I remember describing the first season of ”Master of None” as a whiskey ginger ― so warm, so refreshing, so cool. Aziz Ansari’s creation was like a balm after so much disappointing television, filled with white faces and telling the same stories ad nauseum. When I watched it, I felt like I was holding something new in my hands. Never had the brown immigrant experience been delivered to a mainstream audience in such a fresh and funny way. I felt like I was watching a show that valued and respected me. Something that breathed like me. But I don’t feel like that anymore.
Earlier this month, the website babe broke the story of an anonymous photographer, “Grace,” who went on a date with Ansari. Over the course of the night, Ansari repeatedly made Grace feel unsafe and uncomfortable. When she would move away from him, he’d pull her in. When she would say “let’s chill,” he’d put her hands on his crotch. He kept trapping her, until she finally left. She cried in the Uber home.
Fueled by the nuances and gray areas in Grace’s story against the clear-cut backdrop of #MeToo, Caitlin Flanagan, who had so far issued only clarion calls for the movement, wrote a piece for The Atlantic defending Ansari. In addition to summing up Grace’s experiences as “3,000 words of revenge porn,” Flanagan claimed the story was just “the hit squad of privileged young white women opening fire on brown-skinned men.” She talked about his value as the “first exposure” many American TV viewers had to a relatable Muslim-American man. White women, Flanagan said, are just trying to destroy a good brown man.
Screaming 'racism!' when it doesn’t exist is a distraction.
As a brown woman myself, I don’t buy this. I read and reread Grace’s story, and every line felt like it could have been pulled out of my own life. I was reminded of all the one-sided college trysts that I later tried to laugh off with friends. I relived reckless nights in a stranger’s home that could have gone so wrong if even one variable had changed. Ansari, who like all South Asian men, looks like he could be my cousin or my uncle or my brother’s best friend, was suddenly a stranger. Now, I see myself in Grace more than I ever saw myself in Ansari.
But of all the things to read into Grace’s story, racism isn’t one of them. This is not a story about race. This is a story about coercion and sexual misconduct. His skin color didn’t give him any power over her. Bringing up his race, however well-intentioned by Flanagan, reflects poorly on all brown people.
If calling Grace’s experiences “assault” limits the movement as a whole, then so does screaming “racism!” when it doesn’t exist. It’s a distraction. If Flanagan actually cared about brown men, she wouldn’t have used Ansari’s race so flagrantly in her article. By writing about Ansari’s “aspirational” qualities, she is invoking society’s stereotypes about dark-skinned and Muslim men being sexually deviant and misogynistic, while also trying to subvert those same stereotypes. She can’t have it both ways.
Furthermore, the women involved in the story about Ansari are not all white. The author of the piece, Katie Way, identifies as biracial, and the piece never specifies Grace’s race. To assume she is white because she is a victim plays into offensive stereotypes about men of color as dangerous and hypersexed, and of white women as pure, perpetual victims. Flanagan inadvertently leaned on these stereotypes as part of her unnecessary defense. Flanagan set up the field for future racist arguments about brown male sexuality. Now, all that’s left is for any racist to step up to the plate and take a swing.
We must certainly talk about race in conversations about sexual misconduct when it comes up. It’s important, for example, to know that R. Kelly preys specifically upon black women. Systematic erasure of black women in conversations of sexual assault is one reason why Kelly’s behavior has largely been ignored, and why he still has a career. It’s also vital we understand that Indigenous women are the most likely victims of sexual violence.
Sometimes, a victim’s or perpetrator’s race is relevant to the conversation because it points to further power imbalances that gave rise to sexual violence. Let’s interrogate the role of race in these situations. But let’s not inject race when it doesn’t matter, as Flanagan did. Otherwise, we might very well get a “hit squad” of emboldened white women lining up to take a shot at black and brown men.
I will not defend Ansari’s alleged actions. What he’s accused of doing was terrible. I will not choose between my gender and my race. I cannot and I should not have to. But Flanagan has put me and other people like me in a position where we must. Ansari’s race is not relevant to Grace’s truth. By crying racism where it doesn’t exist, an analysis like Flanagan’s distracts from real conversations about consent, and forces brown people to defend the person we once thought was so cool and refreshing who now leaves bitter taste left in our mouths.
Nadya Agrawal is a New York-based writer focusing on global news and culture.