Master of None, on paper, is a simple premise. It’s a show about an actor coming to terms with what he wants in life. For many of us in the twilight of our twenties, the story is familiar. Who hasn’t wondered, while standing in line for a prescription for painkillers for your suddenly aching back, “Wait, what am I doing with my life?”
What set the show apart was that it starred Aziz Ansari, a South Asian American, and yet, the jokes weren’t based on quirky accents. Instead, episode after episode featured a diverse cast of people learning to navigate adulthood. And because of this, the show was recently awarded a Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy, cementing the obvious fact: white people aren’t the only ones with narratives to tell.
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) January 18, 2016
But this message hasn’t really spread as far as we’d like. Despite TV better representing what the U.S. is really like, with programming that includes Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, there is a lot left to be desired. Once again, not a single person of color was nominated for any of the Oscar’s major awards. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith said they will boycott the Oscars. The issue has become a major point of discussion in the mainstream press, especially the fact that those who vote for the nominations are overwhelming white, male, and old.
What boycotting Oscars and a show like Master of None have also done is provide a jumping-off point for the larger discussion to be had by POC: does representation matter when we’re still living in an age of institutionalized racism? It is substantive versus symbolic.
By now, you should know what’s happened in Flint, Michigan. Here’s a quick summary: Flint is suffering from a man-made crisis. There is no drinkable water for the residents. The drinking water they once relied on became contaminated due to decisions made by a “state-appointed emergency manager.” Now, those living in Flint are left with water that’s “highly corrosive.”
Flint has already been hard-hit by de-industrialization. Most folks are working-class, and the majority African-American. Some might say because of these factors, they had been ignored.
With these facts in mind, it can be intuitive to say, “Who gives a crap about the Oscars while POC are dying?” Will Michael B. Jordan getting nominated for Creed cure the water in Flint? Will Aziz Ansari up on a late-night talk show stop the attacks on Sikh and Muslim Americans? Will any of this attention truly take into account those outside the lens?
The simple answer is, “No,” and it’d be naive to think so.
But maybe the debate itself hasn’t been framed in the correct way.
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I grew up in Queens. All I wanted to do was write stories and watch movies. I began to write my own material, subconsciously inserting names like Arjun for the lead characters. I wasn’t some angry-ass radical just yet. But I did realize as I grew up and we moved into the suburbs of New Jersey that white faces dominated much of the entertainment I enjoy.
There was never a eureka moment. The truth simply settled in, like smoke. And when I did find material with people who looked like me, it was often someone playing a terrorist or a taxi driver. Add to the fact that I was surrounded by other Desis, born and raised in the U.S., who wanted to become doctors, or engineers, making me truly feel like I was the weird one. Funny thing is, it was a movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle that made me understand that the problem wasn’t me. It was the society I inhabited.
I’m not going to pretend that Harold & Kumar rescued me from oblivion. I was already becoming aware of race, class, and gender through experiences I and my friends had. But, to see Kal Penn play someone who was funny, and also, confident, became a point-of-reference. Along with shows like Everybody Hates Chris, I felt anchored to who I am: a nerdy Desi who likes to speak out at protests, and make fart-jokes (back in the day, I’d like to add).
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Art and politics shouldn’t be placed on opposite ends. The best artists have been among the best advocates for social change. Case in point: James Baldwin.
Baldwin was a novelist, an essayist, and a bad-ass. Baldwin represents that words can elicit emotions and shape new ideas for others to take a hold of and use.
His best work, in my eyes, is The Fire Next Time, which starts with a letter to his nephew, and contains perspectives on race in America. Baldwin is considered a hero for young people who believe in social justice. It was reading his work and hearing his speeches on YouTube that got me more involved in activism.
Those who’d criticize boycotting Oscars while POC suffer in the real world have a valid point in terms of who we, as POC, want to impress with our art. What we must avoid, at all costs, is creating work for white eyes to see — the White Gaze.
People of color have been rewarded in movies for playing butlers, maids, and corrupt cops. It’s still important to honor those who broke through and gained recognition but we must remember that the ultimate goal is not only to have more access to the seats of power within entertainment but to be able to change the narratives, to include stories that tell the whole breadth and nuance of ourselves.
This can only change if we demand that more POC are included in the nomination process. Hollywood has a name and influence behind it. We need those levers of power if we are to disseminate different images of ourselves.
In a capitalistic country, money sings, and so, not going to the movies that star white leads will make a difference. The demographics have changed and most of America wants to see POC and women on the big screen. Art can advocate for change and make an impact in folks’ lives. It can raise awareness of future cases like Flint.
“If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go,” Baldwin wrote, “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.”
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Sudip Bhattacharya lives in Monroe Township, New Jersey. He is currently a fellow and working on his Ph.D. in political science at Rutgers University. Before that, he worked as a journalist.