In the West, all brown people look the same

Remember the name.
Remember the name.
Image: Invision/AP/Charles Sykes
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In 2014, an elderly man came up to the Indian-American actress and comedian Mindy Kaling at a VIP party at one of New York City’s most iconic clubs. He congratulated her for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and remarked on how well she had recovered from being shot in the head by the Taliban.

He was thinking of Malala Yousafzai, the then-17-year-old Pakistani activist who captured global attention for her efforts to promote education in a region battling the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism. Kaling, known for her role in the award-winning comedy The Office and for creating and starring in The Mindy Project, was understandably stupefied.

“Did he really think I’m Malala? And that if I were, I’d be at the Boom Boom Room?” she told the New York Times.

That may be an extreme example but it does suggest a serious problem: To some people in the West, all non-white people still look exactly the same, no matter how talented or famous they are.

More recent proof comes from the experiences of other Indian, Indian-American, and South Asian-origin celebrities in the West, where the paparazzi, brands, and even the media themselves often confuse one for the other.

Take, for instance, Deepika Padukone, the Bollywood star now making inroads in Hollywood with her role alongside Vin Diesel in the action movie xXx: Return of Xander Cage. In March, while leaving the airport in Los Angeles, Padukone was welcomed by waiting paparazzi, except that they called her Priyanka instead. This was reportedly the second time she’s been confused for Priyanka Chopra, the equally famous Bollywood celebrity who now stars in the ABC drama Quantico, and is one of the world’s highest-paid TV actresses.

For Padukone, being frequently mistaken for Chopra is a frustrating experience.

“To me it’s racist and ignorant,” she told IANS earlier this week. “I think just because people have similar skin tones, doesn’t mean they are the same people.”

Chopra herself agrees, noting that these occurrences are a clear sign of the West’s complete ignorance of Padukone’s massive popularity in India. In an interview in Mumbai with the celebrity news website BollywoodLife, published on May 4, the star of the upcoming Baywatch movie noted that while being popular in India doesn’t mean the whole world has to know who you are, it’s certainly unfair to confuse two entirely different people, particularly when one of them has already come out with a movie.

“Every brown girl does not look the same,” Chopra said. “Let’s try and tell us apart.”

This confusion is only the latest in a long list. In February, the British fashion label Burberry sparked controversy online by congratulating the Indian-origin actor Dev Patel on his BAFTA win with a tweet featuring a photo of the Pakistani-origin actor Riz Ahmed. (Ironically, both actors were wearing Burberry for the event.) This came a few months after Patel was wrongly identified by a Wall Street Journal movie critic as having acted in the 2006 film The Namesake—it actually starred the Indian-American actor Kal Penn.

And in 2015, the American website Salon described the Pakistani-American stand-up comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani as a regular on The Big Bang Theory, a show that actually stars British-Indian actor Kunal Nayyar.

While the online fury generated by each of these instances resulted in quick apologies, it’s worth asking how such mix-ups could occur in the first place.

Confusing two actresses who made their mark in another country first may be understandable to an extent, but many of the brown actors identified interchangeably were born and raised in the West. With the notable exception of the Bombay Times, which once identified Rashida Jones as Jennifer Love Hewitt, there’s hardly been a case of Indian newspapers confusing the identities of Caucasian celebrities (Jones is half-Caucasian). Similarly, would anyone abroad confuse Jennifer Lawrence for Scarlett Johansson, or Kit Harington for Johnny Galecki?

It must be then just another manifestation of the way non-white people are treated as a homogenous other, both in real life and on screen, classed in opposition to the all-white “norm” shown in all its diversity. A good trick when watching Western movies and television shows is to Google the man who plays the cab driver. If information on such a minor role is available, you’ll usually find that it’s an actor with some sort of Asian or Middle Eastern heritage, though it hardly matters where exactly he’s from on the show. For instance, the more memorable Bangladeshi cab driver on How I Met Your Mother (oddly enough, named Ranjit Singh) was actually played by an Iranian-American actor, Marshall Manesh, whose talent is better displayed in the excellent Persian-American indie movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Celebrities such as Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Riz Ahmed have all opened up about the dehumanising stereotypes they’ve been offered to play on screen, ranging from cab drivers to terrorists. It’s a similar story across many non-white communities, one that’s only now starting to change, thanks to the efforts of stars such as Donald Glover (Atlanta) and Issa Rae (Insecure) and directors like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight).

South Asian-origin celebrities are also doing their part: Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None, for instance, is revolutionary for its portrayal of the romantic adventures of an Indian-American man, a character normally relegated to the secondary roles of shopkeeper or socially-inept computer nerd. Similarly, Priyanka Chopra herself plays a racially ambiguous character in the action-drama Quantico, notably without an exaggerated Indian accent. And Kumail Nanjiani has an autobiographical movie coming out that portrays a secular Muslim (paywall) character that is a world away from the damaging stereotypes commonly associated with the community.

Together, these celebrities and their work essentially demonstrate very different shades of experience, as diverse as their shades of colour.