Why Mindy Kaling Refuses to Talk about Race—and Why I Care So Much

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In a recent episode of The Mindy Project, Mindy Lahiri, the show’s protagonist played by South Asian American comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, was considering a medical fellowship at Stanford. Her boyfriend, fellow doctor Danny Castellano, upset by the prospect of her moving to California, confides in another colleague. Confused, he tells Castellano: “But Mindy hates not being the only Asian in the room.”

It’s a quick remark that Castellano ignores. It’s also one of many moments in The Mindy Project that hints at race issues, but nothing more. There was the time Lahiri was talking to a police officer and said, “There is this shawarma stand that I am certain is terrorists.” Or the time her coworker accused her of only dating white boys, to which she responded that she hooked up with a Korean guy once: “His hands were so small, it made my boobs feel enormous!” Or there was that episode a few weeks ago, in a flashback sequence, during which Lahiri is 24, a virgin, donning blue contacts and looking for potential sexual prospects—“white guys that are into Asian stuff.”

It’s easy to conflate her character with Kaling herself, so it makes me wonder what inspires these throwaway lines. In real life, Kaling has been reluctant to discuss race, and in some cases has become visibly frustrated by it: In an interview at the Paley Center, she remarked that she is sometimes angry her show isn’t 75 years in the future so she wouldn’t be the first South Asian female showrunner, tasked with representing all South Asians. At a panel at SXSW, she shut down an inquiry about the diversity of her own cast by saying, “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?”

As a Bengali female writer, it’s hard for me not to overlay my own expectations onto Kaling.

Until now, I was hesitant to write about Kaling and race, lest I sound like I’m criticizing the only South Asian woman on TV for not being South Asian enough. It’s frustrating when people presume a pioneer will become an unwilling leader in a struggle with which they may not identify. We expect too much from women in public, I tell myself. Optics matter, and the fact that she is on TV makes it more likely that someone like me could be, too. It’s hard for me not to overlay my own expectations onto Kaling—like her, I am a Bengali female writer in my mid-thirties who grew up in an East Coast suburb.

But I’m also a feminist who cares about racial justice, so it’s impossible to ignore her often defensive, flippant responses to questions about race, or her flat-out refusal to discuss how her identity impacts her character and her own career. Kaling is hardly the first South Asian in the public eye who avoids talking about race in an attempt to be “just like the rest.” Conservatives like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley (who, like Kaling, tweaked their names to sound more American) have worked very hard at constructing an identity that is explicitly not Indian.

Kaling denies being a Republican, but her television alter-ego has made several comments on the conservative side—she’s into guns, wants to “get” the terrorists and thinks recycling makes us look poor. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Kaling said she loves giving her character libertarian or off-color lines, different from what you’d expect from someone with a marginalized identity. It makes Lahiri “weirdly patriotic,” she explained.

Kaling is hardly the first South Asian in the public eye who avoids talking about race.

There’s a cultural script for this behavior: the model minority myth. Growing up in the 1980s, the expectation was that South Asians were “humble immigrants” who kept their heads down, didn’t make a fuss, and didn’t mingle too much outside their own race. Kaling makes me wonder if the next generation is expected to assimilate completely. There isn’t an incentive to bring up race, but there is a social reward for not being like the “other” people of color. We are told by society: You grew up in America. You went to Harvard. What’s the problem?

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I did not attend Harvard (or any Ivy League) but when I was growing up, I had a hard time squaring a desire to have friends and be liked with the fact that my family and I weren’t white. I couldn’t “fit in” and be South Asian at the same time, at least not in my predominantly white upstate New York town. This split identity felt even more isolating when I tried to bond with other South Asians over race, and was met with hesitation or denial that a tension existed at all. I’ve seen this tendency over and over: South Asian Americans often deal with the pressure to fit in by distancing themselves from the narrative of race in America.

And this pressure is very real—especially post-9/11, when the South Asian community has consistently been interrogated to ensure we are not a threat. But this context gives even more weight to Lahiri’s comments about “terrorists.” It tells a story about how there are good South Asians and bad South Asians, and Kaling is making clear she does not identify with the latter.

We are neither black nor white; there is no blueprint to discuss the nuances of our own experiences.

This feels more tone-deaf than ever now that the conversation about race is front-and-center and people are marching in the streets. How do South Asians fit in? Awkwardly. Some of us identify strongly with the fight for racial justice in America and are outspoken about it. The way I see it, we should be ready to give up the fictitious veneer of privilege to acknowledge that racism has hurt all of us. Others prefer not to speak up, or lack the language to discuss how they have experienced racism. We are neither black nor white; there is no blueprint to discuss the nuances of our own experiences.

Still, Kaling wants to be a comedian and artist, not an activist, and I’m sure her frustration with having to talk about race is about the unfair expectations put on actors of color. She doesn’t have the luxury of just being an artist. She has become the object of desire for us, a generation of South Asians who didn’t feel part of the race narrative, hoping for an icon who perfectly encapsulates the complexity of our existence. Which is, frankly, impossible.

Through her show, she’s done the important work of mirroring this desire to be just a woman with a voice and a point-of-view, who also happens to be South Asian. The character Kaling has created is a South Asian doctor living in New York who is quirky, goofy, self-absorbed, materialistic, hilarious and surrounded by white people. Her character is infuriating, but it’s also absolutely spot-on. Lots of South Asians have mostly white friends. Lots of them avoid talking about race. The Mindy Project winks at the stereotype that all South Asians are doctors. Mindy Lahiri is representative of a specific South Asian American experience whether we like it or not.

Still, when it comes down to it, Kaling’s work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In an interview for NPR in October, Kaling was asked yet again about being a pioneer for South Asian women. “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 said, “rather than doing the hard work of your job.”

To Kaling, focusing on your difference is a distraction from the “hard work” of creating a fictitious world that ignores race. But as much as Kaling wishes she could do that work on a blank canvas, we don’t have the option to ignore how race influences our lives and our art. And the only way we will see more and more South Asian artists is by talking about our experiences so others can learn from it. So that, sometime soon, there can be other fucking Indian woman with their own fucking network shows.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a NYC-based digital strategist, writer and author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life.

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Notable Replies

  1. Kaling is her own person with her own point of view. She has something in common with the author of this piece, but in the end, her life experiences are her own. Her work and her exposure are benefiting women, South Asians, etc. Good for her, and good for the author, and good for us. It’s just unfair to expect/demand more.

    One note: The author should have a proofer take a last read of her articles before they’re posted. The “We are neither black nor white; there is no blueprint to discuss the nuances of our own experiences” line appears twice in the text (as well as the sidebar).

  2. I love the Mindy show and I think Mindy is brilliant. If she has something to prove, she has proven it. I don’t think you can tell much about her politics from the show as, after all, it is a comedy. She is what she is and she obviously feels uncomfortable about talking about the issues of race as it applies or does not apply to those of Indian heritage. I think she should be left alone. If there is a race issue, applauding her success would seem to be a positive for her race.

  3. Avatar for Nona Nona says:

    That was a bug with the pull quote–it has been fixed, thank you!

  4. I kinda understand why some celebrities stay away from speaking about politics, religion or race. Particularly since their work and success depends primarily on how much they are liked by an audience. And if you somehow say the wrong thing, you are endlessly mocked, excoriated or shunned because of your views.

    At the same time, I feel since she is not your “normal” Hollywood sitcom star, people have a natural curiosity on where she stands or how she feels being a South Asian actress in a time where most stars don’t look like her. People (myself included) wonder how she feels, how easy or difficult it was for her to get where she is, if she struggled, if she is sad or proud she’s broken ground in that field, they want to hear if she’s had to overcome adversity and if so how. People love triumphant stories like that.

    I don’t think it’s out of line to be curious about things like that, and I am almost certain hearing where she stands on the issue might help someone else that looks like her.

    Thanks to the author for this article. IT was an eye-opener for me. I feel I learned a little more about a culture that I am unfamiliar with. Very thought provoking.

  5. I feel that the author was spot on. There is no excuse for a minority celebrity not speaking about issues of their race or skin color. There were black celebrities (I am old enough to remember, first hand) who boldly and proudly shunned the “Mr. Bojangles” stereotype to become spikes persons for the issues confronting their race. And then there were the actors and musicians who pandered to the “Blackface” stereotype.

    Nat King Cole is a Black musician who was a proud early participant in the Civil Rights Movement Then there was the “Flip” Wilson characters who were characterized as “Uncle Tom” descendants who played to the Black stereotypes Whites held about people of color. In Mr Cole’s case, there is no doubt that it cost him record sales and attendance at his public concerts. Flip Wilson used his role as “Geraldine Jones” to play to White stereotypes. My father, though I love the memory of him dearly, was a proud racist and former KKK member. The only reason he gave up the KKK is that it would have cost him his security clearance after about the late ‘60’s’. I heard words tumble from his lips that still cause me to blanch.

    Flip Wilson was one of his favorite actors. When I tried to play Nat King Cole records, I was told (yelled at, actually) to “…take that Goddamn N****r off my record player…”. When I would remind him that the stereo had been given to me as a birthday present, I would be told, in no uncertain terms. '…that it had been bought with his money and it was in his Goddamn house…" and as long as i was living in his house, I wouldn’t play those Goddamn records in his house (in case you are wondering, I was a VERY rebellious teenager).

    So, to my mind, Samhita Mukhopadhyay has a very valid point. If I, as a White teenager, could demand the right to be racially tolerant, Mindy Kaling, as a South Asian American, can be a role model for other South Asian American people and discuss boldly the issues facing people with her skin color. Just as an aside, Samhita Mukhopadhyay came up on my spell check as being an erroneous word while the 'Mindy" in Mindy Kaling came up as properly spelled; I say interesting because Mindy was obviously chosen, either by Ms. Kaling as a stage name or by her parents as her actual name, as a name that sounds ‘acceptable’ to a White, racist USA audience ‘Kaling’ is also a name that has been deliberately chosen to ‘sound’ more of a person of White heritage that a foreign person of color. I’m sympathetic with people who don’t want to be a role model for other people of a particular people of color, because it is a heavy burden to bear; a burden that I, as a child of White privilege, couldn’t really begin to understand. But I can empathize with a person in such a position.

    Nevertheless, the person of color who chose a career as a person who would, potentially someday, be in the glare of the public spotlight,must bear the burdens that accompany that position of privilege with the obligatory demand to be a spokesperson for their people of color and the issues that a person of her color faces on a daily basis. Mindy Kaling is such a person and she must bear the burden that accompanies her current celebrity status.

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