White Privilege, a Brown Star, and the Sign of the Times

A few weeks ago, my wife and I attended Homecoming King, The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj's one-man show about his experiences growing up South Asian in the United States. As an Indian-American of Mr. Minhaj's generation, I was excited for the unique opportunity to watch parts of our collective story told by one of comedy's rising stars.

Mr. Minhaj's show did not disappoint. His humor, insight, sincerity, and showmanship offered me one of the best nights of theater of my life. I felt euphoric spending an hour and a half in a setting where my own thoughts and observations about being Indian-American in the United States seemed normal and were validated.

Then, I got home and read the New York Times review of Homecoming King. Authored by Neil Genzingler, the Times's take on Mr. Minhaj's show rudely reminded me of how white privilege even pervades the favorite newspaper of this country's most progressive citizens. The Times found it "worrisome" that Mr. Minhaj "still broods" about the racism he faced in high school. The Times characterized Mr. Minhaj's "outsider tales" of racism as "only relatively mild." And the Times thought it was "worth noting" that Mr. Minhaj used "language, rhythms and hand gestures popularized by black rappers" and wondered whether "appropriating from one world while trying to secure a place in another" meant Mr. Minhaj had not "found his identity at all."

Basically, the Times reviewer felt that Mr. Minhaj should just get over the racism he suffered because it wasn't that big of a deal and should stick to being Indian rather than acting black in a futile attempt at trying to be an American. Mr. Genzlinger demonstrated a level of white privilege worthy of a Fox News broadcast. But since he wrote his article for the Times, a bastion of liberal journalism, few seem to have acknowledged the offensiveness of his perspective.

If Mr. Genzlinger's review wasn't bad enough on its own, compare it to the Times's July 23, 2015 review of Colin Quinn's The New York Story, which is also playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. Mr. Minhaj's show was "rambling" and "what comedy clubs are for," rather than belonging in the theater, which is reserved "for more polished, more substantive work that touches or amuses a broader audience." Mr. Quinn's show, on the other hand, was "sloppy and disorderly ... but that is part of its charm" as "[t]he theater needs more of the spontaneity and recklessness of the comedy club."

Yes, the reviewers were different but that doesn't change the message. The Times criticized Mr. Minhaj's show for lacking the refinement expected in theater and being more suited to a comedy club while praising Mr. Quinn's show for these very same things. In other words, not only did the Times let Mr. Minhaj's show be reviewed by someone who was utterly insensitive to the cultural issues at its core, it did not grade Mr. Minhaj on the same curve as it graded Mr. Quinn. Obviously, this is extremely unfair to Mr. Minhaj, who has put together a remarkable show but may miss out on gaining a wider audience due to the Times's review. But it's also extremely unfair to other South Asian-American artists who might read the Times review and question the viability of staging material inspired by their own experiences with racism.

Mr. Minhaj and other South Asian-American artists deserve so much better from the Times.