Wednesday, November 22

Mindy Kaling and the Curse of the Coconut

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On this week’s The Mindy Project, Mindy goes on a blind date with an Indian guy. A hot Indian guy. She comments that she barely knows any Indians to which he calls her a “coconut” and refuses to kiss her goodbye.

“Are you saying I have tiny hairs and fall out of trees?” Mindy retorts. “That’s mean!”

“No, because you’re brown on the outside and white on the inside,” he says. He dashes away after dealing this killing blow, leaving her agape.

Mindy wanders through the rest of the episode confronted with the main trope in other forms (her ex wants to take their baby to Italy to find his roots) and questioning others about whether they think of her as Indian. When she asks her brother “we’re both super Indian, right?” He responds, “Nah, you think you’re white and I think I’m black.” He asserts that they are a “new kind of Indian-American, one with 0 roots to our past.”

Unhappy with the conversation, Mindy calls her date, Neel, up and asks him to let her prove that she’s not a coconut. He begrudgingly agrees to let her tag along while he runs errands. Over the course of their second meeting, they get mistaken for a couple, comment on latent segregation, discuss whether immigrants are meant to assimilate or not, and explore the differences in being accepted when you’re a brown skinned male versus female. It’s a lot to charge through in a Bed, Bath & Beyond.

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Perhaps the most beautiful and inelegant commentary comes when Mindy goes to a dinner party with Neel. She notices that all the guests are “dressed regular” and they all pull out their phones to text their mothers back at the same time. Every text is read out in a mock-aunty voice and when Mindy’s white coworker tries to get in on the fun by doing an accent of his own he’s stared down. When was the last time a white dude was made to feel terrible for his Apu impression? Probably Ashton Kutcher. The world needs more.

The episode culminates in a mundan ceremony that Mindy was guilted into. She makes it clear that it’s for her son, so he can know what Indian culture is, but it feels over-correcting. This much is allowed — the ebbs and flows of closeness to your own heritage is not for others to decide on, which Mindy ultimately realizes. Her coworker lets her know, “I no longer think of you as a white man, I think of you as an Indian man.”

Assimilation is always a question. The way it operates in the formula for survival for immigrants cannot be understressed and the way it makes us all more comfortable foreign faces in a white place makes sense. And yet, the politics of not being “too white” or “too brown” follow us everywhere. We are all over-correcting on one side or the other. Joining dance teams in school is mellowed out by assuring our non-South Asian friends that they can wear jeans to the performances. Wearing bindis to Coachella but disallowing non-South Asians to do the same is also a grab at defining these spaces. There are of course some who are unapologetically whatever they are without concessions, but the majority of us are navigating a thin divide.

The specific insult of being called a “coconut” feels a little outdated, much like being called an ABCD. But the feeling is still there — what and who are we? Are we allowed to determine the brownness of others or chastise them for embracing typically white American traits?

Identity is ultimately seamless and on our own terms, as the episode shows, there is nothing else to say.

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