Should we confront stereotypes or laugh them away?

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It has been said that Indians lack a sense of humour. The flood of stand-up comedians of Indian-origin on the world stage tells a different story. Perhaps this is a well-planned intervention of sorts… an attempt to force us to laugh away our indignation.

I’ve watched some, even chuckled at their jokes but always come away a bit irritated (and upset) by their persistent use of stereotypes.

As a first-generation immigrant there is only so much I can laugh at myself. After all, I’ve been questioned often enough about my above-average English skills and Western clothing by the ignorant.

Be it Russell Peters or the newest comedian in town—our Indian accent, parenting style and culture are central to all the jokes. You could argue that the artistes are merely playing out their childhood experiences. However, it becomes old, tiresome and offensive when you are constantly confronted by your so-called ‘erroneous’ or ‘uncool’ ways. More so, when your kids absorb this like a sponge.

The recent debate surrounding the documentary “The Problem with Apu” resurrected the uncomfortable feeling that us first-generation immigrants will always stick out in our adopted homeland.
That is no laughing matter. Neither is the manner in which “The Simpsons” handled the controversy. But on a positive note, it did reveal an unpleasant truth. Being politically correct does not change the way people think or feel. Remember our prime minister’s costume drama in India?

Both my boys are fans of the show and stand-up comedy and would probably take all this in their stride. Even tell me not to make a big deal of nothing. Second-generation seems to laugh away stereotypes more easily. Perhaps it is because they are trying so hard to fit in, even if it means dissing their parents.

The social messages are rather conflicting even in multicultural Canada where diversity in the workplace typically embraces the second generation with neutral accents. On one hand we have cultural festivals to promote pride in our origins and on the other we are constantly victimized by stereotypical representations in the media and entertainment world.

Over the years I have scolded my boys several times for mimicking the ‘typical’ Indian accent which neither their parents nor people in our social circle have. (We all know what inspires this.) And most recently I’ve been replaying a troubling conversation I had with my youngest in my mind.

As I urged him to follow the lead of a certain member of the family, his response left me speechless. He said, “Yes mum, I know… if I’m brown and in North America I have won the lottery.” We laughed through my initial shock and a few minutes of uncomfortable silence followed. Then I asked if he got this from one of the comedy shows knowing the answer.

I am unsure of how to process this. Was this an attempt to laugh at a stereotype or unmask racism?

If we are to be inspired by immigrant trailblazers in politics, business, etc. why doesn’t media or entertainment take their cues from them. References to the taxi driver, worker in a convenience store or computer nerd are all that we are bombarded by.

Most successful immigrants will attribute their achievements to their upbringing and cultural values. Yet these have rarely been portrayed in a positive manner!

Could it be because they would rather laugh away stereotypes than confront them? Or because standing up to a social wrong might paint them in an unfavourable light and jeopardize their careers?

I’m not suggesting we raise the racism flag at every chance we get. Neither do I want my children or myself to be constantly perceived as or reminded that we are different because of our origins. Politicians touting the diversity of their cabinets and wearing cultural clothing on occasion don’t help either. It’s the same old lottery and gratitude philosophy.

Surely the talented writers and comedians can be inspired by successful immigrants who dress and sound like everyone else.

For once, I salute Priyanka Chopra, for being true to herself and her roots by refusing to portray these stereotypes.

Perhaps it is time to laugh at those who resort to these redundant stereotypes or package it as harmless humour. -CINEWS

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