Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I don’t remember when I first learned about the idea of “model minorities,” but when I was younger, it seemed like a good thing that people would assume I was smart, high achieving, and loyal to my family. My first thought was always “Look, there we are!” when I saw brown people on TV, even if it was another nerdy engineer, a store clerk, or another tiny genius winning the National Spelling Bee. But as I got older, I realized I was mistaking visibility for representation, and ignoring the fact that most of the images of South Asians that I saw in pop culture were stereotypical and sometimes racist.
As the visibility of South Asians has increased in American pop culture, and as more Indians immigrate to the U.S., there are still very few depictions of South Asians that are complex in their treatment of South Asian cultures and the issues that surround immigration and integration in the United States. Most pop culture depictions of South Asians in the U.S. uphold many aspects of the model minority myth that stereotypes South Asians (and, more generally, Asians) as meek, high-achieving, nerdy, and, in the case of South Asian women, sexually submissive. In the past fifty years, South Asian immigration to the United States has increased significantly, and in 2013, Indians were the second-highest number of immigrants to the country. Despite the fact that more South Asians come to the U.S. every year, and despite their increasing visibility in American popular culture and politics, they are often ignored in discussions of diversity and racism in America. When Asians are represented using model minority stereotypes, a hierarchy is created between acceptable and “unacceptable” people of color, with whiteness at the top of the ladder, and blackness at the bottom. As Rachel Kuo points out, the model minority myth divides immigrant groups and people of color along racial and color lines, which in turn upholds white supremacy. She writes: “To accept any positive stereotype about the model minority myth is to also comply with a racist system that favors and privileges whiteness—and that is something that not only harms other people of color, it hurts members in our own communities.”
It’s rare to find pop culture products that confront issues of racism within communities of color, especially when immigration is thrown into the mix. Mira Nair’s 1992 film Mississippi Masala acknowledges the diverse and complicated experiences of people who move to the U.S. and the inter-cultural racism that they deal with and perpetuate upon arrival. In the movie, the Loha family—Jay (Roshan Seth), Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and their adult daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury)—are third-generation Ugandans of Indian descent who are forced to leave Uganda following the 1972 expulsion of Asians from the country under President Idi Amin. After a stint in the United Kingdom, the family arrives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Jay, a lawyer in Uganda, now works in a family motel, while his wife runs a liquor store in a different part of town. Mina also works in the motel, and the family lives in a set of cramped rooms on the first floor. While Jay tries, unsuccessfully, to sue the Ugandan government and repossess his family home in Kampala, Mina starts a relationship with a local carpet-cleaning entrepreneur named Demetrius (Denzel Washington). In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Mina’s meddling relatives discover her relationship and Mina’s parents forbid her from seeing Demetrius again. Mina and Demetrius decide to leave the state, but right before they do, Jay finds out that he has a court date for his lawsuit in Kampala, and begs his wife and daughter to return with him, leaving everyone with hard choices to make.
Mississippi Masala is unique for many reasons, not least of all that it shows a very different version of immigrant life than many of the model minority images in pop culture. According to John Kenneth Muir’s book Mercy in her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair, Nair’s insistence on casting Indian actors in lead roles was a deal-breaker for many Hollywood studios. Only when rising star Denzel Washington was cast in the role of Demetrius did the film get studio backing in the U.S. Instead of setting up a cultural comparison between a normal white majority and an immigrant minority (as most films of this kind do), Nair focuses on the relationships between black Americans and the South Asian immigrants who populate Greenwood. This set-up allows Nair to discuss issues that are rarely dealt with in mainstream depictions of South Asians: anti-blackness and the pervasiveness of the model minority myth among immigrant communities.
Nair’s family of protagonists isn’t a stereotypical Asian-American family of overachievers because they don’t want to be. Jay and Kinnu want Mina to go to college instead of what they see as wasting her life in Greenwood. When her father reminds her to reconsider going to college, she says: “There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets,” as if to reassure both herself and her father that even if things don’t pan out as her parents envisioned, it’s not the end of the world. This may look like a lack of ambition on Mina’s part, but it’s more than that; Nair shows how many immigrants to the U.S. face unique challenges that can often prove insurmountable, even South Asians, who are often assumed to be universally successful when they come to the U.S. Her depiction of the family falling on hard times also helps to add a level of humanity to the common jokes about South Asian businesses (motels, gas stations, convenience stores). Here, she shows real people trying to get by, instead of a homogenous mass without individual stories to tell.
What does it mean to be “of color” in Greenwood? In Mississippi Masala, that question proves difficult to answer. In Bengali Harlem and Other Forgotten Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald talks about the deep roots of South Asians in the South, and how “acting white” separated black and South Asian workers in the South in the eighteen-hundreds. In the Jim Crow South, he writes, South Asian peddlers employed traits associated with the model minority myth—“politeness, servility, and self-exoticizing airs”—in order to differentiate themselves from black Southerners and avoid persecution based on their skin color. Bald also writes about the long-standing confusion of white Americans in categorizing South Asians within the United States’ “binary racial logic” of white and black. Officially, South Asians were categorized as under many conflicting color categories. Newspaper stories ascribed “criminal” behavioral traits to South Asians, or found them to be mysterious like other “Asians.” One turn-of-the-century newspaper wrote about a group of Bengali peddlers in Atlanta: “[They are] not like American Indians, of course, but look like Mexicans, only three shades darker.” This confusion has persisted, becoming a kind of in-joke among South Asians.
In the movie, Nair acknowledges this when Mina goes to a dance club and invites a lot of attention from men who think she might be Mexican. When she says she’s “Indian, from India,” all she draws are blank stares. In Mississippi Masala, Mina’s gossipy family members remark on her social standing after an eligible bachelor in the community, Harry Patel, expresses an interest in Mina: “You can be dark and have money, or you can be fair and have no money, but you can’t be dark and have no money and expect to get Harry Patel.” Poor black residents of Greenwood frequent Kinnu’s liquor store, which draws judgment from the Lohas’ extended family. But there are also times when being an Indian in the U.S. is to be a person of color in solidarity with black Americans, like at the beginning of the movie, when an Indian worker at the Monte Cristo meets Demetrius and hires him to clean the carpets at the motel: “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican: all the same. As long as you’re not white, means you are colored.”
But, as Nair shows, this shaky relationship between the black residents of Greenwood and the extended Loha clan is easily undone. In Mississippi Masala, it happens when Mina’s family finds out about her relationship with Demetrius after a romantic weekend in Biloxi. As Urmila Seshagiri writes in “At the Crossroads of Two Empires: Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and the Limits of Hybridity,” “when characters assert sexual desire outside of their own communities, the mutual support system built on shared racial oppression quickly falls apart.”
The tension erupts in a confrontation between Jay and Demetrius, who says: “I know you and your folks can come down here from God knows where, and be as black as the Ace of spaces, and as soon as you get here you start acting white, treating us like we’re your doormats. You and your daughter ain’t but a few shades away from this right here,” as he points to his face. It’s critical that Nair exposes the internalized racism present in South Asian communities, because it highlights the hypocritical nature of anti-black racism among people of color, and the damaging effects it has on inter-cultural solidarity and understanding. In showing this strain, Nair also upends the model minority myth by depicting Mina as a sexual person, unlike the stereotypes of submissiveness attributed to South Asian women. She initiates sexual contact with Demetrius, and stands up for herself and him when her family interferes with her relationship. In showing Mina in this way, Nair critiques the controlling nature of many South Asian families and communities, and refuses to punish the character for asserting herself sexually and with her family.
Mississippi Masala is not a perfect movie, but it should be remembered as a film that set a precedent for how we might talk about issues of racism between communities of color, and work to address those problems instead of adhering to model minority expectations. After all, it’s white supremacy that encourages the privileging of fairness over darkness, and in turn, the continued subjugation of black people Mira Nair also takes the crucial and very rare step of placing people of color at the center of her narrative. Mississippi Masala may not have been one of the first movies to tackle issues of racism among people of color, or the struggles of immigration, but it shouldn’t be the last of its kind. As more South Asians make their home in the United States, it’s crucial to explore the different ways that they, as individuals and communities, interact with one another and across cultural boundaries.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto.