Indian American Token Characters on TV Sitcoms

Indian Americans are increasingly visible in television sitcoms. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores if the increasing number of Indian American token characters a sign that Indian Americans are “becoming white” through social class and educational attainment.

Man Watching TVMy guilty pleasure is sitcoms. While watching I noticed something recently.  Indian Americans[1. By Indian American am lumping all people who can trace their ancestry to India together and am basing my categorization on the character portrayals.] are everywhere! (Maybe MTV will cash in on the trend with a show called 16 & Pregnant Indian American). At the same time Indian Americans are not everywhere. These characters are primarily serving the role of token racial minority character[2. A token character is one that only exists to satisfy the minimum societal expectation. It’s seen as a cynical move by media creators to ward off claims of being racially biased without actually integrating the tokenized group into the story]. Indian American token characters are displacing Black token characters (see Token Black on South Park as a satirical version of the Black token character). Today, token Indian American characters include Kelly Kapoor on The Office, Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, Rajesh Koothrappali (and periodically, Priya, his sister and his parents via Skype) on The Big Bang Theory, Timmy on Rules of Engagement, and Kevin on How I Met Your Mother (though he is only a recurring character). I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. I can’t watch every episode of every sitcom after all.

I know TV-sitcoms should not be treated as a reflection of reality, but thanks to television, Americans typically overestimate the racial make-up of America. Indian Americans make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. Judging by my non-representative sample of sitcoms that end up on my DVR, Indian Americans make up close to 10% of the population (I made up that number, but if there is one Indian American character on your typical sitcom with 5-17 regular cast members, then 10% doesn’t seem so far-fetched).

Some observers point out that the increasing presence of Indian Americans in business and on sitcoms is due to their population growth in the U.S. After all, “Indians have surpassed Filipinos as the nation’s second-largest Asian population after Chinese.” Not exactly. Indian American population growth alone can not account for increasing portrayals of Indian American characters on TV. If this were true, then we would already see portrayals of Chinese American and Filipino American characters on TV. We don’t. Something else must be going on here.

Asian Americans in general have been considered model minorities because of their academic and economic success compared to not only other minority groups, but also Whites. This begs the question, are Indian Americans America’s newest model minority? Perhaps, but I still think there is more going on here.

In previous generations, economic gains by other minority groups “Whitened” them. Today, we don’t speak of Jewish, Irish, or Italian as separate races (ethnicities, yes, but races, no). Racially, all of these groups are considered White. This happened as these groups saw their socioeconomic status improve. Is the increasing number of Indian American token characters a sign that Indian Americans are becoming “White” through social class and educational attainment? All of the above mentioned Indian American characters are in white-collar occupations and presumably are college-educated.  Rajesh is an astrophysicist. Tom is a government bureaucrat with entrepreneurial leanings.  Kevin is a therapist.  Kelly is a customer service representative in an office. Though Timmy, may just be an assistant, his character is portrayed as more polished, professional, and educated compared to Russell, the man he is assisting.

Indian Americans make up less than “1% of the U.S. population” but make up “3% of the nation’s engineers, 7% of its IT workers and 8% of its physicians and surgeons.” Moreover, “[i]n 2007, the median income of households headed by an Indian American was approximately $83,000, compared with $61,000 for East Asians and $55,000 for Whites” (Richwine 2009). The current governor of Louisiana is Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, the first non-white and Indian American governor of the state despite the racial make-up of Louisiana including 62.6% White, 32.0% Black, and only 1.5% Asian. Clearly, Indian Americans as a group are successful by American standards. Is it “Whitening” that has increased Indian American visibility in sitcoms or is it just Indian Americans are being held out as model minorities or a combination of both?

Regardless, the problem with model minority status (besides being reductionist) is that it ignores the conditions of many Asian American’s realities which include poverty, sweatshop labor within the U.S., and refugee status (read more here). Interestingly, two token Indian American characters, Timmy and Rajesh are immigrants, however, their characters provide little to no context as to what their immigration process was like. Even Rajesh’s sister, Priya, appears to come and go from the U.S. to India as she pleases without any discussion of the visa process. An additional layer to the immigrant story is that Timmy emigrated from South Africa and not from India, acknowledging the Indian diaspora [3. Diaspora is fancy sociologist speak that basically means the movement of a group from their ancestral homeland.]. Their immigrant status is important because it speaks to the growing foreign-born population of the U.S. (currently 39.9 million people are foreign born residents and citizens). At the same time, however, it reinforces the notion that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners.

Interestingly, both immigrant characters (and Kevin, the guest star, not cast member) appear on otherwise all-White casts on CBS. Kelly and Tom appear on “Must-See TV” on NBC. It appears that both networks are approaching the inclusion of Indian American characters in strikingly different ways. CBS is clearly embracing the model minority, perpetual foreigner stereotype. NBC is including Indian Americans within multicultural casts. NBC also has the distinction of producing the one-season and done show, Outsourced, that was set in India last season. Though Outsourced enjoyed relying on stereotypes, Parks and Recreation and The Office are a bit different. They sometimes fall back on stereotypes, but also work to surprise viewers by offering non-stereotypical portrayals around race.  Kelly is a Valley Girl and Tom is an aspiring entrepreneur with swagger.  In other words, Kelly, but especially, Tom could be played by anyone regardless of race or ethnicity. The fact that these characters are Indian American adds to the humor because of the contradictions between Indian American stereotypes and the characters that they are portraying. NBC is using a color-blind ideology, so whether Kelly and Tom are a step forward or just more of the same is yet to be seen.

I appreciate seeing greater diversity in sitcoms, but I question the motives of the sitcom producers. It appears that the networks are relying on tired themes of tokenism, model minorities, and colorblindness without seriously considering race or what it actually means to be Indian American. Moreover, the inclusion of Indian Americans instead of other racial minorities may be indicative of larger societal trends regarding Americans’ perception of model minorities and the potential “Whitening” of racial minority groups.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Why do you think Indian Americans are become more common as the token racial minority character on sitcoms? Are Indian American token characters displacing Black token characters?
  2. Do you think that economic and academic success is “Whitening” Indian Americans like it “Whitened” Jews, Irish, and Italians in previous generations? Why or why not? Do you think this is why we are seeing an increasing number of Indian Americans on sitcoms?
  3. What are the consequences of portraying Indian Americans as model minorities and perpetual foreigners? What are the implications of networks using color-blind ideology in their portrayals of Indian Americans?