Hilarious Racism

I really enjoy the show Silicon Valley that airs during the HBO Spring/Summer Sunday evening lineup. The skill and talent it takes to put together a quality satire about the technology world many of us don’t understand is to be admired. The show manages to hilariously walk us along the path of a talented young techy as he tries to become the next Steve Jobs — which is basically the aspiration of everyone in Silicon Valley.

What was great about the show from the beginning is that just about all of the characters are socially awkward and generally insecure which in turn makes them endearing. This is meant to be somewhat cartoonized characterizations of the “nerds” that actually work and live in Silicon Valley; young, bright, talented, hardworking, socially challenged, ambitious, male and white. The real-life Silicon Valley is not particularly accommodating to black and brown people and because of this demographic reality the only main character of color on the show is a hapless programmer of Pakistani descent named Dinesh.

I truly understand that it doesn’t make sense to insert nonwhite people into a show as a token gesture and I respect the show’s creators for not trying to placate the masses by inserting characters that would really never be in a particular time and space.

That being said there are two concerns :

A 2013 PRRI survey revealed that members of ethnic/racial groups in the US tend to associate with others people who are from the same group. Specifically, social networks of Latinos include other Latinos, Blacks include Blacks and so on. “Among white Americans, 91 percent of people comprising their social networks are also white, while 5 percent are identified as some other race.” (Source: PRRI 2013 American Values Survey) These white Americans are therefore not likely to know or even see in real life a nonwhite person until they either go off to college/travel or migrate to major cities like Chicago, NYC or LA. And some never do. This means that they are broadly informed about other groups through television programs, social media or the news. In a show like Silicon Valley there is literally one person of color on the show (I haven’t even broached the massive gender issues). The question I have is if I am a white 17 year-old from a homogeneous town in the US, how am I being prepared to become an adult that can function in an increasingly global economy? Further, can I be expected to be sympathetic to social issues that affect other groups? Being socially awkward is one thing, but being culturally dismissive is a completely different story.

HBO has a lineup of 3 popular shows on Sunday evening that collectively have at least 70 recurring characters and 5 of these characters are non-white. Do I think that there should be more black, brown or Asian people on every show on TV? Not necessarily. But how does this portray how the United States views itself? What do people from outside of the US think when the biggest show on TV for the last few years, Game of Thrones, has 2 non-white recurring characters out of a total of more than 50. Never mind the fact that both these characters are former slaves freed by a white blonde woman. In Veep, the two nonwhite recurring characters both play supportive non-decision making roles. This was the issue some people had with the Oscars. If all the representation is “single-white-story” oriented, then contributions and relevance from other groups can be dismissed or altogether erased.

So does a satire about a specific subculture have a social responsibility? Perhaps the fact that the very purpose of the show is to make fun of the culture is a stronger statement than plugging in random black and Asian women. But there is rarely a moment when the lack of inclusion and diversity of Silicon Valley is actually brought to light, or in other words they never say “Damn, do you think our investors would be OK if we hired more black programmers?” or “We gotta make sure we don’t bring Dinesh to the investor meeting because they probably will think he is a terrorist.” I am obviously not a comedy writer but the point is clear.

The second issue, which is harder to ignore is the change of tone in the treatment of Dinesh in season 4 which completes the 1, 2 punch of racism. What was great about the show leading up to this season was that insults were shared generously and equally and it was mostly around each other’s social ineptitude, decision making, or computer programming and engineering skills. But this season the humor has taken a sneakily more sinister turn - to Dinesh’s detriment.

Increasingly the jokes against Dinesh have to do with his ethnic background. ”Suicide Bomber” and “Brownie” were terms used in the season’s penultimate episode and other similar jokes have been thrown in his direction. What is telling is that he does not respond with an equally derogatory remark about the race of the person making the comment. For example, he could easily say “Land-stealer” or “White Bread” to Gilfoyle, or even “Unabomber” or any other equally derogatory retort. Instead he cowers and takes the loss. In one of the most severe, and in my opinion, worst examples of this was the episode when Dinesh bought a gold chain. The abuse got so bad that even Jared, who is by far the most unique and thoroughly awkward characters on the show started making lewd jokes against Dinesh. It is worth noting that this was the first time Jared made any remarks of this kind and barely even defends himself when being verbally attacked. But for some reason he found the strength to exuberantly go for, and essentially gang up, on Dinesh — again with ethnically derogatory jokes.

The crux of this is that is that Dinesh is made to feel different simply because of his background and appearance. He is just as talented and equally socially inept/geeky as the other characters on the show but they do hold one wild card against him. He is not white. If he were to defend himself by saying “white-boy” he is essentially attacking all of the other characters which is engaging in a battle he cannot feasibly win. So he takes the hit and tries to minimize the insult coming from the individual and not get angry at the group.

I have been there.

When you are spending time with a group of people you never want to feel excluded or different. For anyone who has spent time with mixed ethnic company the discrimination can be subtle but definitely present. Some argue that the subtle jabs are the worst. The underlying fact is that when in groups, people have the tendency to single out the person in the group that doesn’t match. You hear men do it when there is one woman and vice versa but it is most common and potentially hurtful when it is race based. Especially when the jibes become vicious. The 1, 2 punch of racism is first, exclude the nonwhite group members, then humiliate the few that make it through. So if I am this 17 -year old white person in a white town, white high school, supermarket, church and workplace I not only don’t expect to see or interact with nonwhite people, I will probably put them into narrow, media-defined categorizations when I do encounter them. This is one reason why it is so easy to mobilize people based on this physical difference in the United States. And yet another reason why we have to be cognizant of the the information and messages we receive and more importantly spread.

While one television show can’t possibly be responsible for what is a very sophisticated system of control and exclusion, it is very telling that an opportunity to chip away at these forces is exchanged for tasteless terrorist jokes.