Making Fun of How South Asians Talk: A History

Donald Trump’s reported mockery of Narendra Modi’s accent is a disturbing reminder of the long tradition of using “brown voice” for caricature.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as they give joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2017
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs U.S. President Donald Trump as they give joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., June 26, 2017  (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

Last week, The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump had mimicked the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Soon, several publications began to ask if the alleged incident could chill the leaders’ warm relationship. Disturbingly, this wouldn’t be Trump’s first brush with this very controversy—on the campaign trail in 2016, he entertained his base with an impression of an Indian call-center employee.

While a rupture between Washington and New Delhi may not be in the cards—both countries’ administrations recognize the value of an alliance as China grows more powerful—the stereotypical accent that Trump reportedly used merits some scrutiny. In the recent documentary The Problem With Apu, which takes to task the convenience-store owner of the same name on The Simpsons, the actress Sakina Jaffrey dubbed this type of common, broad, and ultra-exaggerated South Asian accent patanking. For those unfamiliar, patanking is characterized by a retreating tongue, stressed syllables shaken out of order, mixed V’s and W’s, and hammered-out A’s. It tries to fold thousands of languages and dialects from eight countries into a single accent. (Of note, recent research from the University of Oregon upends common assumptions of a mere standard Indian accent.)

As the media-studies professor Shilpa Davé writes in her book Indian Accents, race has a “loud and specific sound.” Trump’s reputed mockery serves as a deafening reminder of mainstream America’s contempt for authentic South Asian accents. For decades, racists have weaponized an inaccurate, hyper-exaggerated version of so-called “brown voice” to caricature South Asians. Due to this long history, South Asian Americans tend to dismiss, dislike, or outright despise when non–South Asians decide to patank.

Both Davé and The Problem With Apu note that patanking echoes, if not embodies, elements of minstrelsy. In this racist American comedic tradition, white performers donned blackface makeup and depicted America’s black population as lazy and simple-minded. This tradition proved as versatile as it was demeaning. In the 1968 film The Party, Peter Sellers wore brownface and spoke in a dubious South Asian accent to play the clueless, bumbling Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi. Fisher Stevens followed suit when playing Ben Jabituya in the 1986 film Short Circuit. More recently, Ashton Kutcher wore brownface to play an eligible bachelor named “Raj” in an infamous 2012 Popchips ad. As The Problem With Apu writer and star Hari Kondabolu argues, Apu, voiced by the white actor Hank Azaria, is likely this trend’s most enduring emblem—a “devious, servile, [and] goofy” incarnation of South Asian stereotypes, whose only sin is to be Indian.

Despite South Asian America’s budding pop-cultural renaissance, patanking’s legacy lingers. In Master of None, Aziz Ansari fictionalized his own experiences with casting directors asking him to do the accent. Kumail Nanjiani has been asked to patank as well, though he naturally speaks with a Pakistani accent. When directors favor actors willing to patank, they force performers to make a tradeoff between integrity and success. As Davé writes in East Main Street, South Asian accents on TV reinforce a static notion of “cultural citizenship”: South Asians without the much-maligned accent are American, while those with the accent are foreign. America’s sociocultural line between who belongs and who does not—the line between the assimilated South Asian and the “fresh off the boat” (FOB) immigrant—sometimes seems more like a wall.

As with other immigrant communities, many South Asian households are split between a more cautious first generation of those born abroad and their more outspoken children. Most American-born Desis aged 40 or younger grew up familiar with racist jeers inspired by Apu, accustomed to others making them feel foreign in the country of their birth. Other Desis, particularly older ones, consider racist impersonations to be moronic but mild annoyances.

My Tanzanian-born father moved to Britain just before high school, and moved to the United States after medical school. My mother flew from India to America for the first time when she was 9. I asked them if they sensed a generational difference in responses to racist behavior. “We expected ignorance, because we were the first people. There wasn’t anyone else [South Asian in our hometown]. Now, there is,” my mother said. My father attributed the divide to a sense of birthright, conceived of a wholly American childhood. “You grew up as an American. We grew up as Indians.”

Our conversation speaks more broadly to the power of context. As the journalist Tasneem Raja has noted, South Asian America’s relationship with its accents (and mockery of said accents) is moored to American discrimination specifically. Since the diaspora’s countless different personal stories crosses hundreds of unique environments, rifts in perspectives over accents may develop—especially between the second-generation South Asian diaspora and inhabitants of South Asia proper.

After observing Indian citizens’ anxiety over (and desire to hide) their accents when leaving the subcontinent, one writer for the Indian newspaper The Hindu urged them to rehabilitate the accent with pop-cultural diplomacy. He placed the onus on Indians to produce more world-famous movies and athletes. As for the diaspora’s anger over patanking, he pointed out, “The South Asian Americans who are currently [outraged] over Apu from The Simpsons—angry enough that they’re making an entire documentary about it—don’t [even] actually talk in South Asian accents.” Other commentators, however, demand that their voices be treated with respect. Within minutes of opening his Netflix special Abroad Understanding, the comedian Vir Das challenged his New York audience, “The Indian accent can be a perspective, not a punchline.”

South Asians tend to adopt a far more permissive attitude when others within the same community affect accents deliberately in social contexts. When asked for comment, Kondabolu noted that members of the South Asian diaspora are coming from “a place of commonality,” and are also more likely to tailor them precisely to region and personal acquaintances. Many people of South Asian descent consider patanking to be their inheritance, a badge of resilience forged within the crucible of transcontinental immigration. By commiserating, story-telling, and laughing together, they both pull from and help build a shared background of diasporic experience.

Still, accent parodies can be thorny. Sometimes, U.S.-born South Asians might slip into an accent to distance themselves from their FOB counterparts. Feeling the insistent, subtle pressure to be in on the joke—to showcase one’s membership in society, even if you caricature other South Asians or your own family members—speaks to “the insidiousness of racism,” as the actor Aasif Mandvi identified it in The Problem With Apu. “The person who is subjected to it winds up buying into it as a cultural norm.”

Perhaps the connection between patanking and prejudice seems superficial, especially since South Asians have begun to storm pop culture. But not long ago, Americans commonly used those stereotypes to box South Asians into either Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart or the War on Terror. In a time of growing anti-immigrant fervor, the South Asian diaspora is once again quite vulnerable: Up to 500,000 Indian immigrants and approximately 50,000 Pakistani immigrants are undocumented nationwide. As of 2015, more than 50,000 undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh live in New York City alone.

Still, a lot has changed in the three decades since Apu debuted. Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and Hasan Minhaj can act, direct, and draw laughs without resorting to accents. Stars with natural South Asian accents like Nanjiani and Priyanka Chopra flatly refuse to play them up. (Chopra has also resigned herself to accusations that she fakes her accent.)

Rejection and reclamation forced South Asians and patanking together. It’s uncertain how this relationship will evolve over time. Reports of Trump’s recent use of it aside, maybe patanking will fade from the lexicon entirely, as South Asians keep pushing for acceptance within the more perfect union. Or perhaps South Asians will more fully reclaim patanking as a token of a complex history of movement and struggle. As Kondabolu told me, “I don’t think the goal should be assimilation, but integration. It’s not about me becoming you, but us creating a new whole together.”