When Aziz Ansari debuted his series Master of None in 2015, every young brown person (i.e., South Asian) I knew reacted the same way: “Yo, we made it!” After being stereotyped as heavily accented foreigners, geeky programmers, taxi drivers, terrorists, and social misfits—from Apu’s “Thank you, come again” to Raj from the Big Bang Theory to every jihadist on TV—Ansari’s show launched brown folks into the mainstream of American culture. He depicted us as ordinary human beings, and his portrayal of struggling to live up to the expectations of his Indian-American and Muslim parents especially struck a nerve. Every brown person in my life said they saw themselves in the story. I did too—and not just because we shared a name.
It turns out that Ansari could be as big of a jerk as other men caught up in the maelstrom of the #MeToo movement. The details of a sexual encounter gone wrong are now scandalously well-known and it is not my intention to rehash them. All I can do is offer a perspective that so far has been ignored. When I first read the Babe article about Ansari’s conduct, my whole body went tense. This was my instinctive response, as though someone I knew had acted dishonorably in public. Ansari was not just another famous celebrity—he was a member of the brown family who had done something inexcusable, a brother who had misbehaved and might bring scorn to the community. This was perhaps tribalistic on my part, seeing the incident through the lens of race, although when you inhabit a certain skin color it is difficult not to be conscious of how you are perceived by the white majority.
As I reflected on the controversy further, I began to feel angry. My thoughts turned to blaming the woman, the journalist, and the website for publishing the piece in the first place. I wanted to denounce the whole thing as a racialized hit job, an instance of a woman trying to bring down a good brown man. Wasn’t there a double-standard here? How could Ansari be taken down for doing one-millionth of what so many old white abusers did, over decades, with the media’s collective silence? Certainly Weinstein was not the standard one had to sink to in order to be called out, but was this?
Then I paused, reconsidered, and asked myself why I felt compelled to defend him. Perhaps it was because I am a man. I called up some of the women in my life and asked them how they felt about the Ansari controversy. They were also dismayed but pointed out the complexity of this situation. They felt that they could relate to the woman but also said she should have exercised more agency and left his apartment. They felt let down by Ansari but also thought this was another example of a man not understanding that “Let’s slow down” means “I do not want to have sex with you.”
Listening to them, I understood why I felt so furious. It was not because of who Aziz Ansari was but what he represented. He had effectively become the public face of young brown people, the only brown actor honestly rendering how our people lived, what we talked about with our parents, what brought us pain in our quiet moments, what brought us joy. We were not reluctant fundamentalists or 7/11 owners. We were complex human beings who could be as funny and nuanced as the next person, and Ansari in many ways was our voice. When he allegedly did what he did to that woman, it felt like a personal betrayal. That’s why I was so angry, and blaming anyone would not ameliorate that anger but simply inflame it.
I am a young brown man who identifies as a feminist. For my entire youth, I sought in vain to find South Asian role models I could emulate. The men I knew were uncles who had come from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and, like Aziz Ansari’s parents, from India. They were tough but insecure men, emotionally stunted, men who had been beaten down by Western society but had persevered out of duty. Perhaps deep inside themselves they dreamt of other lives where they could have fulfilled their dreams instead of toiling so their children could go to college. They were hurting inside, all those thwarted ambitions turning into frustrations and frustrations turning into anger. Though they loved us, they could not fully show us a way to live, certainly not in the Western societies into which we were born.
Like many young brown men, I had to navigate the minefields of dating and sexuality by myself, holding up the nuances of my South Asian culture and the reality of Western culture in my head, attempting to figure out how to speak to women, how to understand them, how to express my emotions. In fact, I do not know of a single young brown person who could openly talk about sex with their parents. Some parents encouraged anachronistic sexual behavior like arranged marriage, if only to save their children from having to endure the complicated emotions of modern romance. Some kids were even pulled out of their sex-ed classes in school, and sex-ed itself was hopelessly myopic because it taught physiology and biology without teaching psychology and emotional intelligence. The taboo against talking about sex at home was so strong that parents pretended like it did not exist, or that it was unholy, or that it was impermissible before marriage. A generational, cultural, and religious chasm separated the parents from the sons and no bridge could narrow this divide.
Almost every young brown man I know has a kind of PTSD-hangover from childhood. We are unlearning habits we internalized from a young age and trying to define what it means to not just be a man but a brown man. Of course, patriarchy and sexism are not the domain of any one culture or religion. Patriarchy crosses racial, ethnic, religious, and class lines, and men of every hue have either contributed to it or benefitted from it. But young brown men, growing up in a world of terrorists and suicide bombers, in a world where Apu was a prominent character in the most famous television show in history, in a world where racist stereotypes continued to persist about our sexuality and masculinity, were left without humane and gentle role models on which to pattern our behavior. The sons became the fathers, and the cycle of hurt and misogyny repeated itself well into adulthood.
Aziz Ansari’s arrival at the pinnacle of American entertainment exploded so many myths of brown men that he virtually became a symbol overnight, even if his entire act was predicated on being non-threatening, dorky, and funny. To many eyes, Ansari was the first of his generation to elevate and ennoble brown men by presenting himself as a thoughtful, intelligent human being. I felt betrayed by his actions because he of all people should have known about the changing norms around consent, the power dynamics in relationships, and the line between hesitation and coercion. He would have seen the uncles in his family, the boys at school, and the entrenched misogyny that stretches from South Carolina to Tamil Nadu. If he genuinely did not know that the woman in his apartment did not want to sleep with him, then his act was a fraud. What’s far more likely is that he knew exactly how she was feeling—and it does not take a mind-reader to understand a woman’s body language—but persisted anyways because he felt entitled to her body. As one woman of color texted me: “We teach our girls how to say ‘no’ and ‘stop’ but don’t teach our boys the gravity of those two words.”
Men may be fools but we are not stupid. Just as women can tell when a guy is into them—especially when he is too into them—men can tell when a woman is not interested. But we pursue them anyways because that’s what we’ve been taught. Because that’s how we’ve been programmed. Because we never learned that real masculinity is grounded in empathy and not sexual conquest. And the truth is that every man has been in Ansari’s position where sexual advances are subtly but clearly rebuffed but the pursuit continues because … if only one more drink, if only one more song.
What Ansari did was not illegal or criminal but that’s beside the point. He should have known better. He should not have forgotten his childhood or his skin color, or bought into the hype of being a celebrity. He should not have forgotten the golden rule of being brown and male: You must be respectful at all times, comport yourself with propriety and dignity, not come off as too aggressive or be too aggressive, and not think for a second that you can get away with violating your ideals because you’ve somehow escaped your phenotype and gender.
The sordid episode of Ansari’s sexual misconduct will not correct either misogyny or sexism, but it is a reminder that we need to teach all young men how to truly communicate and empathize with women—how to interact with them as equals and not hunters. It is a reminder that we as a diverse society need to represent people of all colors and backgrounds in our popular culture so that young men (and women) can see themselves on television and not see reductive stereotypes, to not feel so betrayed when the only actor who looks like them is exposed in this manner.
For now, as a young brown man, I am trying to listen, trying to pay attention, and trying to tell my brothers that we have the choice to determine how we will live, and how we will love.