Let me be clear: I adore Mindy Kaling. I don’t adore her in a rational and sensible way, but in an inside-joke-having, clothes-swapping, can-you-look-something-up-for-me-on-WebMD-and-tell-me-I’m-not-going-to-die-because-I-trust-my-uninformed-best-friend-forever way. Sure, it’s not like we’ve ever met.
Much of my adoration has to do with her work on TV as well as her wonderful book. But, honestly, I just dig that she and I have similar backgrounds. We’re both people of color who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, went to predominantly white schools (me, a private prep high school and Mindy, Darmouth College) and have dated white men. In short, Kaling is one of the few current young celebrities I can identify with, which is why I'm struggling with the mixed emotions I have over her hit show The Mindy Project.
The cast's chemistry is great and the jokes are a-plenty. But The Mindy Project has far too many moments that make me do a double take. For example, in an episode from the current season, Kaling’s character Dr. Mindy Lahiri's gets caught trespassing on Army grounds. As she gives her ID to an officer, she says, “OK, I know that my ID says that I’m 5’10” with blond hair, 110 pounds with crystal blue eyes. My philosophy is that an ID should be aspirational.”
Normally, when people say something this ludicrous, I react with a combination of glee and slight embarrassment on their behalf—like when I order an eight-piece chicken McNuggets and the cashier accidentally gives me ten. All I can think to myself is, "This chick can't count" and and then I shove the two extra nuggets in my mouth so that I don’t get caught with them. What I'm getting at is: when people say ignorant things on TV, it's usually amusing. However, when someone like the incredibly talented Mindy Kaling—who happens to be the first South Asian American person to headline her own network television series—has her character crack a joke about aspiring towards whiteness as an ideal, I responded the way I did when I found out rapper Gucci Mane had an image of an ice cream cone tattooed on his face:
Bottom line: Kaling should know better. Whether she likes it or not, POCs (people of color) expect more racial awareness and intelligence from her. That’s in part because POCs tend to share a kinship from our struggles with the indoctrination of white standards of beauty. Those white-is-the-ideal standards are practically global at this point thanks to things such as colonialism, Blepharoplasty, and Nigerian-Cameroonian pop musician Dencia shilling for a skin-bleaching cream, just to name a few. Given all this pressure to look white, it's quite disturbing that a woman of color would joke about wanting to be white. Perhaps if it was a one-off quip, I would be perturbed yet I would've ignored it. Unfortunately, the two seasons of The Mindy Project have been littered with these kind of questionable comments and other frustrating things, such as Dr. Lahiri's penchant for only dating white men.
Off camera, Kaling's annoyance with the ongoing debate over her show's lack of diversity finally came to a head during her appearance at this year's SXSW. She told the crowd:
"I look at shows on TV, and this is going to just seem defensive, but I'm just gonna say it: I'm a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?...I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won't name them because they're my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I'm the one that gets lobbied aboutthese things."
Like an AARP magazine in my mailbox, I'm returning Kaling's response to sender for a few reasons.
1) Just because she's a person of color doesn't mean that she's exempt from critique. In addition to the love interest situation, the writing staff is nearly all white and all male (except for the fantastic Tracy Wigfield). To not comment on the lack of diversity simply because she and I probably share the same "maybe it's Maybelline" foundation color would be giving her pass that she later claims other TV shows receive. How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, and Girls have all been called out for their race issues, so it's only in fairness that the same happens to The Mindy Project.
2) The characterization of Tamra, the lone black nurse on Lihari's staff, makes it seem like Kaling and the writers have never actually met a black woman before. Again, Kaling's ethnicity doesn't cancel out the fact that Tamra is nothing more than a caricature. The litany of cringe-inducing things she does includes speaking in what is commonly known as a "blackcent," which in industry-speak loosely translates to, "learning your elocution from the lady in Popeye's Chicken commercial," and dating a guy named Ray Ron (who, big surprise, is a white guy who acts..."stereotypically" black?). Sorry, the M. Night Shyamalan-esque reveal of her boyfriend's race does nothing to alleviate the obvious, glaring problem, which is that the assumption was her boyfriend was black based on all the ways Tamra described him is ignorant. Gee, thanks.
3) Shonda Rhimes has paved the way for color-blind casting. Ever since her television debut in 2005 with Grey's Anatomy, superstar showrunner and writer Shonda Rhimes has spoken publicly about the need for color-blind casting. Unless she has a specific actor in mind when she writes the scripts, any ethnicity can audition for any role in her TV series, which has lead to great casting choices such as Sandra Oh on Grey’s. So the excuse that some have used—this is Kaling's first TV show that she's run and she might not have that much wiggle room to create a diverse cast—is just that: an excuse. Prior to Grey's, Rhimes' showrunning path was not paved with a bevy of Emmy nominations on a critically acclaimed television series like Kaling's was. Rhimes wrote the Britney Spears' film Crossroads and the sequel to The Princess Diaries, which was about as necessary as a giant heaping of butter on a piece of Paula Deen's deep fried cheesecake. In short, Rhimes had way less clout than Kaling, yet she made the effort to have her shows be diverse. If Rhimes can do it, so can Kaling.
And that's what my beef with The Mindy Project is really about. Diversity, whether we admit it or not, requires effort from everyone, including people of color. It doesn't stop once a person of color has a seat at the table. POCs must help make room at the table for others because quite frankly, no one else will. So yes, POCs should make an effort to look outside of the same crop of white guys when looking for a writing staff. POCs should make the effort to not to keep casting the same crop of white guys (Seth Rogen) as love interests and hold an open casting call for gentlemen who are a shade darker than the ecru color found in a Benjamin Moore paint can. The implication that asking for diversity (which does not mean simply be the "token," by the way) is an outrageous burden is absurd. We're living in a racially diverse world, so making the argument that it’s hard to find racially diverse actors is, quite frankly, a sign of laziness and maybe insensitivity.
It is quite possible for The Mindy Project to pursue a more diverse cast, not perpetuate racial stereotypes of black people, and not appear to aspire to whiteness. I bet Kaling could do all these things because she has the talent, the wit, and the gumption to do this hard work—which should feel ever so much lighter thanks to people like Shonda Rhimes leading the charge and people like Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, and numerous others coming up behind her.
Related Reading: A Personal Reminder that Women Have What it Takes to Make Film.