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.”