Race is not just skin color

“The southern Indians resemble the Ethiopians a good deal, and, are black of countenance, and their hair black also, only they are not as snub-nosed or so woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; but the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians in appearance.”

– Arrian

I might almost say that the same animals are to be found in India as in Aethiopia and Egypt, and that the Indian rivers have all the other river animals except the hippopotamus, although Onesicritus says that the hippopotamus is also to be found in India. As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in colour, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl), whereas those in the north are like the Egyptians.

-Strabo

The plot above is from Genetic Evidence for the Convergent Evolution of Light Skin in Europeans and East Asians. It’s a 2007 paper. For those of you not versed in genetics, 10 years is like the difference between the First Age and Third Age on Middle Earth. For those of you not versed in Tolkien, 10 years is like the difference between Gupta India and Maratha India? I think?

Basically, the authors looked around the regions of the genome of loci known to be implicated in pigmentation variation in 2007, which mostly started from differences between Europeans and Africans. In the plot above you see pairwise genetic distances visualized in a neighbor-joining tree. The populations are:

SA = Asians, IM = Island Melanesians, WA = West Africans, EU = Europeans, EA = East Asians, and NA = Native Americans

What you see is that pigmentation loci are not phylogenetically very informative. Because of ascertainment bias in discovery Europeans are an out-group on many of the genes. But overall you see that the trees generated by a relationship on pigmentation genes do not conform to what we’d expect, where Africans are an outgroup to non-Africans. This is not surprising, as any given locus is not too phylogenetically informative. Additionally, pigmentation is a trait where selection has likely changed allele frequencies a lot, so it’s not a very good trait to look at to determine evolutionary relationships.

A white actress?

I bring this up because The New York Times and other publications are reporting on a new paper in Science, Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations, with headlines like Genes for Skin Color Rebut Dated Notions of Race, Researchers Say.

The Science paper is very interesting because it helps to make up for the long-term ascertainment bias in the literature, whereby European differences from other groups helped to discover pigmentation loci of interest. The big topline result is that there’s a lot of extant variation within Africans, and much of it is very old, pre-dating modern humans by hundreds of thousands of years, implying long-term balancing selection to maintain polymorphism.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times piece:

For centuries, skin color has held powerful social meaning — a defining characteristic of race, and a starting point for racism.

“If you ask somebody on the street, ‘What are the main differences between races?,’ they’re going to say skin color,” said Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The widespread distribution of these genes and their persistence over millenniums show that the old color lines are essentially meaningless, the scientists said. The research “dispels a biological concept of race,” Dr. Tishkoff said.

I can go along with all the sentences more or less except the last. Skin is the largest organ we have, and it’s pretty salient. West Asian Muslims regularly referred to Indians as “black” (early Islamic Arabs referred to the people of Sindh as “black crows”). They defined themselves as white (though contrasted their own olive complexion with ruddy Europeans). The Chinese referred to themselves as white, and Southeast Asians, such as the inhabitants of the ancient Cambodian kingdom of Funan, as black. Among South Asians, skin color is also very salient. During the period when Pakistan included a western and eastern half the West Pakistanis were known to refer to the Bengalis as blacks, while East Pakistanis who went to study in the West, like my father, were surprised that not all Pakistanis were white like Ayub Khan.

Sharon Muthu, Indian American actress

But racial perception and categorization are not identical with skin color. The ancients knew this intuitively, as the quotes from Arrian and Strabo above suggest. They were aware that South Asians were dark-skinned, but those in the north were lighter than those in the south, and that those in the south resembled Africans in the range of their complexion. But, they also knew that it was not difficult to distinguish a South Asian from an African in most cases, because South Asians have different hair forms and to some extent facial features, from Africans.

I know this myself personally. Living in almost white areas of the United States for most of my childhood I encountered some racism. My skin tone is within the range of African Americans. But when it came to racial slurs I was usually called “sand nigger”, or more sometimes “camel jockey.” Please note that the modifier sand. Even racists understood to distinguish people of similar hues who were clearly physically distinctive.

Conversely, African Americans did not usually recognize me as African American. Living in the Pacific Northwest there aren’t many non-whites. It’s also very rainy. Sometimes when I was wearing my Columbia jacket with hood black men walking from the other direction on the sidewalk would start to nod at me, assuming I was black. But mid-way through the nod as they approached me they recognized that despite my brown color I was not African American and would stop the motion and switch to a manner of distanced politeness as opposed to informal warmth.*

Finally, I also had East Asian friends who were very light-skinned. As light-skinned as any white person of Southern European heritage. That did not prevent racists from calling them “chinks” or (more rarely) “gooks.” These racists were seeing beyond the skin color.

If ancient authors from 2,000 years ago understood that race is more than skin color, and if genuine bigots understand race is more than skin color, I fail to understand why so often the public discourse in the United States acts as if race is just skin color. We know it’s not so.

The reason I’m posting this on Brown Pundits is that the focus on skin color made sense to me growing up in the United States, but as someone of South Asian ancestry I also knew it was not sufficient as a classifier. I knew when I was probably around five. Many South Asians see a huge range in skin color within their immediate families. That is, empirically the fact that there were large effect QTLs segregating within South Asians is obvious to any South Asian who grew up around South Asians.**

My mother is of light brown complexion. My father is of dark brown complexion. My mother’s complexion is fair enough that she is usually assumed to be Latina if she doesn’t speak (her accent is clearly South Asian), and in cases has been misjudged to be Southern European. My father, like his mother, is in contrast on the darker side. Their Bengali friends would joke that they were an interracial relationship.

My father’s father was very light skinned, and his mother was very dark skinned. Some of his siblings were dark, some of them were light, and some of them were between. One of my father’s brothers is basically a doppelganger of my father, except he is lighter skinned.

And yet there was never a question that both my parents were ethnically Bengali. They were both people with deep roots in Comilla in eastern Bengal. Now that I have their genotypes I can tell you that my parents are genetically clearly from the same region of Bengal; they cluster together even compared to other Bangladeshis. In fact, my father is more Indo-Aryan (every so slightly) shifted than my mother. I suspect it is through his mother, whose father was born into a family of recently converted Brahmins. It is clear that skin color is not predicting phylogeny in this case, and I am sure many South Asians intuitively grasp this because of the variation in complexion they see across their families, who are usually from the same sub-ethnic group in any case.***

A multiracial United States is going to be more complex world than the situation before 1965, when America’s racial consciousness was partitioned between black and white (notwithstanding Native Americans, Hispanos and other Latinos in the Southwest, and a residual of Asian Americans). But sometimes I feel the intellectual and cultural elite of this nation is stuck in the paradigm of 1964.

* I have a friend from Kerala in South India who has talked about being mistaken for being Ethiopian.

** I am the only South Asian my daughter has grown up around, and her complexion is far closer to her mother’s than my own. She did have a difficult time distinguishing me from black males in her early years because to her my dark-skin is very salient. When her mother asked her to give reasons why African American males might look different from her father, she immediately clued in on the hair and facial features.

*** Black Americans and Middle Easterners, and a whole host of other groups where pigmentation loci segregation in appreciable frequencies, can all see that differences in skin color do not necessarily denote differences in race, since there is so much intra-familial variation.

Life expectancy in South Asia

India is very heterogeneous. Nevertheless, the contrast between Assam and Bangladesh is very curious to me.

1 Kerala 74.9 74.0
2 Delhi 73.2
3 Jammu and Kashmir 72.6
4 Uttarakhand 71.7 60.0
5 Himachal Pradesh 71.6 67.0
5 Punjab 71.6 69.4
5 Maharashtra 71.6 67.2
8 Tamil Nadu 70.6 66.2
9 West Bengal 70.2 64.9
10 Karnataka 68.8 65.3
11 Gujarat 68.7 64.1
12 Haryana 68.6 66.2
13 Andhra Pradesh (includes Telangana) 68.5 64.4
14 Bihar 68.1 61.6
* India 67.9 63.5
15 Rajasthan 67.7 62.0
16 Jharkhand 66.6 58.0
17 Odisha 65.8 59.6
18 Chhattisgarh 64.8 58.0
19 Madhya Pradesh 64.2 58.0
20 Uttar Pradesh 64.1 60.0
21 Assam 63.9 58.9

To be brown is to be a civilization


Though I often disagree with him, I do enjoy Zach’s perspective on things because they are different from mine, though we exhibit similarities (e.g., both of us generally align with the center-Right in Anglophone societies). Zach may be one of the first cosmopolitan desis in his pedigree; he, himself of part-Persian heritage, marrying a South Indian Sindhi, probably to raise a family in England. In contrast, I may be the last brown person in my pedigree for a while, fading into legend and myth (or infamy!).

But one of the things I think is important to emphasize is South Asia is a civilizational entity straight-jacketed for historical reasons into a few nation-states. Though India and China are often compared together, they are totally incomparable insofar as the Han majority of China exhibit a racial and linguistic unity which South Asians do not (even though southeast Chinese dialects are unintelligible with Mandarin, the written language is the same).

By and large, I am predisposed to agree that someone like Zach is more prototypically South Asian than I am. Despite his religious heterodoxy his cultural rootedness in the Northwest quadrant of the subcontinent does put him at the “center of the action,” so to speak. In contrast, my own family’s recent origins are on the far eastern fringe of recognizably desi territory…. That is, my family is from the eastern portion of eastern Bengal (my grandmother was almost killed by the crazy elephant of the maharani of Tripura!). It’s interesting that 3,000 years after the emergence of Iron Age South Asian cultures the fulcrum of South Asian identity is where it began all those millennia ago (there was a period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when Bihar was the center).

Talking about what is more prototypically desi is like talking about what is more prototypically “European.” Being French or German is more prototypically European than being Albanian or Russian. We could argue why, but in your heart you know it’s true. There are definitions of Europeans which exclude Albanians and Russians (even though I’d disagree with those personally), but no plausible ones which exclude French and Germans.

Finally, I do think it indicates the limits and flexibility around race and brown identity. As Zach has said repeatedly he is very light-skinned (and part Iranian to boot). Myself, I don’t think anyone would describe me as either light-skinned or dark-skinned; I’m pretty much the average South Asian in complexion. Brown. Not light brown. Or dark brown. Literally just brown. But that doesn’t really weight much in terms of who is “more desi” or not. I have never watched a Bollywood film all the way through. That matters more.

Why Brown Pundits?

This post is in response to Zach and Zimriel.

Why Brown Pundits? Why this blog? And why do I post here, as opposed to Gene Expression or Secular Right, or various other venues which I have access to?

To a great extent the origins of this blog for me go back to the early 2000s, when I began to have some discussions with a few South Asian friends/readers through carbon copy emails. Two of those individuals later went on to co-found the Sepia Munity weblog.

Growing up in an overwhelmingly white America my understanding of South Asians was parochial and superficial, or at least academic, until I entered adulthood. At that point I met various South Asian Americans, and formed some friendships of some durability, and began to see how they viewed the world. How their experiences differed from mine, and how they were similar.

There was, and is, a lot of diversity. But I didn’t see too much of my own perspective being represented. Books such as the Karma Of Brown Folk reflected what I think the most dominant and “hip” element of American South Asian subculture, which is culturally left-wing, and aspires toward what has become bracketed under the term “intersectional.”

I’m not saying that these people are the majority. Just that they vocal, and active, and the ones who are likely to agitate and organize around a South Asian American identity (as opposed to local particularistic identities, such as being a Tamil Brahmin, or a more general identity, such as being a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican).

This blog is a way to get some more heterodox and diverse views out there. For example, I am a libertarian leaning conservative who is an atheist, whose children are “white presenting” as they would say today. I am Bengali by birth and upbringing, but it is unlikely that my descendants will be Bengali in anything but distant lineage. That’s a statement of fact, and neither positive or negative. It probably influences my negative attitude toward fashionable anti-white poses struck by gentry left-wing American South Asians (poses struck in solidarity with other “PoC”), as anti-white prejudice impacts my family directly.

As for what I post here vs. what I post elsewhere: if I’m not aiming toward generality of inference or lesson I’ll post them here. A South Asian illustration of a general principle can be posted elsewhere, but sometimes issues and questions exhibit strong South Asian particularities, and they belong here.

 

Religion trumps race in Sri Lanka


Monk-led mob attacks Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka:

“These are Rohingya terrorists who killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar,” the monk said in his live commentary on Facebook, pointing to Rohingya mothers with small children in their arms.

Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhist monks have close links with their ultra-nationalist counterparts in Myanmar. Both have been accused of orchestrating violence against minority Muslims in the two countries.

South Asians understand that the power of religion as opposed to race more than most people. The craven and obsequious respect granted to Arabs (and to a lesser extent Iranians and Turks) by South Asian Muslims is so natural and taken-for-granted that it only seems that way to outsiders. Despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus of any given region are clearly related by blood (in some cases, whole portions of castes convert in toto), they often speak as if they are racially distinct. Muslims somewhat sincerely, but affirming obviously false West Asian Asian, and Hindus more performatively, by asserting that India is for the Hindu race, from which Muslims are excluded.

The above story is a different dimension: the identification of Sri Lankan Buddhism monks with the Buddhist Burmese against the Rohingya. There is some historical background to this, as both the Sinhala and Burmese are predominantly Theravada Buddhist peoples. During periods of Buddhist decline in Sri Lanka lineages were reinforced form Burma, and vice versa.

The Rohingya, as I have stated, are racially really no different from the people of Bengal. And like Bengalis the Sinhala are a dark-skinned South Asian people (there are still debates as to whether the Indo-European language in Sri Lanka came from Gujarat or Bengal). The Sri Lankans I’ve met could easily pass as Bengali, and in general vice versa.

It’s an interesting observation from an American perspective, where race is the most salient factor in social-political identification. At least explicitly.

When all you have is postcolonial theory everything is about the white man

Recently I read a piece, Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian, which is interesting from an anthropological perspective. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a progressive South Asian Christian, which is the perspective of this author. But as I read the piece I felt that it elided and conflated so much. A much deeper and richer story was being erased so as to serve up another illustration of the primacy of white supremacy.

If you read From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East you know that how white American Christians treat non-white Christians can be rather ridiculous. One of the stories I recall is of an Arab Christian waiter in Jerusalem who wore a cross, and was very irritated with white Americans with strong Southern accents would inquire when he had converted to Christ. This person of course privately scoffed, and reflected that when his ancestors had been Christians for centuries his customer’s ancestors were still worshipping pagan gods.

Here is a passage from the above piece which I think really confuses:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

The writer is a young Canadian woman whose family is from South Africa of Indian heritage. Additionally, though she never is explicit about it, her family seems to be evangelical Protestant. This is an interesting perspective, but it is a totally different one from that of South Asian Christianity.

Bracketing Kerala with Pondicherry and Goa is simply misleading. Christians are nearly 20% of the population of Kerala, and most are St. Thomas Christians, whose origins predate European contact with India by many centuries. Originally part of the territory of the Persian Church of the East, modern St. Thomas Christians have splintered into numerous groups with varied affiliations, in part due to the trauma of contact with Portuguese Catholicism. But through it all they maintain an indigenous Christian identity which is distinct from any colonial imprint.

Second, large numbers of India’s Christians are converts from Dalit populations, or, tribal peoples in the Northeast who are racially and culturally distinct from other South Asians. The framing in the piece is that South Asian Christianity has to bear the cross of colonialism, but a good argument can be made that for Dalit converts and tribal groups in the Northeast Christianity is the vehicle for resistance to oppression, assimilation, and colonialism on the part of the dominant South Asian cultural matrix.

This is not to say that the piece does not speak to a real dynamic. North American white evangelical Protestantism is inordinately freighted with racialized baggage. And it is easy to reduce into the Manichaean framework of postcolonial theory, where whites are the sole agents of action in the world. But to the generality, Indian Christianity has many disparate threads, and this sort of reduction is misleading.

The Indo-Aryan question nearing resolution


India Today published my review of the current state of the genetics and genomics of the Indian subcontinent, and what it can tell us about the ethnogenesis of South Asians generally. In the piece I tried to be very circumspect and stick to what we know with a high, if not perfect, degree of certainty. Here I will add some comments where I reduce the threshold of certainty somewhat. That is, I’m going to include here my beliefs where I think I’m right, but in some details wouldn’t be surprised if I was wrong.

First, the title is Aryan wars: Controversy over new study claiming they came from the west 4,000 years ago. Writers don’t get to choose titles, and this is not one I would have chosen. But I am not in a position to care or know what draws clicks. Let’s note that this “controversy” is restricted mostly to India. Outside of India it’s not controversial, but a matter of the science, because people don’t have any political or social investment in the topic. It reminds me of debates about genetics and intelligence in the West, where emotions get overwrought and lies fly wildly with abandon.*

Second, there is a reference in the figures to an “Out of India” (OIT)  model. That is, the Aryans migrated out of India, and implicitly the Indo-European languages derive from South Asia. I don’t think this theory has any support at all. That is, I think it is rather clear that proto-Indo-European probably emerged neither in Europe proper, nor in South Asia, but in the Inner Eurasian spaces between. But for an Indian audience ignoring OIT would seem a peculiar lacunae, so there was a reference added to the figure on that account (I pushed back against this, but do not make ultimate decisions on figures).

But I do think it was plausible up until 2009’s Reconstructing Indian History to suggest that most modern South Asian ancestry dates to the Pleistocene. In this framework the Indo-Europeanization of the subcontinent was primarily a cultural one, where small groups of Central Asians imposed their language on the native population. What the genome-wide work has shown is that South Asians are the product of a large-scale mixing process between a population very distant from West Eurasians (“Ancestral South Indians”, ASI) and a population which was indistinguishable from other West Eurasians (“Ancestral North Indians”, ANI).

Since ANI is indistinguishable from West Eurasians I hold it is clearly a West Eurasian population in provenance. Those who reject this position from a scientific perspective believe that there could have been some sort continuous zone of “ANI-like” habitation from northwestern South Asia up into northern Inner Eurasia (and perhaps toward West Asia as well) dating from the late Pleistocene. I do not that believe this is plausible, and I will tell you that prominent researchers who I have brought up this idea to are somewhat incredulous.**

Third, there are major unresolved issues genetically in relation to the dates and the total number of mixing populations. I am quite confident saying around half of the total South Asian genomic ancestry today derives from populations who were living outside of South Asia on the Holocene-Pleistocene boundary 11,700 years ago. Much of that ancestry probably flourished between the Caucasus and Zagros mountains. The remainder somewhere in the vast swath of territory between the Baltic and Siberia (perhaps further south, toward the Pamirs?).

But I am not confident of the relative balances of contribution to the ANI. It does seem that the northern component, which is derived in part from the southern component, is much more prominent in upper castes and northwestern populations. In contrast the southern component is found throughout the subcontinent.

In Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the Near East there is analysis of South Asia in the supplements. The author concludes that ANI can not be modeled as a single population (Zack Ajmal and I were saying this in 2010). The top hits for the sources of ANI tend to be the genomic sample from the Zagros, in western Iran (before subsequent admixture with Levantine farmers), and a population similar to the Yamna culture of the steppe. The issue seems to be that later steppe populations which harbor a fair amount of “Early European Farmer” ancestry (e.g., LBK in Central Europe) due likely to back migration aren’t good model fits.

Below are two plots, one showing a scatter of South Asian groups with their Iran_N (a sample from ~10,000 years ago) vs. Yamna (from ~5,000 years ago), and another with the ratios.

   

DO NOT TAKE THE PROPORTIONS LITERALLY.  My intuition is that these models are overestimating the proportion of steppe ancestry, but my confidence in my intuition is low.

There are two groups enriched for Iran_N ancestry:

  1. Lower caste groups, especially from South India.
  2. Populations in southern Pakistan.

The reasons differ. If you have done genetic analysis of the Pakistani populations it seems quite obvious that unlike other groups in South Asia Pakistani groups facing the Arabian sea across from Oman have genuine Near Eastern ancestry. This affinity declines as you go north in Pakistan rather rapidly. Notice though one South Indian group: Jews from Cochin. This population clearly has recent Near Eastern ancestry.

The Kharia are an Austro-Asiatic Munda group. For whatever reason Austro-Asiatic groups seem to consistently have very little steppe ancestry. The Mala are Dalits from South India. The further up you go on the modal Iran_N-Yamna cline you see the populations are either upper caste, or, they are from the far northwest of the subcontinent.

The conclusion I derive from this is that first there was an early migration of West Eurasian populations consisting of Iranian farmers. This group mixed with the ASI element. The Indo-Aryans, which probably correlates with the Yamna-like component, arrived later as an overlay (and nearly half of their ancestry was derived from Iranian farmers). Then many South Asian populations have modifications on this base model of compound ANI + ASI; Munda and Bengali have later East Asian ancestry, while populations on the Arabian sea have Near Eastern ancestry.

Fourth, the story in India Today leans heavily on Y chromosome of R1a1a lineage. It is true we are Lords of the Steppe and destined to drive our enemies before us. But, it is not the primary story. And yet Y chromosomal phylogenies are easy for the public to understand. But they only make sense in light of the above framework. R1a1a is found in South Indian tribal populations. It seems likely that Indo-Aryan paternal lineages were highly invasive across the subcontinent, just as they were in Europe. In many cases they likely extended far beyond domains where Indo-European acculturation occurred.

I’m probably wrong on some of the details. But I suspect the final story will not be so different from this.

Finally, I will mention the cultural element here. There is a fair amount of the discussion of the form “so you are saying the ancestors of Indians are Europeans?” or “does this mean Hinduism is not Indian?”

The piece was about genetics and demography, not my opinions about culture. So I will say this:

  1. The “West” as an entity is no older that Classical Greece. 500 BC. My own personal position, strongly held, is that the West should indicate cultures and societies which descend from the European societies which adhered to the Western Church around ~1000 AD (some nations, like Lithuania, became absorbed into this cultural complex hundreds of years later). So Russia is not the West. And Merovingian Francia is not the West.
  2. Indian civilization of what we term the Hindu variety coalesced in the period between between 500 BC and 500 AD, from before the Mauryas, up to the Guptas. Obviously the period before 1000 BC was important in setting the ground-work, but I do not believe it was Indian as we’d understand it in anything but the geographical sense, nor was it Hindu in any way we’d recognize it today (similarly, Shang dynasty China was not China as we’d understand, which came into being after 500 BC).

These positions mean that I think nationalist passions are in the “not even wrong” category. Indian Hindu civilization is indigenous by definition, since it was synthesized in situ on the edge of historical perception and attestation (for the record, I think Adi Shankara was critical in the completion of a crystalized self-conception of Hindu religio-philosophical thought, but its origins predate him). Similarly, Indian civilization was not seeded by white Europeans because white Europeans were only coming into being in Europe when the Indus Valley civilization was collapsing.

That is all (for now).

Addendum: The first tranche of ancient DNA should be out in a few months. Also, there is another paper on Indian genetics in the work from the usual suspects. There won’t be anything totally surprising (or so I’ve been told).

* By lies, I mean the contention that intelligence is an “invalid” instrument in relation to predictiveness, or, if it is valid, it is not genetically heritable. People routinely lie about these facts in discussion or spread lies because there are socially preferred positions which they conform to. Similarly, many questions about Indian history seem to hinge on widely promoted lies.

** This model needs to also confront the massive mixing of the last 4,000 years. If it is true then it is ASI which is mostly likely intrusive, because it is not creditable that these two populations were in nearby proximity for tens of thousands of years without exchanging genes.

The pork episode of Master of None

The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic (I don’t think pork is superior to chicken, but that’s a matter of taste).

That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background, a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.

Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined. She said I’m not supposed to eat pork products and not to do it again.

In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.

Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari: your race defines you and it doesn’t

Today I watched Homecoming King, a comedy show by Hasan Minhaj. Honestly I wasn’t going to watch it, because Minhaj’s political schtick at The Daily Show was not geared toward someone like me. That is, it’s funny to laugh along with him, but it is much easier if you agree with him politically. To me this is a major contrast with Aziz Ansari, who probably shares most of the politics of Minhaj, but who does not seem to foreground it as much.

Some of this is happenstance. Minhaj blew up on The Daily Show, which focused on politics with a liberal slant. Ansari became more well known through episodic television. That’s going to impact the sort of comedy they put out there.

But after watching Minhaj outside of The Daily Show context, and comparing his routine to Aziz Ansari’s (I’ve also watched much of Master of None), I think it is notable how differently they come off despite the likelihood that on the fundamentals they probably agree about much in American society. In short, Minhaj’s experience and recollection of racism seems much more raw to me than Ansari, who seems to have taken it more in stride.

I was encouraged to watch Homecoming King  in part because Minhaj grew up in Davis, California. I lived there for five years and one of my closest friends during my undergraduate years is a Davis native. In fact I went to her wedding in Davis during Minhaj’s senior year in high school. The centerpiece of Homecoming King happens to be about an event before prom which involved racism of a subtle but hurtful form that traumatized him in a very deep fashion. He’s talked about this incident extensively so you can Google it. But it colors all of Homecoming King.

But there are some differences between Ansari and Minhaj which I think require highlighting. Ansari is 5’6 feet tall, while Minhaj is 6’0 feet tall. Ansari is also darker-skinned, and I think I can say he is less conventionally attractive than Minhaj (readers who are attracted to men can correct me here). Finally, Minhaj grew up in very liberal Davis, California, situated between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Ansari grew up in a small town in South Carolina. I suspect that Ansari probably faced more racism than Mihnaj when he was growing up if I had to bet.

And yet of the two Aziz Ansari seems to be less deeply impacted by the banal ubiquity of white American racism. He acknowledges that it exists, sometimes in a pointed fashion. But he does not seem to let it define him.

In  Homecoming King Minhaj’s trauma from his abortive relationship with a white girlfriend scars him so much that he says he could not date white girls after that. I’m sure Ansari has experienced some level of racism against him on the dating scene. Especially in the South where when he was growing up interracial relationships were probably more taboo than in Davis. It comes up a few times in Master of None, but it’s not defining in any way. He keeps on trying to find someone he can connect with no matter their race, even if “on paper” they should be out of reach for a short dark-skinned guy.

Finally, this is a minor thing, but Ansari is more explicitly disconnected from his Muslim background. He has stated he is an atheist to the media. One episode of Master of None involves him eating pork in front of his parents. Minhaj in contrast seems to own his Muslim identity much more (albeit, of a very liberal cultural variety).

Rather than being exemplars of young brown men in the United States, the subtle differences between Ansari and Minhaj show that there isn’t one way to be brown, and that we aren’t impacted in the same way by how society views us. Like Minhaj I went to high school where I was the only brown kid. Also, like Minhaj I was called Saddam Hussein. Unlike Minhaj my town was overwhelmingly conservative, while his was overwhelmingly liberal. While my town was over 90 percent white (actually more than 95 percent when I went to high school since I’m about 10 years older than Minhaj), his was about 70 percent white. What was the difference between us? A lot of it comes down to personality.

Some liberals of a minority background feel besieged by the white majority. In contrast, many of us who are more conservative accept racism is part of life, but move on, and don’t believe it is as determinative as liberals assert. Much of this comes down to personality differences, rather than race differences. Minhaj and Ansari are both successful politically liberal Indian American comedians from a Muslim background. But how they experienced American society and present themselves still differs because they are still individuals with all the differences that entails.