Racial disparities on television are nothing new. When I was a child in the late 1980s, I remember having an internal struggle about whether my career of choice would be professional athlete or superhero. I also remember coming to the conclusion that because no superheroes had brown skin, that professional athlete would be the more “realistic” option. Since I wasn’t actually going to stop watching superhero cartoons, I just had to either suspend my need for relatability long enough to enjoy them, or just watch the Ninja Turtles. So when Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show “Master of None” started to blow up my Facebook earlier in the month, I was pleasantly surprised by the news. I texted my younger brother about the show, and he very simply told me that he finished the entire season in two consecutive days. For the record, my brother works six days a week. He doesn’t have time to binge.
For many, Indian and non-Indian alike, it is refreshing to see a version of ourselves on television in Ansari’s Dev Shah. Many Indian-Americans and Asian-Americans have praised his portrayal of the first-generation immigrant child. Many of my non-Indian Asian friends have commented on how much they identified with the episode “Parents.” To some extent, this story has been told a few (very few) times, but those portrayals have never been quite as relatable. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay points out, the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” tells a version of this story as well. Mukhopadhayay points out, however, that she can identify with “Master of None” much more than she can with “The Namesake.” To me, the difference is the protagonist. Gogol is an Ivy-League educated architect. Aziz Ansari’s Dev is just a likable guy. This is why “Master of None” is so refreshing.
For a long time, minorities on television have largely filled one of three roles: genius sidekick, mystical sidekick, or one-dimensional half-wit sidekick. They are either perfect, or we are laughing at them. In some ways, this is how it feels to be a minority in the United States. You can never make a mistake or you’ll become a joke and/or a failure. Dev Shah’s utter normality is a breath of fresh air. Dev makes good decisions, but he isn’t a brilliant professional who has clawed his way to the top of his field. In fact, he’s not particularly successful at all. He makes bad decisions, but he isn’t a criminal and his parents still love him. He is a short, not particularly attractive or unattractive man in New York City. He is unequivocally American. At the same time, Dev deals with racism regularly, but the topic largely tends to hover in the background as just another of the banalities that make up his every day existence. His life is strikingly similar to many urban white Americans, except with a dashes of racism mixed in on a regular schedule. I could be watching myself on television every time I turn on the show, and I’m sure many others feel the same way.
What is so important about “Master of None” to me is that the show’s focus is an Indian American man, but above all, this is really an American story. That is why so many of us non-Indian watchers can relate so well to Dev’s life and enjoy the experience. Ultimately, experiences like these are what help us all close racial gaps.