focus on making a great TV show?
While Ansari embraces his ethnic identity and actively defines himself and his experiences by it, Kaling prefers to be evaluated on her own terms, as simply an actress, comedian, and writer — without the qualifier “Indian” stamped in front of each.
“I try not to rely on or deny the fact that I’m Indian. You turn on the show, and you know that I’m Indian,” she said during the Paley Center interview. “I don’t speak any Indian languages, and I’m Hindu, but I don’t really know that much about my religion. And it comes up in the show sometimes, but as much as it organically would.”
Despite her efforts to de-emphasize her racial identity, she can’t escape it — and she knows that. Whether she likes it or not, her viewers see her character as an Indian doctor, and they see Mindy Kaling as an Indian actress and comedian.
During an NPR interview, Kaling discussed her frustration with a critic who called her out for not responding to criticisms that her show should engage with race more directly: “I’m an actor and a writer and a showrunner and I edit my show. … I have a job that three people usually have, and I have it in one person. And the idea that the critic thought that I had this excess of time for which I could go to, like, panels or write essays was just so laughable to me.”
But it’s also unfair to say that Kaling doesn’t spend time reflecting on her identity; it’s just that there are other facets of it that she prefers to focus on, and other battles she wants to fight. She has plenty to say, for example, on what it’s like to be a not-quite-pencil-thin woman lead on American TV. Kaling devotes an entire chapter to body image in her book, Why Not Me?
We all have complex identities, and we feel stronger ties to some aspects of our identity than others. If the Indian part of Kaling’s identity isn’t something she likes to fixate on when making art, then why should she be forced to? At the end of the day, she’s still “a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking TV show.”