kal penn script

From Kuchibhotla to Kal Penn: How Hate Crimes Build Off Liberal Media

Yesterday, the New Yorker published a stirring article on Being Indian in Trump’s America, a rumination by Amitava Kumar on racial violence, hate crimes and the tensions that come with being South Asian in America. Around the same time, Indian American actor Kal Penn tweeted images of racist scripts offered to him at the beginning of his acting career. The two pieces, juxtaposed together, offer a handy depiction of hate: a dehumanization project that begins with media stereotyping and logically concludes in racist violence.

Hate crimes have risen since Donald Trump’s election. One month after Trump’s election, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian man, was shot dead in Kansas by a white gunman yelling “get out of my country,” an echo of Trump’s promise to cleanse the United States of those who are not read as American. A Sikh man was similarly shot in his own driveway by a man yelling, “go back to your country.” Mosques and homes of Hindus and Muslims alike, have been vandalized with hateful graffiti, dog feces, and broken eggs. They have received bomb threats and been burned down.

There’s a strong temptation to ascribe the violence that minorities have faced to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric—and it partially makes sense. The Washington Post described the Kansas shootings as “an act of American terror” that served as “the harshest warning yet” to Indians about the “reality of President Trump’s America.” Indeed, Trump’s election has emboldened racism, and the propaganda, lies and fearmongering his White House has embraced via Muslim Bans and immigration crackdowns plays a significant role in stoking racist violence. Kuchibhotla’s killers assumed he was Iranian, one of the communities targeted by the Muslim Ban.

Yet, the dehumanization of brown bodies and the interchangeability of brown identity — where Sikhs are read as Muslim, Hindus as Irani, South Asians as Arabs — doesn’t spring solely from the vacuum of conservative ignorance. While we would like to ascribe hate crimes and racially motivated killings to an ignorant white working class from southern or middle America, the truth is that their assumptions and characterisation of brown people cannot be delinked from the portrayal of brown bodies in pop culture embraced by liberal audiences.

The Pyramid of Hate is familiar to most of us: where stereotypes and jokes about an ethnic minority form a base for what could eventually lead to hate crimes, racial violence, and genocide. The pyramid maps how a project of dehumanization can be executed: not through top down, White House propaganda, but through the steady development of cultural stereotypes. An obvious example of this phenomenon is the perpetuation of anti-Blackness through the stereotyping of young black men as rapists or criminals in pop culture, a phenomenon which culminates in police brutality and murder of innocent black youth and the disproportionately high incarceration of black men.

Comparing Kumar’s article and Penn’s tweets illustrates this development in the South Asian context. Kumar writes,

The racist’s calling card is ignorance: he cannot discriminate (if that is the right word) between nationalities and religions, between Indians and Saudis and Egyptians, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. One of the first hate crimes to take place in the days following 9/11 was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Arizona. The killer probably thought that Sodhi, with his turban and beard, was Muslim; he had told his friends that he was “going to go out and shoot some towelheads.” This year’s attacks bear some of the same hallmarks. Purinton reportedly shouted “Get out of my country!” before firing on the men from India, who he believed were from Iran. And last Friday a white man in Florida set fire to an Indian-owned convenience store because, he told police, it didn’t carry his brand of orange juice and he wished to “run the Arabs out of our country.” We, the mistaken people.

In Penn’s scripts, you see the same assumptions that these racists hold: a character called ‘Careem,’ for example (a likely misspelling of the Arabic name Karim) for some reason holds a ‘Hindi’ accent (it’s unclear what that means) and speaks about the Hindu God Krishna — despite holding a Muslim name. All of Penn’s scripts show a similar callous disregard of brown characters’ origins, religions, nationalities, personalities, languages and name etymologies. A character can be Hindu with a Muslim name from Pakistan speaking of Hindu Gods — all that matters is that his accent sounds like Apu from the Simpsons, he smells (or smells of curry), he works in tech, and is incompetent around women.  Most of Penn’s script excerpts are from popular, well regarded shows as well, including Sabrina the Teenage Witch and King of Queens. Indeed, shows like the Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley continue to run even to this day, with absurd stereotypes, put on accents, and brown people reduced to unsympathetic, crude caricatures.

Of course, the problem isn’t just the ethnic confusion fostered by these T.V. shows. The root of the violence lies in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim propaganda, that often other South Asian communities — particularly upper caste Hindus — buy into and perpetuate because of right wing fascism by the Indian government. Kumar acknowledges this, but fails to emphasize it enough in his piece. The fight against cultural stereotyping must not be a project to differentiate between Hindus and Muslims with an implicit point that one community is less threatening than the other. The resistance to this violent project must come not from distinguishing between so called good and bad minority communities but from fighting Islamophobic violence at its root.

There’s been a lot of anti-Trump showboating recently by Hollywood celebrities. Actors are happy to give speeches paying lip service to ideas of unity and resistance to racism and the abhorrent politics of the Trump administration, and receive widespread adulation and appreciation for doing so. While it’s admirable that they chose to not stand silent in the face of a hateful regime, it’s worth investigating how their own industry perpetuates stereotypes that  are the direct reference point for those who pick up their guns in hatred. Fighting systemic violence in American society requires more than just a condemnation of Trump and his ilk: it requires a rigorous investigation of our own closely held stereotypes and the standards that we apply to the media we consume. It requires the active rehumanization of nonwhite people in the media, and a fight to purge our TV and movie screens of content like Homeland, The Big Bang Theory, 24, Ghost in the Shell, and Aloha that perpetuate the ugly stereotypes that animate racial hate.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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