Trevor Noah should apologise for his racism against South Asians, making light of India-Pak tensions

Partha P Chakrabartty

Mar 02, 2019 12:10:27 IST

Watching Trevor Noah lampoon the ongoing border crisis was infuriating. While war fever seemed to sweep across part of the Indian civilian population, a fever that has not yet broken, a large section of those who care about our country were horrified at the prospect of war. The last time such a war took place, in 1999, the Indian army lost 527 soldiers, with 1,363 wounded. Several of the wounded are contending with disabilities for the rest of their lives.

None of this is in the least a laughing matter. The guns used are not pointed fingers, like Noah mimed. Nor is the damage a song-and-dance show. The cost to India was INR 14,000 crores — twice the annual budget of the time spent on rural development, and more than four times the sum spent on agriculture. Pakistan is significantly worse off economically right now, but considering that just last week we saw another farmer’s march, India too can ill afford an escalation.

 Trevor Noah should apologise for his racism against South Asians, making light of India-Pak tensions

File image of Trevor Noah. Reuters/Eduardo Munoz


Usually, when faced with criticism from abroad, comedy hosts in the United States double down on their jokes —though this is usually when they face censorship or criticism from foreign authoritarian governments. Most recently, Hasan Minhaj, a brown hope on the US comedy scene, doubled down on his criticism of Mohammad Bin Salman after Saudi Arabia took down an episode of his show, Patriot Act. The backlash from India is not at all the same thing. Noah, who is considered among the most woke of late night hosts in the US, is the first South African comedian to host a major American comedy show, and is himself a challenger to the color barrier on prime time television, would be well advised to issue a mea culpa on this count.

Noah’s insensitive bit comes on the heels of another horribly racist rant, this time against Priyanka Chopra, published by The Cut in December. The author, in this case, was Mariah Smith, an African-American. Both these commentators are likely to have had first-hand experience of racism. But as anti-racist activists have often warned, experiencing exclusion does not in any way inoculate you from being racist yourself.

Racism is often couched in seemingly-innocent cultural stereotypes that are repeated so often they become internalised. These stereotypes are unique to each form of racism. This is why being black in America is no education on being brown in America.

The ‘Apu’ accent that Noah used is a particularly sore point for South Asian Americans. He really ought to have known better, but now that he has committed a mistake, he can take a leaf from Mariah Smith’s book. Within days of her article being called out, she issued a full apology on Twitter, saying, ‘I want to sincerely apologize to Priyanka Chopra, Nick Jonas, and to the readers I offended and hurt with my words. I do not condone racism, xenophobia, or sexism. I take full responsibility for what I wrote, and I was wrong. I am truly sorry.’ No such tweet has as yet come from Noah.

It is for the same reason that we Indians should watch our own tendency to parrot stereotypes. We seem to be particularly susceptible to holding fixed ideas about various communities. Earlier this month, Esha Gupta deservedly got into hot water for posting a very racist conversation on Instagram. This racism follows us abroad. While house hunting in Philadelphia, I met an Indian tenant who made it a point to mention to me that ‘No African-Americans live in the neighborhood. I don’t care about all that, but since people do, I thought I should mention it.’ One can imagine the kinds of conversations he had been subjected to, to feel he should mention this.

Then again, the history of South Asians in America is full of instances of brown people collaborating with African Americans, and standing up against racism. The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) has documented several such stories, writing recently about Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who refused to leave a whites-only car on a segregated train in the US in 1941. When asked which nation she came from, she refused to use her Indianness as an argument, choosing instead to ally herself with the broader community of people of colour, saying ‘It makes no difference. I am a coloured woman obviously and it is unnecessary for you to disturb me as I have no intention of moving from here.’

Another celebrated instance is of HG Mudgal, who was born in Karnataka. After getting several degrees in politics, literature and journalism, he attempted to get a job in several newspapers, but was not hired anywhere. Finally, on the suggestion of his professor, he applied to African American newspapers, rising to become the editor of fabled African American leader Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World.

I still recall being driven by an Uber driver from Trinidad during my early days in the US. Since he had difficulty understanding what I was saying, I apologised for my accent. He said, ‘What are you saying, man? I love listening to the sounds of different Englishes!’ He taught me a vital lesson, that there’s no need to use accents to divide people or to make fun of them, and that there’s no right or wrong way to speak a language. Noah, in poking fun of an Indian accent, and that too when lampooning a very serious conflict, seems to have failed to learn this.

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Updated Date: Mar 02, 2019 12:10:27 IST