Go back to your country,” mutters the man in line at Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Palo Alto, California, as I head out of the shop with a coffee in hand. It was the third time that week. First the kid in the chemistry class in my high school. Then the man on the street I bumped into.
Now him. I turned and stepped towards the man, ready to yell some obscenities at the latest attack on my racial background. But his back was turned. Obviously, he didn’t expect a response, not from a weak Indian like me.
He didn’t get one.
I walked out of the store, punched the nearest stairwell and left.
“Go back to your country.” The phrase echoed through my head. These would be the same words that Deep Rai, a 39-year-old Sikh in Kent, Washington, heard before a masked assailant put a bullet in his arm on March 3. “Go back to your country.” These were the last words that Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a software engineer who had recently immigrated to the United States from India, would ever hear. He was gunned down in a Kansas bar after being called racial slurs all evening.
Not much earlier, Kuchibhotla’s wife had begged him to leave the country, as she was wary of the growing racism against Indian Americans. His response? “Good things happen in America.” America’s response? “Go back to your country.”
Indian Americans in the US find themselves in an increasingly strange situation.
A “model minority”, we are well educated, with 70% above the age of 25 holding a college degree. We also face a unique form of discrimination. It seems that Indian Americans are treated less and less like people, and more and more as living jokes and memes; to be made fun of and ridiculed. The image of the modern Indian American is truly depressing.
We are seen as weak, both physically and mentally, stereotypically nerdy and incredibly awkward. The spread of this stereotype alongside the normalisation of racism against Indian Americans can be attributed largely to the portrayal of them on American television shows.
Just take a look at Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb. At first, it seems like any other children’s television show — two brothers work with their friends on wacky inventions that often end up accidentally saving those around from the evil dealings of Dr Heinz Doofenshmirtz, a mad scientist.
However, upon taking a closer look at the show, one young man stands out. Baljeet Tjinder, an Indian-American boy, rarely fits in with the other characters.
He is comically awkward, spends excessive time doing maths and studying while other children are on summer vacation, and is constantly bullied by those around him. If this weren’t enough, Baljeet comes from a self-described “long line of losers”. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all been killed in tiger attacks and, as if that wasn’t all, he literally dirties his pants when presented with physical confrontation. Really?
Making fun of Indian Americans doesn’t stop there. Television shows repeatedly mock Indian culture, a phenomenon exhibited by Disney Channel’s Jessie. The show portrays Ravi as a young Indian-American character who maintains an excessively strong Indian accent. Much like Baljeet, Ravi is awkward, weak and constantly bullied by other characters on the show. Upon wearing a traditional Indian sherwani, Ravi is humiliated by fellow characters, being described as looking like a “nightclub act” and a “traffic cone with hair”.
When his babysitter finally sticks up for him, she is comically unable to pronounce the word “sherwani” — yet another jab at Indian-American culture.
Other shows, including CBS’s critically acclaimed sitcom The Big Bang Theory also have characters who play the stereotypical Indian-American image. Television is an integral part of American culture. It shapes how we act in our everyday lives as well as how we view ourselves.
The way the television shows portray Indian Americans is not only racist, but provides a depressing image for youngsters. This relentless attack in the name of comedy has real world impacts — on the way we are viewed in real life, both by members of our group and society as a whole.
This portrayal of Indian Americans as awkward shells of human beings tells the next generation that we must fit this image — that these people on television are our future.
Those who defend this portrayal argue that this is “just a joke”.But it stops being a joke the moment people are killed in hate crimes. It stops being a joke the moment an Indian American embraces the stereotype and becomes a real-life Ravi in order to get laughs. It stops being a joke the moment a fifth grader gets bullied like Baljeet because his classmates think it is acceptable, even normal, to treat him that way.
This blatant stereotyping and racism is somehow normalised and considered acceptable in the name of comedy.
While stereotypes can be funny, there is a line that is crossed when an Indian-American character on television, after being tied to a door in a sleeping bag by his abusive friends, awakens and yells, “Great Ganesha! I am a human samosa!” We get it, you think we are funny. But the truth is that Indian Americans are more than jokes. We are people with lives and emotions and, no, we aren’t all antisocial, awkward weirdos who are bizarrely obsessed with traditional aspects of our culture. We are just people, and all we want is to be treated as such. Is that too much to ask?
(The writer is an eleventh grade student at Palo Alto High School in California, US)