I just finished watching season 2 of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which left me low key speechless at the end. More on that later.
What caught my attention throughout the season was how Ansari portrays conversations about race in a way TV has yet to see.
Unless a piece of media is actively about race, as in, racial justice or racial tension is central to the text of the film, conversation about how people of color and white people engage on race interpersonally can be limited. Many interactions are dramatized, not wrongly so: I’m reminded of my single-season foray into Empire, where conversations about race were held at maximum volume to match the tension of the show.
There’s definitely a reason for this–race in America is a freaking dramatic issue, OK?–but with Master of None Ansari argues that jokes are just as much a part of the conversation. This alone isn’t necessarily new. We’ve all seen SNL sketches, stand up specials, or YouTube videos where the writers deliberately reverse the joke so the white person is the punchline, instead of a person of color (punching up vs punching down). Or, in longer forms of narrative comedy like TV and movies, the subversion can come simply in the fact that the lead character executing the jokes is a person of color instead of your standard white guy.
(Extra reading: Fresh off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan talks about flipping the race and comedy script here.)
Ansari–and, I assume, also Alan Yang, who also created and produced the show–employs both of these comedic subversions to talk about race in Master of None. First, our lead is an Indian American man, as opposed to the aforementioned standard white guy. White people make up a fair amount of punchlines too, and not just from Dev’s perspective: Season two dedicates one episode to a variety of personalities in New York City, only featuring the main cast for two scenes that bookend the episode. Every parable follows people of color, and all of those characters have conversations about the BS white people get away with. Most of these conversations are pretty funny, and the remaining honestly portray the real annoyances white people put people of color through on a daily basis.
However, of all the conversations about race the show has, the most unique aren’t the ones that happen among communities of color, where you might expect the participants to come from a common understanding of race in America. Don’t get me wrong: There’s a need for conversations like those, since shows featuring entirely or mostly people of color are still rare. But Ansari adds a new mode of talking about race in his show that I’ve never seen before on television: He jokes with his white (girl)friends about their racism.
In episode eight, on a romantic date with the season’s Italian love interest Francesca, Dev is shocked to hear Francesca refer to Indian people as “curry people.” Dev’s modus opperandi is humor, so he chides her. He tells her it’s not OK to say that, and she wouldn’t call Chinese people “soy sauce people,” would she? Ha ha, of course not. It’s almost flirty.
Francesca admits to her wrongdoing, laughing all the way. The moment’s over before it really started, because Dev and Francesca are able to move right past it and get back to enjoying each other’s presence.
Conversations in this vein happen quite frequently in season two (though I struggle to remember them coming up meaningfully in season one, even though they totally had the opportunity with Rachel’s weird obsession with Tokyo–she was clearly that girl who had “neko” in her first email address). But how often do they happen in real life?
Well, as a white person, I can tell you: Not very much.
When confronted with our previously unchallenged views on race, white people usually don’t politely laugh along. We get mad. We get defensive. We get mean. It’s all fun and games when white people want to laugh at other white people for being racist to show our friends how hashtag-woke we are, but to actually confront that within ourselves? Nuh uh. No thanks. You must be wrong and must not be seeing how I’m actually on your side.
I’m complicit in this system too. An embarrassing anecdote that I hope you won’t hold against me: The first time I was forced to think about race was when, in a moment of irredeemable blindness, I told a black friend that we didn’t have racial problems in America anymore because we had Beyoncé and Obama. Yeah, I was that person.
She schooled me for it, in front of everyone, and I felt an incredible amount of shame. It’s been roughly seven years since that (a whole third of my life!) and I like to think I’ve turned things right around. I try to talk and think critically about race as much as I can, but still, when people press me on views I have never examined, I feel that same shame and embarrassment creep up.
This is what people in the Social Justice Business call White Guilt, and it doesn’t really help anything.
Logically, it makes sense that I and other white people feel it. Being told you have a clear blind spot is never fun, always embarrassing, and leaves you feeling pretty stupid. But it’s startling how quickly shame and embarrassment mutate into anger and aggression for white people.
In one episode of season two, Dev notices a jar in the shape of a racist caricature on the bedside table of the white woman he went home with. As he’s about to leave, he nudges her about it: “What’s with the jar?” It was a silly gift. “Don’t you think it’s a little racist?” What? No! Nobody’s ever commented on it before! And what are you talking about anyways, you slept with me when you thought I was racist? You’re just as bad as I am! Get out!
That feels like a much more typical reaction than Francesca’s. Someone points out something racist (even pretty calmly, as Dev did) and the white person reacts with hysterics. I’ve even seen this reaction in conversations about race between fellow white people. Sometimes I’ll tell a friend that a thing they said should not be repeated, and, boom: Outrage, criticism, denial.
Yet, alongside these examples of racial aggression, Master of None shows white friends giggling along with Dev’s jokes about their own racism. In this way, Master of None presents a unique model of good white ally behavior that isn’t even on the radar of most media about race. The model is somewhat limited, as it presumes the person of color will employ flirty chides or polite nudges as their tactic of choice, but it’s a new model nonetheless.
I don’t pretend to know what exactly this model adds to the overall cultural conversation. I mean, I am a white person, so my thoughts on this only mean so much, and you reading this should take this article with a grain of salt. My only statement here is that this model is entirely new, and white people can learn a thing or two from it.
I also don’t pretend to know the actual thought process of people of color when they call out white friends for their racism, but I can guess the role that comedy has in those real conversations based on my own experiences confronting the privilege people hold over me. Interpersonal privilege-oppression dynamics tend to operate very similarly across different lines, with the privileged person protecting that status at all costs, often to the point of violence. Men who respond to my call-outs of sexism act in the same pattern of shame-aggression. I look stupid > I’m losing power > Time to hit back. It has a different coat on, but it’s the same beast underneath.
As a woman, engaging with men on a level that’s pleasant and upbeat–such as humor–is always the easiest way to gauge how they’ll respond to serious discussions of their sexism. If they respond defensively, that’s a red flag, because any more pressure on that button and the defensiveness might morph into actual violence. If they acknowledge it with a laugh and move on, cool–now I know I might be able to trust you with the harder conversations later. (Please note I said “might be able to trust you”; oppressed people are always cautious talking about serious issues with their oppressors because safety is never, ever, ever a guarantee.)
My point here is this: For oppressed peoples, humor can be a safe tactic to test the emotional reaction of their so-called “allies” in action. Master of None shows us Dev soft-balling some humor about racism and shows his privileged white (girl)friends responding as well as one could have hoped–acknowledging the situation they created, not making it about themselves, and moving on.
The show also shows us an instance of said privileged white (girl)friend mistaking the intention of those jokes. At that point, Ansari is comfortable with making the conversation a little more serious. A few days after Francesca is chided by Dev, she tries to do the joking and brings it up again. But Dev sends her a serious warning text: “Not interested in engaging with this whole curry person thing. Even as a joke.” She responds with a frantic, all-caps correction of her text. The all-caps reflects the shame and fear, implicitly begging forgiveness, which satisfies Dev; he knows he’s gotten through to her on this, and she won’t fuck it up again, because if she does he won’t be around to hear it.
As I’ve said before, there’s no guarantee that a person of color will give you the benefit of the doubt that Dev gives Francesca. There’s also absolutely no necessity for people of color to choose humor and politeness as their method of communication. Ansari isn’t giving people of color a model to talk about race; he’s giving white people a model for how to be better. Racial justice doesn’t have to consume your life for you to not be aggressive when called out; you just have to recognize the dynamics at play and ask yourself if losing a friend is really worth keeping your pride and power.