By Meg Sharma
Many people are convinced the dreaded ‘r’ word is thrown around too much, by over sensitive individuals who need to care a less. Being called racist isn’t fun, but neither is being mocked in subtle ways for one’s race and culture so everyone else can laugh.
Growing up as an Indian girl I didn’t see many examples of myself on TV; it was almost like being erased from what the western world is. When I did see an Indian character on TV my instant response was to love them – In retrospect I see that many of the portrayals I used to love show Indians in a stereotypical, negative light, as happens with many ethnic minorities being made into caricatures on screen. TV shows with Indian characters often display casual racism in their portrayal which, like it or not, affects us all.
The Big Bang Theory is a popular series, and has been praised in the past for Raj, the token Indian (and only ethnic minority) character of the series. He is originally from New Delhi, and his character is riddled with many of the negative stereotypes that surround Indian people. He doesn’t know much about American culture, can’t talk to women, and has a thick, laid-on accent that is often mocked by other characters. Jokes are made about India with its culture and religion at expense, and Raj is shown to loathe his home country whether it’s for the food or for the people.
There is nothing wrong with a character being closely associated with their culture, as there are many people who feel that their heritage is a part of them. However, this becomes a problem when it is an lazy excuse for the personality of the character, rather than just an attribute to them. A good example of this is Cece from New Girl, who has her own personality and character traits, separate from her cultural background, which is celebrated when appropriate.
When a character is reduced to their cultural heritage where other characters would not be, it becomes arguable that this is due to casual racism. In the Big Bang Theory, Raj is the only non-white major character, and while some of the other characters have a religious or cultural background, this is not a defining part of them or their personality. Usually it is only featured when necessary as a part of the plot, and is done so in a respectful way. It seems that the producers and writers of the show wrote Raj’s character under the guise of comedy, when it is simply casual racism.
The Simpsons recently came under criticism after Kondabulo’s film ‘The Problem with Apu’ was released. While Hank Azaria, the voice actor for Apu, apologised for any offence it might have caused he continued to voice the character after being told asked “Can you do an Indian accent and how offensive can you make it?” at his audition, and even won multiple awards.
Apu’s character perpetuates the idea that all Indians are workaholic shopkeepers, who have arranged marriages, and love cricket and curry. While one would think that our generation would know better than to believe these stereotypes, I would still have his accent recited to me at school, and later be asked if ‘Apu’, the man who owned the local corner shop was my dad or uncle. In Kondabulo’s film, it is remarkable how many Indian actors and comedians would be asked to do the ‘Apu voice’, or be expected to do it for comedic purposes, and any roles they did go for would either be written for an Indian stereotype, or adapted to one once they were chosen.
Even if you are not Indian, or a part of a minority that may be offended by casual racism in TV, it affects you too. Whether you believe you’re the most accepting person or not, it is important to self-reflect and consider whether you have ever held someone to a stereotype or idea that you have seen on TV. These are only a few instances, but there are many more examples on TV and in films, not only for Indians but for all ethnic minorities, which cement the racial stereotypes subjected to them. Casual racism may seem like a non-issue but when we see ourselves as progressive but it is important not to let things like this slip, before we all become apart of the issue.