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.