In her post “Why I’m Not Proud an Indian-American Is Miss America” Gawker’s Beejoli Shah argues that there is no reason to be proud that an Indian-American has won a national pageant. She writes:
“It’s not some sort of innate self-loathing (well, not for that reason anyways) or jealousy, but because news reports of any noteworthy South Asian achievement are immediately followed by texts from friends of “Did you see? S/He’s INDIAN.” It’s as if this stranger’s victory is all the more palpable to me by some grace of shared concentration of melanin, and I never know how to respond. “Great”? “Can’t hold down that brown”? “I think that’s my cousin”?
None of this excitement makes sense, according to Shah.
Shah does raise a very interesting question. Is it acceptable to support someone just because of their race? Or is that mere tribalism, an unthinking, unevolved response to the problem of racism and underrepresentation?
Well, what’s wrong with a little tribalism?
The fact is, I’m always going to gravitate to Indian-Americans who are in the public eye. I feel a warmth for them that I don’t feel for people of other races. Of course, I don’t like every famous Indian-American (I’m not too keen on Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley,) but I like most of them. It’s nothing they did. It’s the fact that we come from (more or less) the same community. There are several not-that-talented actors whose movies I’ll still buy tickets for, because they’re like me. Yes, I’m not objective. Why should I be?
Shah also mentions a 2012 Mindy Kaling interview in which the star said, “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”
I’m a huge fan of Mindy, and I entirely get where she’s coming from. She wants to compete with the best and brightest, and she doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a demographic category. But like it or not, she’s going to be seen as an Indian female comedian, no matter what she does. Even if the rest of America somehow stops caring about her race and gender, those of us who are Indian and female are not going to forget that she’s one of us. If something horrible happens and Mindy loses all her funny overnight, many South Asians will still support her, because they see her almost as family.
Likewise, for those of us who were made fun of for being nerdy and brown and hairy, for those of us who have never quite been able to feel beautiful because of it, Nina Davuluri is a godsend. She’s living proof that someone who looks like us, someone who is dark-skinned, who dances the same way we do, someone who has faced the same kind of barriers we have, can succeed in an area that we have never done well in before. She’s been deemed beautiful in a contest that’s (let’s face it) about beauty. Even if the allegations that she fat-shamed her predecessor are true (and I hope they’re not), she still has done something remarkable for Indian Americans; especially for Indian American women.
Look at it this way. Any Indian American who rises in the public eye is going to face the hurdle of racism, from America as a whole. They’re going to start out with the burden of knowing that there are people out there who hate them because of their race. What’s really so bad if we Indian Americans balance the scales a little bit? Where’s the harm in paying a little more attention to Aziz Ansari than we would Seth Rogan?
The truth is, I have an ulterior motive. It’s why I write for The Aerogram, it’s why I blog about Indian and Indian-American issues. I want there to be a dynamic, diverse, and self-aware Indian-American community. I want us to have a sense of solidarity, one that is based on shared experiences. I never had an Indian community growing up; I want to create one for myself now that I’m an adult. For those of us who need this kind of communion and fellowship, having Indian-American public figures give us opportunities to rally together on their behalf.
It’s okay to support someone just because of their identity. It’s okay to like someone because they remind you of you, or your family. You can use Indian-American celebrities as your security blanket, if the burden of racism is so heavy that you need one. You can find refuge in any public figure that breaks the standard Eurocentric model of beauty, if that’s important to you. Be sure to fairly criticize celebrities when they need it — but don’t be afraid to love someone either.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation and read her thoughts on her personal blog.