In a recent episode of Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Mindy goes on a date with an Indian-American guy. This might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Over the course of the show’s four years, Mindy has dated white guys almost exclusively—this is the first Indian-American man who’s been a love interest for her. Her date, Neel (played by Kristian Kordula), is vocal about how important Indian culture is to him (“more than CrossFit, even”). At the end of the date, when Mindy tries to kiss him, Neel tells her they can’t be together. “I don’t think I can date a coconut,” he says.
“Is it because I’m covered in tiny hairs and fall out of trees?” says Mindy. “That’s mean!”
“No,” says Neel, “because you’re brown on the outside and white on the inside.”
Every racial group has an equivalent of the coconut—the Oreo, the banana. These terms convey that there’s a “right” way to express your cultural identity and that people of color “act white” in various ways. When I was a freshman in college, a white friend told me, “You act a lot more Asian than you are.” She had been watching me receive care packages from my parents, which were mostly filled with Japanese snacks: rice crackers, instant miso soup, microwaveable packs of white rice and curry.
To me, this wasn’t Japanese food so much as food—and these things were hardly foreign in Southern California where my family lived. It didn’t occur to me that my new friends in Vermont might look from my food to my face and see a disconnect, see one as more Asian than the other. My friend didn’t say it this way, but in that moment, she saw me as an egg: white on the outside, yellow on the inside, a concept usually reserved for white anime nerds with Asian fetishes.
Until I left my family’s house, my Asianness had never really come into question. Usually friends treated it as a piece of trivia (“Would you guess she’s half Japanese?”). Guys treated it as a personalized way to flirt with me (one put his arm around me at a Weezer concert just as Rivers Cuomo sang, “Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls do it to me every time”). If any of this was annoying, it didn’t challenge my right to my identity. Being half Japanese was a simple fact reinforced daily in small ways, like using the language to have private conversations in public with my mom, or eating rice with everything, even pork chops and sauerkraut. In the context of my small, close family, my race and my culture made perfect sense. Outside it, I realized, people didn’t always know what to make of me.
When Neel calls Mindy a coconut, she’s indignant but also genuinely puzzled. In her case, she’s not mixed-race, and both her parents came from India. What could she be if not Indian-American? She begins asking the people around her how they see her.
“We represent a new kind of Indian-American,” says her brother, Rishi, “One with literally zero roots to our past.” Mindy calls Neel, not to ask for a second date but to convince him that she’s not a coconut. He invites her to talk it over with him at Bed Bath & Beyond while he shops for a humidifier. There’s a great moment when a white sales associate tells them they would make a beautiful family, which leads them to have a conversation about why white people like seeing people of color date within their own race so much (“I think it’s because it’s segregation that they can feel good about,” says Mindy. “They’re like, ‘See, they wanted it.”).
Mindy and her ex-fiance, Danny, with their child, Leo.
Neel begins to soften towards Mindy. He invites her to a dinner party with a group of his Indian-American friends. Her uncertainty about what to do in this situation shows when she arrives at the party in a kurta, only to find out that everyone else is wearing western clothes, talking about SoulCycle and butter coffee. The hosts, Anisha and Ravi, have a daughter around the same age as Mindy’s son, Leo. She is bald, having just had her Mundan ceremony, a Hindu ritual where a baby’s hair is cut by a priest. Mindy considers doing the same for Leo, but she hesitates. Leo’s father, Danny, who is of Italian descent, is already planning to raise him Catholic and take him to Italy to learn about that part of his heritage. Would there be room for Mindy to teach Leo about Indian culture too? Was she Indian enough to pass anything down?
After college, I moved to Los Angeles and started working for a Japanese-American community newspaper. There, I met my share of fourth-generation Japanese-American Neels, who had grown up playing on ethnic basketball leagues, going to Obon festivals at local temples, and holding offices in their colleges’ Nikkei Student Unions. Around them, I felt a kind of anxiety mixed with defiance. Would they recognize my different cultural identity—second-generation, racially and geographically mixed—as Japanese-American? And if they didn’t, who cared anyway?
I began to think about the comments my mom would make when I was younger and we lived in the Midwest. She talked often about having nowhere to fit in—foreign in the United States and now, after decades away, no longer Japanese enough for Japan. At stores, she would complain that the clothes were all “hakujin colors”—white people colors—like pale citrons and melons that didn’t do justice to her olive skin. If she ever saw a stranger who might be Japanese, she would approach them. Usually, they were friendly, but when they weren’t, I felt lonely with and for her. I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to really understand how she felt, her identity not tidy enough to fit into one category.
This short poem by Nigerian writer Ijeoma Umebinyuo captures the feeling well. It’s called “Diaspora Blues”:
“so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.”
The Mindy Project has been criticized over the years for the way it deals with race, particularly for making most of Mindy’s boyfriends white. The show is certainly not perfect. Apart from one of the nurses at Mindy’s practice, Tamra—whose character began as little more than a stereotype but has grown a bit fuller over time—Mindy and her family are the only regular people of color on the cast. But when I watch Mindy—who grew up in white, suburban Boston—grapple with what it means to be Indian-American and how to raise a mixed-race child, I see a story that my family shares, a story I didn’t grow up seeing on TV or reading in books, one that is still not given enough of a platform.
I didn’t realize that I was missing stories about people like me until I found them for the first time. In middle school, I watched Smallville not just for Clark Kent but also for Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang. Then, in college, I found a book called Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience by Chandra Prasad, and it changed everything for me. I read most of it in one sitting on a cross-country flight, sobbing.
There are more mainstream TV shows today that satisfy my need for these stories: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, the bilingual Jane the Virgin. Still, we constantly have to fight for representation and recognition. The more space we make for these stories, the more—I hope—our collective imagination will stretch, until we can define our cultural identities for ourselves, until, just as society and art allow for a multitude of white experiences, they can do the same for the rest of us too.
In the episode, Mindy decides to go through with a Mundan ceremony with her son. During the ritual in her apartment, Leo cries, and Mindy carries him out of the room, feeling like she’s failed him for not knowing enough about Indian culture. Her family comes and sits with her in her bedroom. Mindy and Rishi’s parents explain that they decided to raise them as Americans; they came to the United States because they loved it.
“I’m very happy you want to be more Indian,” says her mom. “We weren’t sure that you would ever want that.”
They reassure Mindy that the baby always cries during the ceremony. “We’re still traumatized from when we did it to you. You used the F-word and everybody gasped,” says her mom. The scene ends in a group hug. With her family, Mindy makes sense. She needs no explanation.