The “South Asian” Shuffle

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Ansari.jpgThe president’s Gandhian pilgrimage to India has got me thinking about the way prominent Indian-Americans tend to efface their religious past. OK, so maybe there was no way Bobby Jindal could have gotten elected governor of Louisiana as a Hindu or Nikki Haley governor of South Carolina as a Sikh. But what about comedian Aziz Ansari, who has half a million people following his Twitter feed? He famously jokes about doing unspeakable things to foodstuffs but try to invoke his Muslim antecedents and it’s like you’ve trespassed against all that is holy.

Michael Schur (of the NBC sitcom in which Ansari appears) was quoted by David Itzkoff as doing just that In a New York Times piece last June–prompting excision of the offending line with the following correction:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael
Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr.
Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist

Better an atheist than a Muslim these days. What Ansari wants to be known as is just “South Asian,” and that’s all that Kalefa Sanneh tags him with in his November 1 New Yorker profile. So Ansari grew up “South Asian” in South Carolina? That’s it?

Or take the following passage:

It was a hot summer day in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Ansari was squinting at the lanes of traffic on Old Fort Parkway. “I thought I was going to die crossing the street to go to Chick-fil-A,” he said. Ansari was in town to perform at Bonnaroo, the annual music-and-arts festival, which draws nearly a hundred thousand people to a square mile of farmland half an hour down the highway, in a town called Manchester. “In Observe and Report,” the film starring Seth Rogen, Ansari played a moisterurizer salesman named Saddamn, who responds to an accusation of terrorism with a reasonable question: “Why the fuck would I flow up Chick-fil-A? It’s fucking delicious!” It turns out that Ansari agrees with this assessment (the line in the film was his idea)…

Since Park51 blew over, Murfreesboro has become ground zero of anti-mosque agitation in America, but Kafela passes up the chance to make a connection.

My colleague Homayra Ziad, who has made a study of Muslim comedians, notes that American culture does not yet have a place for the “cultural Muslim.” That goes for the “cultural Hindu” and the “cultural Sikh” as well. Cultural Jews there are aplenty. I say it’s time for the South Asians to step up.