Shortly after Nina Davuluri was crowned the first Indian-American Miss America on Sept. 15, Twitter and the blogosphere erupted with racist and xenophobic comments. “#if you’re Miss America, you have to be American,” said one tweet. “#9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America?” asked another. Thirty years after the crowning of the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams, these comments are downright shocking.
Although Nina Davuluri recently said in a CNN interview, “I always viewed myself first and foremost as American,” the American media doesn’t seem to do the same. Immigration from India is currently at its highest level in history, according to an American Community Survey conducted in 2010. But until recently, there were few Indian-American celebrities in mainstream American pop culture.
“I have to admit that I still get excited when I see South Asians in pop culture, particularly because growing up I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on television,” says Janani Subramanian, an Indian-American assistant professor of film studies at Indiana University. “My parents were thrilled when they saw the character of Babu on Seinfeld, even though he was an exaggerated stereotype.”
But Davuluri joins actor-comedians Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari in a new generation of Indian Americans in American media, a generation that grew up without Indian role models in American television and film. The job of becoming those trailblazers for the next generation of Indian-American celebrities now lies in their hands.
Mindy Kaling is a 34-year-old who grew up in Cambridge, Mass.; her parents immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1977. After graduating from Dartmouth College, she played a handful of minor film roles before joining the writing staff of The Office. In 2012, Kaling premiered her own Fox sitcom, The Mindy Project, in which she stars. The Huffington Post calls her “one of the funniest and currently most successful women in Hollywood.” In a 2011 Entertainment Weekly interview about the publication of her 2011 memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling says, “I neither rely on or deny being Indian. That’s just sort of the way I go about it. If it comes into places because it’s funny, I’ll bring it up, but if it’s not, then I don’t.”
As one of few women of color with a starring television role, Kaling has received a lot of attention for standing out in a white-male-dominated comedy world. But Kaling wishes to be seen simply for the value of her work. In an interview with Parade Magazine she says, “There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them. But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male showrunners get to talk about their art.”
Aziz Ansari, age 30, a star of the popular show Parks and Recreation, shares a similar sentiment. Ansari, the child of Indian immigrant parents, grew up in South Carolina and graduated from NYU. Like Kaling, Ansari expresses frustration at being pigeonholed or stereotyped. “I never saw an Indian person on TV unless it was like, Gandhi or a James Bond movie where he goes to India or they’re showing the Kwik-E-Mart guy,” he said in a 2012 National Public Radio interview.
In fact, many of Ansari’s stand-up routines are based on defying the Indian stereotypes the public often places him in. “I was doing an interview once and the guy said, ‘You must be psyched by all this Slumdog Millionaire stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Um, yeah! I am! I have no idea why, though, as I had NOTHING to do with that movie! It’s just that some people who kinda look like me are in it,’” he says in one routine. Ansari speaks with a light Southern accent, and often finds humor in people’s assumption that he speaks with an Indian accent.
Although Ansari and Kaling are open about being Indian and often use their background in their comedy, the characters they portray are classic American ones. Subramanian is interested in the way that Indian-American characters employ classic “American” characteristics such as consumerism to show that they have lost their immigrant mentalities. “Mindy is obsessed with fashion and celebrities (both on The Office and on The Mindy Project), Aziz Ansari’s character Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation is also heavily invested in fashion and social media, and Danny Pudi’s character Abed on Community embodies the ultimate American popular-culture fan in his constant use of allusions, film and television references, and meta-commentary,” Subramanian explains. “I wonder if these characters’ excessive consumerism is a way of coding these characters as ‘true’ Americans,” he adds.
Columbia College junior Debayan Guha, an Indian American and the political chair of Columbia South Asian organization Club Zamana, defends Ansari, Davuluri, and Kaling’s choice to be thought of as American first and Indian second. “Nina Davuluri, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling are all coming in with this idea that yes, we are Indian American, but there’s a big American component to that. None of them are shying away from the culture that they come from. It’s OK if Mindy Kaling doesn’t want being an Indian American to be a big part of who she is, because who she is first and foremost is being an entertainer,” Guha says.
He adds that this mixing of South Asian and American culture is not happening only on TV. It’s happening right here at Columbia, through the University’s many Indian dance groups. In recent years, Columbia University Bhangra, a club dedicated to performing traditional Indian folk dance, has incorporated hip-hop moves and music. CU Bhangra, Guha says, “is very Indian-American. This interface between old and new and West and East, in a way [it’s] not trying to shade over the past or change it, but is just trying to complement it. You can argue that that’s a loss of tradition or culture, or you can argue that that’s the start of a new culture.”
Davuluri’s response to the racist backlash surrounding her win sums up well her place in the ever-more-multicultural America she lives in. “I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. But the girl next door is evolving as the diversity of America evolves. She’s not who she was 10 years ago, and she’s not going to be the same person come 10 years down the road,” Davuluri said to CNN.
Alongside Davuluri, Ansari and Kaling are pioneers in a new world of American pop culture and media representation where celebrities are no longer defined by where they come from but instead by who they are. As Kaling says, “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 should I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”