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Still taken from Eat, Pray, Love (2010). // Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Spill the Chai: On culture vs. caricature

By Aymen Sherwani, February 4, 2021—

The stereotyping of South Asians has been nothing new. From Eat, Pray, Love to outright racial profiling, brown people have seen it all.

We’re all tired of our identities and experiences being flattened by white people as “all the same” — but for a group of immigrants who know all too well about the dangers of stereotypes, why is it that South Asians seem to do the same to ourselves? Content creators like Lilly Singh, and even comedians like Russell Peters, have relied on and have even gone so far as to create negative stereotypes about their fellow South Asians in order to build their entire careers. In my opinion, they’ve done more to negatively stereotype the South Asian community than traditional racism has. Why is that? It’s because their content is marketed as “representation” when in reality it is anything but relatable to the South Asian experience. Instead, their jokes are almost always at the expense of their own people in an effort to be more palatable — dare I say marketable — to the masses, who in turn assume that their racist depictions of South Asians are authentic forms of representation. 

Lilly Singh, in my opinion a prime example of self-hate in the South Asian community, launched to YouTube stardom after posting a video in 2012 called “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” In this video, Singh dresses up as a traditional Indian mother, salwar kameez and all, and creates the caricature of a physically- and verbally-abusive Indian mother who lacks empathy for her children and is completely unaware of the fact that she’s making a fool of herself by simply being Indian. To everyone else watching, this Indian mother is the butt of the joke and is intended to represent most, if not all, Indian mothers as being awkward-looking, bumbling fools that don’t know anything outside of cooking roti and beating their children. It’s almost as bad as the “Somebody going to get hurt real bad” joke that Russell Peters has been using for the past 15 years to joke about how all Indian fathers coerce their children into submission with threats of physical violence. I would tell them both to stop beating the dead horse when it comes to diaspora comedy, but they would probably turn it into a joke about South Asian parents beating their kids instead. 

Video of “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” // Video courtesy of YouTube.

When I was 12 years old, and didn’t know any better, I thought that these types of jokes that made a mockery out of South Asians were the most hilarious thing I had ever seen — but then again, that was when I was 12 years old. South Asian people stopped laughing at jokes about physical abuse and over-the-top, clown-like, accents. But for some reason, Singh is still busting out the same old broken English and traditional clothes just to get likes on YouTube. The excuse is always “I’m brown, so I’m allowed to make fun of my own culture,” and that is completely valid, but when comedians like Singh continue to reuse the same jokes and racial caricatures over and over again to the point that no one is laughing, you begin to question who her real audience is. 

The problem is that because they also happen to be brown, so as a result, they’re considered inspirational and empowering for achieving such a high level of success and fame in representing the desi community in Hollywood. Has anyone really thought about how the only reason they’re famous in the first place is because they profit from the idea that non-South Asian people think Indian accents are “funny” and keep making the same old jokes for a cheque? Much like the stereotypical Pick-Me girl, who subverts traditional femininity to impress men and show them that she’s “not like other girls”, Pick-Me Comedians like Russell Peters and Lilly Singh only seek to make white people laugh when they tear down other South Asians and make jokes at their expense. They use the colour of their skin to portray themselves as representative of the South Asian diaspora, but they have done nothing to empower anyone. It’s clear the only thing they’ve been seeking to achieve is a seat at the table. 

It’s a classic case of discerning the difference between descriptive and substantive representation. It’s easy to look at a brown face and feel some semblance of solidarity, but it’s become evident that conversations must be had about whether these brown faces even represent our communities in the first place, whether they represent our struggle, whether they allow us to become more accepted in the years to come. With the rise in demand for Hollywood to become more diverse, you would expect to see someone on screen who empowers you. Instead, we have brown people embarrassing themselves and our community in minstrel-like caricatures of what they think makes white people laugh, and call it “representation.” The worst part is that NBC thought it was representation too and gave Singh an entire late-night talk show that no one watches. 

The most harmful part about this entire situation is that when non-South Asians see people like Russell Peters and Lilly Singh repeatedly making jokes at the expense of the South Asian community, they begin to assume that these are accurate portrayals of us, and then treat us as such. I have had racist coworkers tell me they’re not racist because they love watching Russell Peters’ comedy specials, and that I should stop being so sensitive if famous brown people also make these jokes. At this point, it’s not even representation anymore, it’s just enabling everyone else to continue to laugh at us. 

As a diaspora, we should all collectively begin to move past these stale clichés like thick accents and dressing up like our mothers, because surely we’re more entertaining than that? Surely we want to be laughed with, rather than laughed at? In this new decade, I hope people can come to realize we have so much more potential than that.  

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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