Allegations Against Aziz Ansari are Forcing a Reckoning Around Intersectionality in the South Asian Community
The confusion and concern about how to deal with the bad behavior of men, especially when those men are members of otherwise marginalized groups, is an old one. As an Indian American, I grew up hearing people discuss the misogyny of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in hushed tones. I always found the quietness confusing. People whispered allegations of sexism like they were whispering the name Voldemort, a thing not to be named. However, as Professor Dumbledore taught us in Harry Potter, “fear of name increases fear of the thing itself”.
But what were we afraid of? When our heroes are human, they are necessarily flawed. Furthermore, a person’s imperfect or even downright unjust behavior does not detract from their contributions to advancing our society. Interestingly, I noticed that those whispering about the misogyny of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were often Indian women and African American women respectively. It seemed that no one else knew or cared about the flawed humanity of our heroes.
Fortunately, in my early 20s, I came across the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and finally had a framework to understand my confusion — intersectionality. Professor Crenshaw explained that when narratives are shared that don’t fit within our existing frames, we don’t incorporate them into our understanding. She coined the term intersectionality to help provide a frame for multiple layers of marginalization — sexism coupled with racism, for example. Moya Bailey constructed the term misogynoir to describe misogyny directed towards Black women. As South Asians contend with allegations against Aziz Ansari, we are fortunate to have these frames to inform our understanding of the discomfort and challenges around these topics.
Aziz Ansari is one of the few well-known South Asians in American popular culture. Ansari is, as the Atlantic magazine puts it, “the first exposure many young Americans had to a Muslim man who was aspirational, funny, immersed in the same culture that they are”. However, that is wholly irrelevant to the accusations against him. The author of the piece bemoans “the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men”. The author, it should be noted, is a privileged 57-year-old white woman.
Her defense of Ansari did not focus on the veracity of allegations made anonymously, the reputation of the outlet, or if/how we should differentiate between the behavior described and more violent behaviors. Rather, the defense focused on his value as a token representation of his culture. Nowhere in the defense of Ansari are Muslim-American women or Indian-American women considered. It definitely does not include Muslim-Americans or Indian-Americans who are LGBTQ+ or gender non-conforming.
Of course, tokenism is another kind of racism. It fails to contend with the systems that have made Ansari one of the few recognizable South Asians in American households. It fails to question why the only well-known Indian American woman in Hollywood is Mindy Kaling. It does not explore how the best known Indian Americans in politics, including Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, are Republicans or how the Indian American culture may inform their attitudes towards women and their politics. It ignores the work of South Asian activists such as myself to educate our communities on racism and the importance of standing with other people of color against white supremacy.
The defenses of Ansari that I have seen from within the South Asian community, in more casual settings, similarly fail to consider the experiences of South Asian women, and focus on the way these accusations stain the reputation of our culture as a whole. I believe it would be more productive to focus less on what White people may extrapolate from these accusations, and focus more on whether those extrapolations have merit. Asian American women, like women across racial groups, experience high rates of domestic and sexual violence. It would not be absurd to think Ansari represents a broader problem.
With that said, there are challenges in understanding data regarding this specific racial group because the category used is Asian American Pacific Islander, which encompasses a huge range of cultures and experiences. The Obama administration created an initiative to disaggregate this data in order to ensure that groups that need help and support were not being overlooked. Still, Asian Americans broadly face unique challenges in holding perpetrators accountable because many of us are first or second generation immigrants who are less familiar with systems. Furthermore, we are part of tight-knit communities that reinforce patriarchal values and sexual taboos.
Outside of South Asian scholars and activists, I have observed an alarming unwillingness to discuss the allegations against Ansari because they would involve discussing sex. In an extremely unscientific poll I conducted on Twitter only 6% of South Asians learned about sex through conversations with their parents. Only 2% of South Asians in this unscientific Twitter poll felt comfortable discussing their first time having sex with their parents. We cannot have conversations about how Ansari’s behavior was problematic when we don’t discuss healthy sexuality in our communities.
I am not blaming South Asians, or the broader Asian American community, for Ansari’s behavior. Rather, I am suggesting that it is an opportunity for us to actively participate in the broader American conversation happening about sexual assault, sexual harassment and healthy sexuality through an intersectional lens that considers the experiences of South Asians who are not heterosexual cisgendered men.
The views expressed here represent the views of the author only. They do not represent the views of any organizations, people or employers with whom the author may be affiliated.