In the second or third grade, a girl in my class took me aside one day while we both washed our hands to give one of my arms a thorough inspection. I was confused, but submitted anyways. That was my way, back then, when things happened to me that I didn’t quite grasp. I’d smile benignly, I’d wait it out, I’d make light of it after. So, when she returned my arm to me with a grin, and said more to herself than me – in a tone of triumph I still remember vividly – “So it doesn’t wash off,” I didn’t think twice. Things hadn’t quite clicked yet. Hearing the story later, though, my mother, in her kind and knowing way, sighed, took my hands in hers, and asked me: “Was this girl white?”
I should mention, here, that this experience wasn’t to me what it might’ve been to someone else. It didn’t shape me profoundly, it didn’t alter the course my life took (to my knowledge), it didn’t activate my political consciousness (that happened later). In fact, I didn’t even so much as bring it up with that girl again. I think instead I went to her birthday party, which had a tea party theme I hated but cupcakes I fucking ruined. I also became convinced thereafter that white people (of which there were multitudes in the Portland suburb that raised me) had it made. They had an ease to them I couldn’t find elsewhere, a cool and confidence in the way they navigated the world. They could say what they liked about race and think nothing of the attendant complications. They literally could get away with murder. I coveted the freedom they enjoyed, and the space they claimed for themselves.
I was reminded of all this anew when I recently started watching Netflix’s remarkable new series, Master of None. In its premiere episode, the show’s main character Dev (Aziz Ansari) spends a day babysitting his friends’ two white kids who couldn’t be more terrible (my opinion). They visit a frozen yogurt shop, where one of the kids promptly proceeds to point at strangers and yell out their ethnicities: “Black! Chinese man!” The scene is hilarious, obviously, but it’s strangely incisive, too, about how at ease white people– especially children!– are with classifying and claiming space for themselves by pointing fingers at others.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of just this phenomenon in his memoir Between the World and Me, when he thinks back to a scene he once observed in Harlem – young white parents, letting their son run free ahead of them, stomping and screaming as he pleases. Coates laments that many children of color may never know this same joy or how to claim space themselves, for the realities their parents fear; his own child was once shoved on an escalator by a white woman twice his age. It’s not that the people who live with this certainty mean to offend in the questions they ask or things they grab. It’s that they have a unique ability to claim space (or feel entitled to it) while forgetting how the people of color around them, conversing with them, are constantly compelled to shrink themselves.
It’s a delicate kind of shape-shifting that takes an eventual toll, and Aziz Ansari, first generation South Asian that he is, seems to know something of the burden in the question his show asks repeatedly: How can he (and I by extension, and others like us) carve out and claim space in a culture or establishment that doesn’t allow us the room?
He finds his answers in the dominant forms of representation South Asians are allowed: stereotypes. It’s a sensible enough place to start: when you grow up the way we do (in the Carolinas and the Pacific Northwest respectively), and faces like yours are few and far between, you tend to look far afield in the popular culture for a sense of who you are and what you could be – television, movies, the media, where representation can be limited and stereotypes abound. But Master of None isn’t content simply to dismantle these stereotypes piece by piece; it prefers instead to give them their due and flirt with them in abstract, before then pulling the rug from beneath them – upending the tropes moments before the expected payoff.
In the series’ fifth episode, Dev debates whether to pursue an affair with a married food writer, played by Clare Danes, eager to get her philandering husband back and restless for her own reasons. He only takes the plunge once he encounters the husband in question, a fearsome Noah Emmerich, who not only cuts him in line for the very last artisanal banana split available, but then throws the split away and curses loudly when he doesn’t like it, in full view of Dev and the others whose afternoon he ruined. He’s an imposing white man who pushes Dev aside, and so it is that Dev does the same in return, pursuing Danes almost immediately after. Emmerich later catches them in the act and forces an answer from the two of them, shouting at Danes, “You’re cheating on me with this little Indian guy?” To which Dev yells back, “You didn’t have to bring up my ethnicity OR size!”
The contrast between Emmerich and Ansari in this exchange is stark, and invokes a familiar, tired scene: a white head of house happening on a dark and foreign interloper in his home, disturbing the peace, making away with his valuables. The joke on Emmerich’s character cuts deep – it isn’t just that he’s been cuckolded in his own home, but, rather, cuckolded by someone his inverse in every way possible: short to his tall, brown to his white, alien to his citizen. A lesser storyteller than Ansari might play into this further, and have Dev humiliated for the incursion on the happy white home, or, contrarily, celebrated for his “dark” “subversive” power over that home. But instead, Dev keeps the space he has in the moment, by yelling back at Emmerich that his size and ethnicity were irrelevant, and then goes on to be rewarded for the courage. He later runs into the troubled couple and learns that the whole incident ultimately improved their marriage and forced Emmerich to re-commit himself. The threat of the foreigner is rendered a corrective– not so much for the culturally powerful white married couple (whose cooing and petting of one another goes on just a beat too long, upending their cultural power) but for the outsider with whom the viewer most identifies: no harm, no foul, just young people living their totally random young people lives.
Another stereotype the show inverts is a stereotype it also deploys: the accented Indian character. In the acclaimed episode “Indians on TV,” the series examines the ways Indians are represented on television, and the opportunities they’re extended (the ones that force accents, the ones that favor service jobs, the ones that allow for non-accented characters but only in a finite number). The episode opens with a gaggle of South Asian actors awaiting an audition, and if you blink in the brief panning shot, you miss a key player, unnoticed in the moments that follow. This man I mean is in real life an actor named Mahadeo Shrivraj, who won my heart back in 2007 as a hot dog vendor on 30 Rock convinced that Liz Lemon consumed too much sodium. His resume is (sadly) what you’d expect of a working-class South Asian bit player – he’s played bellhops, bartenders, insurance brokers, a hostage — but more crucially, he appears in Master of None well before this one episode, where he’s just one among the crowd.
In the series’ premiere, he plays Dr. Ranasami, a friend to Dev’s father, briefly in town to visit. He has a history, and he has rapport with characters. Here, he’s one of several nameless, voiceless actors vying for the same part of a thickly accented cab driver who witnesses a murder. It’s a clever, subtle touch that operates on several levels simultaneously — a confirmation in the text that people of color are often so indistinct as to seem similar to us, a confirmation outside the text that a show as progressive in its casting and politics as Master of None (which features in its regular rotation a black lesbian stand-up comic, a Taiwanese American Actor, and Ansari’s own parents) isn’t immune from Hollywood’s tendencies to pigeonhole.
Above: Shivraj in the pilot; below: Shivraj in “Indians on TV.”
You can look to these examples, these instances where Ansari treads lightly on stereotypes and shies from them quickly, and make a very different argument than the one offered here. Ansari isn’t repurposing these stereotypes, you could say, but banishing them instead. He knows their damage, he’s wary of their currency, and indeed he has been emphatic on both points in recent writings. But it’s important to remember that Master of None makes no great claims to addressing race in its every aspect. The show isn’t issue-driven and doesn’t look to make after-school specials of its findings; Ansari himself, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has noted and fellow actor Ravi Patel has confirmed, has only very recently awoken to issues of race and representation in his work.. Perhaps because of this, the observations he and his writers draw on race and Dev’s ability to move between white and brown spaces is marked by a profound ease. Dev’s humiliations live beside his successes, and suggest ways for the rest of us watching him and like him to inhabit our fears similarly. His, in some ways, is a model for the spaces so many of us fear to reclaim.
I’ll end this by noting that the lessons Ansari offers in his show reach far beyond the immediate necessities of engaging and negotiating with white people. Before sitting down to write this, I met my grandmother for dinner, and spent several hours with her splitting sweets and trading stories. We talked about her upbringing, her sisters, her father’s firm but kind approach to punishment, and as the night found us, an inky black blanket spreading across the sky slowly, we both seemed know something more about the space we shared. It was ours entirely; it was claimed. No one else had been here before.
—Hari Raghavan: Album Drops Soon