Hasan Minhaj on "Patriot Act."
While “Daily Show” alum and “Patriot Act” host Hasan Minhaj’s comedy covers an admirably vast span of educational subject matter—from Saudi Arabian politics to student loans—I found one unfortunate common thread through his work: the vast majority of his jokes rely on racial stereotypes.
I recently watched Minhaj’s 2017 Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” and I was struck by the emotional impact of Minhaj’s high-school-laughingstock-to-Daily Show tale of overcoming racism and forgiving the perpetrators who had hurt him. A raw, heartfelt tale ultimately about tolerance and unity, the special chronicles Minhaj’s internal journey as a Muslim and a son of Indian immigrants, confronting racism in a post-9/11 world. Minhaj explains how rejection from his prom date’s racist family etched scars in his self-image that plagued his adolescence and young adulthood—until Minhaj found it within himself to forgive.
It is Minhaj’s story of catharsis, so arrestingly told, that makes the overwhelming presence of stereotype-based jokes in his other work so surprising. I was first tipped off to this tendency when, during his Georgetown talk, he called out three white female students to say that their race would prevent them from fully appreciating one of his jokes.
The first episode of “Patriot Act,” entitled “Affirmative Action,” exploits stereotypes about Asian-Americans and white Americans on a more-or-less constant basis. In the first three minutes of this first episode, Minhaj alludes to stereotypes about Indian parents and points to a white basketball player and says, “What was this guy’s signature move? Tax evasion?”
In the next minute, he says, “Now, Asians — and I am lumping all of us together right now, okay?”
It’s hard to imagine a context in which it would be advantageous to lump all people from a 17.21 million-square-mile continent together.
Minhaj continues. “Our entire lives, we get [hated] on. ‘Oh, you guys… are bad drivers. You’re the color of poop. You smell like curry and kimchi.’ Nothing, we say nothing. The moment we can’t get into Harvard, we’re like, ‘I’ll see you in court.’”
It’s important to be aware of the prejudice that Asian-Americans suffer on a daily basis, but who is helped when these juvenile jabs are reiterated on camera, even in a critical or pejorative context?
Minhaj presses on. “Asians, just so you know, we are only 5.8% of the population. But last year, we were 22.2% of Harvard’s admitted class. We are straight dunking on every other minority group, but in classic Asian parent fashion, we’re like ‘22%? Why not 100%?’”
Minutes later, Minhaj jokes that Confucius might have said, “Even when completely unrelated, show off child’s GPA.” At this point, I decided to play a game called, “How Long can Hasan Minhaj Go Without A Joke About Asian Parents?”
Shortly afterward, Minhaj turns to talk about an individual who is an older white man. Minhaj says that the person “obviously isn’t an Asian student, but he definitely looks like the type of guy who still uses the word ‘Oriental.’” Minhaj believes that because the individual is an elderly white male, he is ignorant and insensitive towards minorities.
First, the nature of these generalization jokes—and their frequency—is simply lazy writing. It is easy to riff on essentially one stereotype about Asian-Americans, or any other stereotype about any other group, over and over again. It takes bigger comedic chops to parry with a substantive contention disguised as a witticism rather than an ad hominem attack that points a critical finger at the opposition’s racial background or culture.
More importantly, Minhaj assumes that some people have particular characteristics based on the color of their skin. His humor assumes and divides. It reinforces division in a time when separation along racial lines is the last thing that America needs. For someone who claims to be a patriotic American, Hasan writes jokes that only serve to sow more division in an already polarized country.
Minhaj’s comedic mission in recent months has become the informative spread of knowledge about current events in extended comedy pieces that mix social commentary and humorous touches in an attempt to engage teenagers and young adults. This is an admirable mission, one that fellow “Daily Show” alum John Oliver has succeeded in carrying out, but without the exploitation of racial stereotypes.
There is no need to write jokes that box people into categories based on bias. How does the perpetuation of prejudice promote tolerance or encourage unity between dissimilar groups that are already divided by racism? Minhaj completely and constantly undercuts in “Patriot Act” the wisdom he professed in “Homecoming King” about forgiving racism and both avoiding and overcoming generalizations.
Some might say, “Have a sense of humor. Are we really that sensitive?” Certainly, there is a kernel of truth in that. But we should be on guard, especially at politically combustive times like these. Nefarious, maligned, or divisive rhetoric first comes under the guise of humor.
Bowman is an English and History freshman.
Photo Credit: Cara Howe/Netflix.