Have you ever read a book and immediately after reading it, you were left disappointed? This is what happened after I read “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” by Mindy Kaling. The book starts off strong, with Kaling explaining why she wrote the book and thanking people for their purchase using her whimsical humor “Thank you for buying this book. Or, if my publisher’s research analytics are correct, thank you, Aunts of America, for buying this for your niece you don’t know that well but really want to connect with more. There are many teenage vampire books you could have purchased instead. I’m grateful you made this choice” (3). This made me laugh out loud while riding the train, but those moments were few and far between.
What stood out the most for me is when Kaling addresses race. It becomes an issue only because these are the same concerns I have while watching her television show “The Mindy Project.”
Kaling shares her encounter with a bully, a handsome young man from Sengal Duante Diallo, who teased her about her body during ninth grade. She took his teasing in stride, telling herself at first, “I was hurt, but I rationalized that maybe Duante had been around only extremely thin African girls his whole third-world life and didn’t know American girls had access to refrigeration, and that we didn’t have to divide up UN food parcels with our neighbors (This may have been a tad racist assumption on my part. Look, we were both in the wrong)” (15).
Yeah, comparing teasing by an insensitive classmate, an occurrence that many people experience all around the world, to casual racism is creating a false equivalence. Even though this is clearly a joke, the kernel of truth still exists. There is a hierarchy when it come to race that keeps appearing throughout the book. Kaling describes her best friend Brenda as a “Manhattan socialite” with perfect posture, gazelle-like with a sheet of dark blond hair” the kind of girl that “Girls always worried…was going to steal their boyfriends” (48). Later, when Kaling punches her best friend by accident in the nose, she states “Bren had a perfect nose” (92). What makes Bren’s nose perfect? It’s uncomfortable reading these words because Kaling is quite attractive yet her threshold for attractiveness appears to be thin and white. She uses a lot of self-refrential humor when describing her looks, and toward the end of the book, she refers to herself as “pretty” once (202).
This is also why “The Mindy Project” is troubling because Kaling’s handling of race and female characters are sorely lacking. Her non-white, female character, Xosha Roquemore, playing a nurse Tamra in the show, is more caricature than a full human being. In fact, no woman on the show is a fully-fleshed out character outside of Mindy and her white male co-workers. Morgan, Danny, Jeremy and Josh. Plus, Mindy on the show largely dates only white men. Besides Mindy, no one gets their own story lines except the white guys. And on the rare occurrence that this happens, like Tamra and her boyfriend Ray Ron fighting in the episode “Bros Club for Dudes” they become three-dimensional stereotypes. Further, a more appropriate love interest, rather “ghetto” guy Ray Ron, is present for Tamra. Morgan, her white co-worker! Morgan, who seemingly has nothing in common with the brash and “sassy” Tamra. This possible romantic pairing is random at best and reinforces the indirect message on the show that having a white boyfriend is a status symbol that women of color should aspire to obtain. This is why criticism of the show and how it doesn’t create space for PoC despite its creator and star being Indian, are relevant. It’s not that I need Kaling to represent me as a black woman, in her book or television show, but her consistent reverence for whiteness is off-putting. I was excited to read Kaling’s book because her existence and popularity in the mainstream is atypical. Unfortunately, producing/writing/starring in a television show on broadcast television is slowly becoming the norm for women of color. I just wished she had something more to offer than the typical fare of characterizing blacks in stereotypical ways and exalting whiteness in both her book and on her television program. It’s not that Kaling offers a lack of diversity its that she offers the same stereotypes and perspectives that PoC have seen multiple times in media formats created by non-PoC. It’s disappointing. After reading her book, it becomes clear why a dearth of diverse characters on her show exists.