- Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting, and Asian American Studies
In the episode "Indians on TV" of the Netflix comedy series Master of None (2015–present), Emmy Award–winning cocreators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang chronicle the trials and tribulations of an Indian American man auditioning for acting jobs in the American television and film industry. The protagonist, Dev Shah (Ansari), who is an actor in New York City, questions himself and others about whether or not he should do a "funny Indian accent" to land a role. In discussions with his friends, his agent, casting directors, and network industry decision makers, he muses about why Indians and Asians are sidekicks in most Hollywood plotlines and why there can't be two Indian characters who are friends and talk to each other in a mainstream comedy. The show also brings up the role of Asian American representations compared to representations of other racialized groups, and how nonwhite entertainers and actors operate when confronted with racism in the industry. The decision to use or not to use the constructed Indian accent translates into a cultural and professional crisis of identity for Dev. To perform the accent means success and recognition in standard Hollywood narratives, but it also denies the individuality, variety of experiences, and diversity of the actors who long to challenge the preexisting character stereotypes.
While representations of Asian Americans in the US media are dependent on visual politics, casting choices, and acting performances on-screen, another factor that marks Asian Americans, South Asians, and in particular Indian Americans as a racially identifiable and distinct group is the presence and performance of vocal and racial accents. Increasingly, as cultural and social debates proliferate about language and word usage, communication and political correctness, and racial, gendered, and class rhetoric, the study of the relationship between race and language and accent offers a lens through which to examine the complex and variable nature of racial hierarchies presented in and by mass media. Master of None's narrative offers a frank appraisal of the racial representations of Indians and Asians in a complex hierarchy of racial and gendered relationships and depictions and specifically points to the prolific representation of Indian and Asian accents of English as a particular racializing trope for South Asian Americans and Asian Americans.1 [End Page 142]
The accent is representative of stereotypical roles that have enjoyed longevity and commercial success in Hollywood. The animated character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, (from The Simpsons [Fox, 1989–present]) has been on television since 1990 and has been followed by other incarnations of Indians speaking English with an accent on TV, including the popular Raj Koothrappali (played by Indian actor Kunal Nayyer) on the long-running comedy The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007–present). As I have previously argued, representations of Indians and South Asians have been racialized by their accents or "brown voices" in American TV and film.2 "Brown voice" is the act of speaking in accented English associated with Indian nationals and immigrants and is a combination of linguistic and phonetic markers that include stress points on particular words, cultural references, and words out of order. The performance of brown voice is adopted and used by South Asians and non–South Asians (most famously by Hank Azaria as the voice actor of Apu). More significant, brown voice operates as a racializing characteristic among South Asians that suggests both foreignness and familiarity in a US context.
Historically, industry executives, producers, and casting agents tend to privilege physical difference or the visual contrast with the dominant white characters in their casting practices. In her book on colorblind television casting, Kristen J. Warner concurs, pointing out that "Hollywood logic discourse suggests progress in diversity is at the level of skin color."3 And yet although the casting process may be called colorblind, Warner points out that most of the roles are written as "race neutral" or characters who are written as white, so when a nonwhite actor is cast, the backstory or dialogue does not reflect ethnic or racial experiences. When race or ethnic roles are needed or emphasized, there is an inevitable exaggeration of racialized characteristics, or what I have called an...