• Expert By Experience

It's 2021, Are South Asian Comedians Still Mocking Our Cultures, Elders & Accents For A Laugh?

For many of us, the pandemic has changed how we view time. For some of us, it feels like we are frozen in time whereas for others it feels like time is going faster than we can grasp. Although all of us have different experiences of time, we can all agree that we are in the year 2021. While every year is unique, 2021 and especially 2020 are synonymous with change. Change that is felt at every level of society, whether it’s on the street through BLM and Farmers protest to cultural change i.e. diverse voices making moves in historically white spaces.

For all the pain and misery this world can be, there has been a bubble of positive change as a result of sustained activism. 2020 has felt like a step towards understanding and empathy that’s rooted in the idea of ‘we’ve had enough’ across many generations. This wave of change appears to exist in most areas of society, however, it seems that this memo hasn’t reached self-identifying South Asian comedians who still practice ‘comedy’ that belongs in 2009. This is where the problem lies for me. Seeing Gen Z/millennial comedians don ‘Indian’ accents in traditional clothing while playing out stereotypical scenarios only stands to perpetuate harmful ideas that do not serve positive change in our communities.

I recognise this is quite a big statement to make because comedians are often seen as outside observes who exist to give us comedic relief from life, while simultaneously pushing boundaries. In a way, for the most part, they are ‘off the table’ when it comes to social commentary. However, in my view with the rise of social media comedians, not that pre-existing comedians were any better, it seems that many comedians are willing to scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ‘desi comedy’ for a quick laugh at the expense of ageism and trauma within our communities, even in 2021.

The comedy lacks nuance:

A quick search on Youtube for ‘Indian mums comedy’ returns an endless list of videos that centre around comedy specific to ‘Indian mums’. Within the list of videos, there are the regulars like Lily Singh to newcomers like this guy who uploaded this clickbait video called ‘18 Weird Things INDIAN Moms Do’. In the video, the ‘comedy’ is rooted in exploring behaviours and traits that are stereotypically conflated as a universal experience for all ‘Indian mums’ in a mother-child dynamic. Things like over-protection, superstitions and bargaining are all up for ridicule without any form of deeper understanding or nuance. Now, while the comedy is quite slap-stick and cheap to begin, it’s the unwillingness to engage with such complex subjects that can be quite frustrating to observe. It seems that ‘desi’ comedy hasn’t come very far since I was on Youtube in 2009 as a 17-year-old.

Take for example the idea explored in the video around ‘cancelling plans for studying’. In typical fashion, you see a mother-son dynamic play out where the mum cancels plans over the phone so that her son can stay home and study. Understandably this is a cliche experience that many of us have experienced as South Asian teenagers. However, with that being said, where such comedy misses the mark is that it fails to go deeper in actively exploring where such behaviours come from. For example, in the case of wanting your children to do academically well, although in some households it can clearly go to an extreme, it does nevertheless come from a place of trauma-specific to immigration. This is especially true for first-generation immigrants who were robbed of all of their qualifications from their home country due to non-recognition in the west. As a result of living with instability and insecurity from the get-go, many first-generation immigrant parents recognise that their financial stability, especially as they get older, is heavily reliant on their child’s financial success. While I, like many others my age, feel the burden of such responsibility and expectation, I recognise that such behaviours are symptoms of necessity. A necessity that is borne out of a need for security. It’s this necessity for security that drove first-generation immigrants to move in the first place and it is this driving force that continues to taint even intimate relationship to this day.

One reason why the comedy lacks nuance is due to the fact that all of the story-telling is mainly told through the eyes of the comedian, which in most cases is always from the lens of a young individual. As a result, what ends up happening is that only one side of the story is explored. This means that any dialogue around inter-generational trauma or immigrant trauma is rarely addressed, let alone explored. With that being said, it’s not uncommon for such subjects to be on display for ridicule as highlighted by the video above.

Appeasing white gaze:

While the lack of nuance is clearly a big issue in ‘desi’ comedy, another issue that stands out quite quickly is the fact that the majority of the material still seems to be rooted in the white racist gaze. Comedy and racism in the west have a long and intimate history together, as highlighted by this important article. From Apu in the Simpsons to Peter Sellers in The Party, racism has been entrenched in comedy for a very long time. Within this eco-system of stereotyping, accent donning and homogenising racialised minorities is the continuation of such narratives in ‘desi’ comedy. However, now it is led by brown voices from our communities, which creates complexities that are more challenging to navigate.

It is worth remembering that as communities, we are not the ones who clumped ourselves under a bracket term, especially for comedy. This particular process was a result of colonisation and western racism. As a result, depictions of South Asian characters as a homogenised group for comedy are what led to the creation of stereotypical characters who are defined through their difference in speech, dress and values. Within this context, it is quite heartbreaking to see young comedians continue to display such racist depictions without any form of awareness of critical thought. In essence, it’s the same racist play but with different actors. Something which is a lot harder to call out because they belong to our communities, whereas with white comedians it’s a lot more clear.

Mockery doesn’t mean accountability:

I recognise that a lot of the ‘comedy’ material which is centred around experiences in a parent-child dynamic comes from a place of trauma for South Asian comedians. I mean I get it, I’ve been using comedy as a coping mechanism for trauma-specific to my parents since forever. However, with that being said, there is a big tone in ‘desi’ comedy of using mockery as a replacement for accountability when it comes to navigating trauma. This is something that becomes very obvious when it comes to portrayals of elders in the communities. Naturally, there is trauma as a result of the behaviours of elders in the communities. However, with that being said there is a big danger if young comedians continue to use mockery of the elders as retaliation for inflicted trauma. A big danger with this is the fact that continued mockery creates an environment where young folks watching such content are fed a very toxic view of elders in the communities as emotionally inaccessible, technophobes who can’t communicate proficiently in English. Such a tone simply endorse a racist and ageist narrative at the end of the day in my view.

While I completely recognise and empathise that there is a lot of hurt within our communities, especially on a generational level, mockery as a form of retaliation is not the answer if we are to heal together and move forward. It wasn’t the answer back in 2009 and it’s not the answer in 2021. Accountability, as we all know requires a ton of work, patience and co-operation and this is where we should be directing our energies. I wouldn’t expect Youtube comedy to provide a space for all the complexities of navigating all this. However, in the fast-shifting world that we occupy where beautiful nuanced pieces of work are being produced by folks from other racialised marginalised communities, it is only right that we hold ‘our own’ to such standards because accountability goes both ways.