When Asian-Americans marry outside their race, it’s typically to white people. There are sociopolitical reasons for why this happens in large numbers. Aligning oneself to majority culture can leapfrog a person’s status, an urge particularly felt in Asian communities, where upward movement is prized, and racism runs deep.
In the case of Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, both of whom get flack for dating white people on TV, my sense is that something else is at play. We fall in love with the people around us. Ansari, responding to casting criticism, has talked about his own white girlfriend. Mindy, too, has a history of dating the general outline of man she draws up as a lover onscreen, hardly a surprise given how dominated by white men the comedy world is.
I also grew up with sights set on an industry defined by people whose ancestors arrived in America before mine. To love the written word meant loving, for the most part, white writers. Asserting my claim to write meant leaving the circumscribed world of the Indian-American, where the desire to become or spawn a doctor has shaped our ways of living. The act of reading itself meant seeing myself in characters named Margaret, Cal, Holden.
Enter a question it seems Ansari and Kaling may never be able to answer: to whom they are obligated, themselves or others. In all the cheering for Master of None, criticism persists around Dev’s own preferences when it comes to race. Throughout season one, he pursues white women, most persistently Rachel, a thinker played with twisted comic timing by Noel Wells.
In defending the choice to cast Wells as his love interest over an actress of color with fewer roles at her fingertips, Ansari has talked about intangibles: Wells’s delivery of lines, their chemistry. I see his point. Watching the two play dress-up and build on each other’s absurd pitches gives a sharp, vicarious pleasure, as if you’re the one shooting sparks off a stranger.
In episode six, the two take us to Nashville for their first date, on the advice of Denise. (Such good advice, incidentally.) We’re given time to observe the couple hatching up close. How do they lie in bed together? What rhythm does their banter take after sharing a hotel room? What happens when one is justifiably annoyed with the other?
Intimacy pulses through every moment. Having met Ansari’s own father, it’s possible to see a hereditary link in his delivery of lines — how he cocks his neck like a chicken and widens his eyes when he’s impersonating Johnny, the baby ghost both Rachel and Dev hope haunts their hotel room. Wells, a skillful mimic, lets Rachel channel a creepy infant wail in retaliation. When later Dev’s character prioritizes his love of barbecue sauce over her instinct for timing — causing them to miss their flight home, where a concert by Rachel’s niece awaits — the ensuing tension is pitched so well you can’t help but recall times of being in either one’s position, as the saboteur, or the aggrieved. We’ve all been both.
If there is a missed opportunity in casting Wells, it’s that Ansari’s urge for naturalism seems to have only stretched so far. The former SNL actress may look like a Precious Moments figurine — with her button eyes and thick fringe — but her heritage is as confounding as Barack Obama’s. Half Tunisian and a quarter Latina, Wells grew up, like so many children of immigrants, in Texas. So, too, did her character, but a glimpse at Rachel’s family in later episodes seems to indicate that she’s the degree of American that doesn’t confound: no funny smells in the fridge, no claims on identity that turn visits home into high-wire acts between selves. Their family trees may explain part of why Wells and Ansari fit so well onscreen, both of them open to the unexpected and off-key weirdness. Unfortunately, hers has been pruned for television.
Illustration by Mallika Rao