The post-racial pleasures of ‘Master of None’

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario - The Philippine Star

In Aziz Ansiri’s Netflix comedy series Master of None, an old white man approaches an Indian-American man and his white girlfriend at a wedding. “I love seeing ethnically-mixed couples,” the old white man says unironically. “Have you ever dated an ethnic man before this?” he asks the girlfriend. It’s one of the few awkward race-related exchanges in an otherwise color-blind series and the girlfriend’s ironic response addresses the elephant in the series’ room: “I have been dating a lot of whites, just so many whites. Then one day I woke up and just thought, ‘Rachel, you have to go out there and try yourself an ethnic.’ And here we are.”

Master of None — created, written, directed by and starring Aziz Ansiri, who rose to fame in the beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation — is a semi-autobiographical New York comedy written in the tradition of classic semi-autobiographical white New York comedies of Woody Allen and Louis C.K. (his own self-created semi-autobiographical series Louie is often cited as an influence). Except that Ansiri isn’t white — he’s brown and of Indian descent.

Ansiri plays Dev, a less successful version of himself — a struggling actor who lives in New York and was born in the US to Indian immigrant parents. He gets acting gigs, mainly in commercials, and is working on a bit part in a bad virus movie (entitled The Sickening). The series centers on his struggles with his career and love life. His minority status is acknowledged a few times — there’s an episode devoted to his parents (played by his real-life parents), another one devoted to his life as an Indian-American actor, and he references himself as “the little Indian” guy more than once — but his ethnicity isn’t the main theme or even the common thread linking the episodes. Master of None is really about the mundane minutiae of millennial life — finding a place to eat, birth control mishaps, commitment issues, growing old. You know: white people problems.

‘White people problems’

The term “white people problems,” come to think of it, is a problematic one. It presupposes that the only other kind is Third World in nature, with no in-between. But “white people problems” are as common and prevalent as urban cities. They are the stuff that happens to single people who have jobs, earn money, and live in the 21st century. In Master of None, this oft-neglected universality is presented through Ansiri’s strong Indian features and the way they stick out in an otherwise white narrative.

The series’ only other continuous storyline, apart from Dev’s bit part in The Sickening, is his relationship with his white girlfriend Rachel. Their first date is anti-meet-cute awkward, their reunion is sweet but poignant, their second date (an impromptu trip to Nashville) is something out of Before Sunrise, only to be marred by a missed flight. Their relationship is a mash-up of Hollywood rom-coms — they fight, they make love, they get tired of making love, they fear commitment. My eyes (probably inherently racist), weaned on decades of white romances, kept getting jarred by Ansiri’s brown face in the middle of it all. The image became its own running commentary. The voice of the clumsy-talking old man at the wedding was a redundant one, merely echoing the guilty one inside my head.

Breaking Hollywood stereotypes

My mind is a product of Hollywood stereotypes. Cute rom-coms are white people territory, while Indian-Americans will forever be convenience store owners, doctors, scientists, or IT guys. Thanks to actors like Ansiri and Mindy Kaling (whose The Mindy Project is likewise pushing ethnicity to the background and rich universal characters to the foreground), Indian-Americans are now portrayed as people, not as casting clichés.

And people, Indians or otherwise, fear one thing more than anything else: aging. Ansiri’s Dev is a 30-something millennial who is very much aware that this might be it. His youth is receding in his rear-view mirror and the time to “explore” options might be over. His career isn’t quite taking off and his relationship with Rachel is tenuous. He’s scared of the prospect of having to play with the cards he’s dealt.

“When you’re younger, in your 20s, the road ahead in your life is not as clear,” Dev tells Rachel. “You don’t know where it’s going, there are turns you don’t expect, there are surprises. And then as you get older, the road becomes a little clearer. There are less surprises and less excitement.” I found myself nodding during his monologue but the nodding was mostly from my perspective. I frankly couldn’t see what Dev was so afraid of. Sure, his acting career is iffy, but he has a nice apartment that he can apparently afford, he has great friends, and even a better girlfriend. I couldn’t help but think that maybe quarter-life crisis is an affliction that takes its toll on young people by forcing them to neglect things they ought to be appreciating.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.” Privilege isn’t only a race issue, or a class one. Maybe the youth is the most entitled demographic in the world. In the second episode entitled “Parents,” Dev reflects on his father’s struggle as an immigrant in the ‘70s. “It’s pretty crazy. All of us first-generation kids have these amazing lives and it’s all because our parents made these crazy sacrifices,” he says. “And we never thank them.”

Instead we whine about our lives and “what it all means.” “White people problems” are really just “young people problems.”

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

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