Trevor Noah and the Lazy Art of Mistimed Racial Stereotypes

Pop Culture

Trevor Noah and the Lazy Art of Mistimed Racial Stereotypes

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When South African comedian Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart, I wondered how he’d helm the one-desk rant corner that, during the Bush administration, had grown into a Peabody-wielding heavyweight. Born during apartheid, Noah is not American, nor was he one of the regular correspondents like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, or Samantha Bee, who were earmarked to succeed Stewart, and who’ve ended up flourishing in the post-truth Trump era. How would he take over a beloved satire show that has literally spawned its own genre of political commentary?

I needn’t have worried. With his dimpled charm and universal appeal, Noah’s appointment turned out to be a breath of fresh air. He brought the cloister of US politics into the 21st century. For the first time, through Noah, non-Americans and people of colour actually had a voice: Someone to make biting jokes about European colonial legacies, who was just as baffled by mass shootings and triple-decker cheeseburgers as we were.

Which is why Noah’s “edgy” take on the simmering Indo-Pak tensions last Wednesday was more than just disappointing — it was classic Americana at its worst. Over here, two nuclear-armed powers with a long history of conflict – military as well as emotional – were on the brink of war. One false move, and it could mean the annihilation of an entire subcontinent.

He began by comparing the decades-old geopolitical dispute between India and Pakistan to the Cardi B-Nicki Minaj beef, but with nukes. Then, he went on to say that we would have “the most entertaining war of all time”, because the Indians would use Bollywood songs as war cries and keep breaking for dance numbers.

On one hand, it’s in poor taste to joke about a conflict that, in the last month alone, has seen dozens killed. But to think that a tired punchline about Indians singing and dancing at the drop of a hat is going to cut it on this woke, new-age Daily Show? That’s just bad research and worse comedy — especially when there’s so much real humour to be mined from Indian TV anchors dressed up in fatigues and holding toy guns to report the news, or the petty snipes being flung around by politicians on both sides of the border.

Of course, the desi community has been up in arms about this casual belittling of a potential nuclear war. Earlier this week, Noah tweeted out a defensive, sorry-you-feel-that-way apology, addressing a tweet that asked how he would feel if someone mocked the violence in his own past with a Xhosa stereotype. Confusingly, Noah said that he has frequently joked about his past himself, side-stepping the criticisms of punch-down racism. He also chastised the Twitterati for being “more offended” by his joke than by the real problems. Umm, not those of us in the subcontinent, Trevor, we were pretty much holding our breaths.  

Clearly, Noah realises that the Indo-Pak situation is heated. Nor is he a stranger to making jokes about nuclear war and diplomatic horror shows: Minutes earlier he’d discussed US-North Korea relations and compared Kim Jong-Un to a Pokémon with unerring accuracy. He makes it a point to educate ignorant Americans about Africa, and doesn’t shy away from speaking to his Black audience.

The issue here is not that Noah joked about a serious topic. It is, as fellow comedian Mallika Dua pointed out, that he’s talking like a white man. Reducing the Indian subcontinent to outdated jokes about Bollywood dancing and funny accents is what American pop culture does best. Is that why Noah’s segment was met with stony silence, until he broke out his gibberish impression of Indian soldiers?

The issue here is not that Noah joked about a serious topic. It is, as fellow comedian Mallika Dua pointed out, that he’s talking like a white man.

Even as we see marginally better representations in the US thanks to stars like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, who control their own shows, it’s still rare to see desis outside the context of “funny”. From The Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali to Silicon Valley’s Dinesh Chugtai, desi guys, with their inability to talk to women and general nerdiness, are the butt of the joke. This Apu syndrome even applies to drama characters like Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico, where a running plot point is that brown people are probably terrorists.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy for Noah to laugh at the prospect of those same ridiculous brown people killing each other at the border. And why it’s useless to expect better from the Hollywood status quo, until desi creators get together to make our very own Crazy Rich Asians and shift the pendulum of perception.

Meanwhile, we’ll just have to work on losing the stereotypes that run rampant in Bollywood — singing and dancing, yes, but also portrayals of black and white people that are as simplistic as anything Hollywood has ever come up with about us. Who can ignore Fashion, where the lowest point of spiralling model Meghna Mathur’s life is when she wakes up to a black man in her bed? Or the innumerable examples of Evil Britishers™ in costume dramas from Manikarnika to Thugs of Hindostan? And modern representations of white people continue to show them as sex-crazed (women) and clueless (men). That’s why Akshay Kumar’s infamous speech in Namastey London — the one that sparked a trend of patriotic films that endures to this day — consists of him explaining random statistics about India to a neocolonial British villain.

The truth is, for all our outrage over Noah, any outsider watching your average Bollywood movie would come away thinking that Indians, like Americans, see the world through one-note stereotypes. Even as we chastise Noah, it’s time for us to clean house, too. Whether or not that will allow people like him him to see past their preconceived notions, at least we’ll have an industry that doesn’t sacrifice humanity at the altar of cheap laughs.