As many people are now aware, a recent ad campaign for popchips featuring Ashton Kutcher in a video for a fake online dating website has drawn a lot of criticism. If you follow this blog, you also know that I was one of many of the bloggers who was given the opportunity to “break” this story. We were not told who the celebrity in the video would be or what the content would be or even what product the ad was selling. Once we received that information, we had a limited amount of time in which to write a quick post and send it out in hopes of it spreading around the Internet. The rules were that I had to act as if I had just found Ashton’s real online dating video, in which four over-the-top, funny men also appeared to introduce themselves to potential dates. The catch is that all four characters are played by Kutcher himself.
The problem is that some people find the video racist, in particular, the character of Raj, a Bollywood producer played by Ashton wearing brownish-orange makeup to look Indian. The character has a deep accent, wears a bright blue short kurta (traditional shirt,) and has both laughable dance moves and horrible pickup lines. He is also the only character who isn’t white.
Okay, now before I continue, I unfortunately have to clarify something quickly that will be what some people will say as a response to this post. They will say, “Well, you’re Pakistani, not Indian, so you probably like making a mockery of the Indian race to get back at us for the war that never ends.” WRONG. I was born in New York, my parents were born in Pakistan, and my grandparents were born in India. I still have family in both India and Pakistan, as well as in America. I think the war between India and Pakistan is tragic and I wish it WOULD end, somehow pleasing the people of both countries as well as doing right by Kashmir, the disputed territory caught in this deadly battle for years. And I have friends from every race, religion, culture, and homeland and I am not biased or prejudiced against anyone.
Moving on. Now, the next jab at me will be that being an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi as those born in Southeast Asia say, makes me incapable of understanding the dynamic in play here. Um hello, I have spent my whole life being different, being a representative of the Desi culture whether I wanted to be or not and showing non-Desis that I do believe in Jesus but I don’t celebrate Christmas and I also don’t eat monkeys (true story- someone’s mom wouldn’t let her come over for a while because she was afraid of this.) I was also the first one in my entire extended family to be born here, so I spent much of my youth traveling to visit family “there” and represented Amrika to people who expected me to be cursing in English and disrespecting my mother and wearing as little clothes as possible. I’m not confused. I know exactly who I am and I always have. I also know exactly what bothers you most about this video.
It’s the gora. The white man. The white man making fun of us brown Desis while he tries to sell his chips and get away with it. Okay, I get it. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were under British rule for YEARS. History shows us that that rule ultimately led to the breakdown between Hindus and Muslims and the eventual development of both India and Pakistan as separate entities, and eventually Bangladesh as well. It was “divide and conquer” and it worked for the white man and the Desis went from being subjugated to winning independence to killing each other. The hatred, both outward and inward, has never really gone away. That’s why the countries still fight. That’s one reason why Western involvement in those countries is seen as interference and even a subtle re-subjugation.
I am not going to argue any of this with you. I took Social Studies and History and Sociology and Psychology and I am Desi and I am American and I get it. All of it. But guess what? That is not, in any way, shape, or form, what this video is about!
Ashton as Raj is a stereotype. Yes, a stereotype…ooooo. But so is the Rastafarian hippie dude who jokes about getting high. And how about the Southern biker with bad teeth and tattoos all over? And the Karl Lagerfeldesque Darl, who is just too much for me to even say? Three different white characters that satirically portray a bunch of different people: New Age hippie wannabes, Southerners and bikers in one, and fashion-loving, dog-loving, self-loving men.
Raj is a parody, the same character of FOB, Fresh Off the Boat, that we Desis portray often in our own television serials and movies. Why is it okay to do this to ourselves, but not okay when someone else says it? Okay yes, the gora did it, but so what? Can’t we throw off the chains of oppression and servitude that created all this resentment and self-loathing in the first place? Do we really have to pretend to think Ashton or popchips or the American society in general are being mean-spirited or hateful towards us? Or could we maybe just laugh at the stereotype and acknowledge that it is a stereotype for a reason, because there are people like Raj in our community and we ourselves make fun of those characteristics in our entertainment industry and advertisements and conversations ALL THE TIME.
You want to know why I say we hate ourselves? Because we are always trying to BE the white guy, the sahib, the ones who once ran our countries and our lives. The biggest selling products in our culture are things like “Fair and Lovely,” to brighten our skin, and our traditional style makeup requires layers and layers of foundation to look fairer. The community still remembers bowing down to this powerful white ruler, so now we are offended by “them” making fun of “us,” while simultaneously trying to turn into them?
You know what? I AM offended. By you critics who have made me feel like an other among a group I belong to. I was asked to be a part of this campaign like everyone else in our network. I was given my first chance at a sponsored post and I was excited and I did well and I was praised. And then you showed up. Claiming righteous indignation and the voice of a people. But you never asked me what I thought. You didn’t stop to consider that by making me a part of your outcry by saying we all feel the same way (or should,) that you actually forcibly removed me from the very people you are calling racist and exclusive. You essentially put a giant asterisk on my forehead, a bias-bhindi!
Instead of being proud of my culture and heritage and displaying it proudly, I am forced by you to offer this long-winded explanation of why us Desis can’t lighten the hell up. I’m forced to feel ashamed of the funny aspects of my community and guilty for having laughed in the first place? No! No way will I be ashamed or guilty! I have a sense of humor, damn it, and what’s funny coming out of a Desi mouth is funny coming out of Ashton’s or anyone else’s.
Once again, it’s me and a bunch of people who don’t quite get it because they aren’t Desi, and you, the Desis who are so outraged, on the other side. Once again, Sheba’s in the middle. And Sheba’s sick of it.
Raj is not a representation of Desis everywhere. He is the satirical performance we’ve seen in countless places before, in America, in Pakistan, in India, and beyond. YOU are not a representation of Desis everywhere. You are one piece of a culture that needs to move beyond the past and see where its place is now. We are doctors, engineers, and lawyers, leading in the fields of technology and computers. We are teachers and mothers and business owners and we are Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, living in the islands and living in Africa and living in the lands of our forefathers. We are not second-class or a servant class or a group to be controlled. But this is a commercial. It is making light of many, many different kinds of stereotypes. It is not a comment on who you are and you shouldn’t let the gora or your inner voice or anyone ever tell you that you’re anything less. We should be past all this already!
The main person to begin the negative reaction to the advertising is a man named Anil Dash, a blogger, an entrepreneur, and self-described “geek” in the world of technology. His post sounds valid, but here’s what he says in a comment on someone else’s blog:
Here in the United States, people of Indian descent actually have relatively less impact in all of
those realms than would be expected, given the percentage of population that we represent, so
we have less power… It’s fine to mock people in positions of power; It’s wrong to mock those
who are not in power. This shouldn’t be that hard to understand — it’s the same reason adults
don’t make fun of kids, for example. (Anil Dash)
Raj made me laugh, you make me shake my head in disgust. I am so unbelievably insulted by this- what you, the critic, have to say!
We have “less impact” and “less power” and are compared to children while everyone else is an adult?! Now that’s racism. Racism doesn’t have to be one race against another. You have shown here that you consider Desis inferior to other races, especially to whites, and that you think we’re mere children being bullied in this society. Please Mr. Dash, have the decency to not spread your self-hating, insecure, nonexistent self-esteem to the rest of us!
Ashton’s character never says anything as demeaning as what you’re putting out there as your explanation for hating his performance. He put on brown makeup? Actors ALWAYS wear makeup, whether they are playing their own race or another. He has an accent? So do billions of people, and so do countless characters in Hollywood, Bollywood, and Lollywood, because that is a reality and it can be an interesting quirk to portray. He can’t dance? Damn it, all you people with two left feet, get out there and join the movement against left-footedness!!
Seriously, this was supposed to be funny. Just say you didn’t think it was and move on. Don’t turn it into an us versus them. Don’t tell me we’re “not in power” and we should be hurt that those who supposedly are are making fun of us. I am one of the bloggers to break the story, just like my white/black/pink counterparts in the blogosphere, and I have an impact. I have power. Don’t take that away from me because you don’t like the joke!
For a few moments in this video, Ashton Kutcher was brown like me. And I, for one, found it hilarious.