The Meaning of Brown in ‘Master of None’

Dec 6, 2015
10:16 AM
Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari (left) as Dev Shah in 'Master of None,' alongside his real-life father (Screenshot)

Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari (left) as Dev Shah in ‘Master of None,’ alongside his real-life father (Screenshot)

With the November premier of Netflix’s Master of None, the series presented an opportunity for us to examine the role of Latinos in productions that were created by other immigrants of color. Brinda Gupta — an Indian-American educational writer from Chicago — and Christina Saenz — a Chicana data strategist and content curator for Latino Rebels — engaged in an insightful conversation about how “Brown” American-born immigrants were positioned in Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Brinda Gupta: Christina, thank you for contacting me to discuss Master of None. Watching Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling reach their current levels of success has meant so much to me — I didn’t see any representations of myself as a South Asian on TV when growing up. Master of None has impressed me overall. I am really excited to see an Indian American who is my age in a sitcom, one who has also chosen a creative career path (not medicine!) and having experiences that I can relate to, from dating in our 30s to relating to immigrant parents. The show is not laugh-out-loud funny, but I don’t need it to be.

I feel the same way about The Mindy Project — it has its flaws, but I don’t need it to hit all the bases. White people don’t expect every show to hit all the bases, you know? Of course, they have a huge advantage: almost all shows are “white shows” by default. The “Indians on TV” episode of Master of None which explored that idea was, in my opinion, the strongest episode, even more so than the really touching immigrant-parent journey one. I loved the conversations about how society believes that “there can never be two,” meaning two brown characters on the screen.

Christina Saenz-Alcantara: Even though I am a Mexican American whose work is in the social sector, I could relate on multiple levels. I never knew my family’s backstory of how they came here and the struggles they faced due to racism. The show is relatable in that many people of color and immigrants could see parts of themselves in the show even though the primary story is narrated through the eyes of a desi (that is, an American-born South Asian). The central question of the series is this: What opportunities and barriers are created for your personal and professional life when your identity is as a hyphenated American?

What I did not understand is the lack of non-Asian immigrants in the story line!  Where were the Latinos, or even Middle-Eastern Americans?

Brinda: I think it’s really pretty common for some Asians (I’m grouping South-Asian Americans together with Chinese and Korean Americans) to only interact with each other and with white people, especially when they go into careers like medicine. Aziz grew up in South Carolina, so I imagine his childhood was a lot like mine in Indiana, being mostly shaped by white people.

Christina: But South Carolina has one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Did the growing Latino population in his home state influence his own identity? That aside, he’s in NYC where 30 percent of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic.

For example, Noël Wells, who plays the girlfriend of the primary character, is a quarter Mexican and half Tunisian, but Master of None writers presented her as a WASPy white girl. The show even says that her character Rachel is from San Antonio — where Noël Wells is actually from. Her character could have been a great opportunity to explore other immigrant identities and its implications on Aziz as a Desi guy. Why did they decide to make her white when the show’s primary premise is about race and immigrant-identity representation in the media?

Noël Wells, the San Antonio-born actress of Latino and Tunisian descent who plays Rachel, the main character's girlfriend, in 'Master of None' (Earwolf Studios/Wikimedia)

Noël Wells, the San Antonio-born actress of Latino and Tunisian descent who plays Rachel, the main character’s girlfriend, in ‘Master of None’ (Earwolf Studios/Wikimedia)

Brinda: Even though the whitewashing of the actress’s background bothers me, it doesn’t bother me that they chose for his primary love interest to be white — maybe it hits close to home for me, as all my boyfriends have been white! Mindy Kaling’s character’s inability to date non-white guys is actually played up for laughs on her show. Maybe some of it comes from this early pressure in life to be as white as possible, especially when you grow up in lily-white communities. It’s hard to shake that, even in the big city. (As an aside, Ansari’s character ended up marrying a character of Cuban descent on the brilliant Parks and Recreation… that show had wonderfully diverse casting that never felt forced, and I’m glad that Ansari seems to be taking some lessons away from that experience.)

Romantic entanglements aside, of course, the main character’s friends should be more diverse. You and I live in urban areas, and I think we would have to work hard to not have friends of all stripes. I don’t think it needs to be Sex and the City-style (one blonde friend! one brunette friend! one redhead friend!) with a token person of each race sitting around a table during each best-friend rap session. But Dev is in a lot of social situations besides that.

I see a really big opportunity in introducing Latino characters within the sphere of Dev’s professional life. We know how Hollywood tends to cast “brown” people from all over Asia and Latin America in interchangeable roles. What great comedy and social commentary it would have been to have a mix of Indian, Persian, Arab, and Latino actors — hey, maybe an actor of Maori descent, too — up for the role of Indian taxi driver. To many white people in Hollywood, all brown people are the same.

Christina: If Aziz’s focus is about telling the untold story, that’s a story that is rarely ever told: how do Asians and Latinos — the two fastest growing immigrant groups in America — relate? The idea is out there that Asians don’t get along with Blacks. Aziz tears apart that myth through his portrayal of positive interactions with his go-getter African American agent, his need for insightful advice from his African-American Lesbian best friend, and mentorship with Busta Rhymes about how to use race to make a career. The show even picks apart the myth that older white people are racist through the episode in which he forms a bond with his girlfriend’s white grandmother.

But, black-white America is not NYC — or even America. America is increasingly brown — and not just a Desi brown. By not including Latinos, he perpetuates this idea that Asians and Latinos don’t interact or even influence each other.

If he’s about presenting a more multifaceted idea of Asian Americans, their identities are not just shaped by blacks and whites. Remember when he was on the quest for a taco? Latin Americans are even influencing his character’s food cravings!

Latinos were and are the primary actors in opening up the immigrant pathways to this country for many other immigrant groups. Those same laws that Latinos picketed for gave his family the opportunity to be here. Remember that the first cohorts of South Asians in this country came here to farm the same fields where Latinos worked. The history and current state of Asia America has always been intertwined with Latinos and other immigrants of color.

When people — usually whites — try to tell me that oppression does not exist for immigrants of color, they cite the success of Asians as their example. If Asians are cited as the “good immigrant” and that model minority myth constrains the main character of Master of None, then some other group has to be the “bad immigrant” — which are assumed to be Latinos.

Brinda: Those people are very stupid if they 1) think Asian people aren’t subject to discrimination and 2) are unaware of the immigration laws that led to mostly professional doctor/engineer types coming over from Asia in our parents’ generation. If you watch the show, he talks about how education enabled his parents’ immigration to the U.S., and how they still faced discrimination when they arrived.

At the same time, there can be a tendency among older South Asian and East Asians in the U.S. to internalize the thought that Asians have to be the “respectable” minority that do not rock the boat.  They might maintain the model immigrant image by keeping a social distance from Latinos and black Americans. But younger, urban Asians do not want to — and are unable to — maintain that distance. We are exposed every day to other cultures through our friends and our neighborhoods — and in pop culture. Hey, now we’re back to the importance of visibility of different faces in the media!

Christina: Many of us Latinos like the story he has to tell, but we want to ensure that we are part of his story as well. He can help destroy myths about us too — which will destroy the larger myth about immigrants.

Besides, he has Latinos watching his show, so give us some credit by making a space for us in this innovative show. Perhaps, next season, he will be more intentional to include us as people — and not just as a food item or as a comment about us as a Latina maid.

Brinda: I’m glad you brought up the lack of Latino characters in the show. I don’t know if I would have noticed otherwise, which I think is a big problem with how complacent we can get about our entertainment. Master of None has had a short run of episodes for its first season, and I think it got off to a great start addressing ideas of identity. There is so much that can be explored in subsequent seasons, and I think the idea of “brownness” could be a major point. In (very important!) conversations about white/black society, so many cultures get lumped together as a tertiary concern under the term “brown,” which is funny because we’re probably collectively 70 percent of the world’s population. Latin and Asian people our age are often second-generation and have a lot more in common with each other that I sometimes remember. The next time a sweet abuela in my neighborhood mistakes me for Latina and is disappointed that I don’t speak Spanish, I’ll think about how similar her family’s experiences might have been to mine.


Brinda Gupta is a writer and editor who works under her freelance identity of Kali Ink, a company that specializes in educational writing. A Northwestern University graduate, Gupta lives in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow her @gomonkeygo.

You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.