What marked this weekend’s women’s marches from last year’s is the #MeToo movement, which began after the public learned of the accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. This movement has women across the country considering anew how our culture views power and language, sex, and consent. But largely missing from this moment of reckoning between the sexes is an analysis of race, a contention that led some women of color to sit out this year’s marches.
Race is indeed the other and mostly silent side of the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against TV star Aziz Ansari. Many of us have presumed that “Grace,” the anonymous woman who had a sexual encounter with Ansari in 2017 that she describes as nonconsensual, is white. Given Ansari’s history of dating white or white-passing women both on and off screen, it’s hard to deny a racial undercurrent tugging at the story. This leaves me wondering why Babe was silent about “Grace’s” racial identity* and if this silence is symptomatic of a more general silence around questions of race in the #MeToo movement.
First, let me be clear that as a woman who came of age in hook-up culture, I empathize with “Grace.” I’ve been in situations similar to the one she recounted to Babe writer Katie Way, where I felt like a male sexual partner wasn’t listening to me or picking up on my nonverbal cues. My fear of offending men has sometimes trumped my own feelings of self-worth, and even though I see myself as a strong, feminist woman, I too have engaged in sexual activities because I wanted to placate a horny man and win his approval in some other sphere.
But while the woman in me reads “Grace’s” story and utters “me too” in solidarity, the South Asian in me feels unsettled about how race has often been missing or mistreated in the coverage of Ansari. For example, the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan calls the Babe piece revenge porn meant to humiliate the actor, a humiliation that undermines all the “social good” he’s doing as an aspirational Muslim man. An assimilated brown-skinned man. As tempting as it might be to endorse Flanagan’s argument, I reject it as too utilitarian, too patronizing. Brown-skinned men should be held to the same standards as all men, regardless of the “social good” they’re doing on the racial front.
At the same time, race matters. Like me, Ansari was born and raised in a culture that elevates the white female body, treating it as a precious and desirable commodity, the key to power and success. White America’s racial anxieties stem in part from fears about black and brown men violating white women. Consider the caricature of the black brute, which haunted the white imagination during the Jim Crow era. Or Trump’s Mexican rapist, whose only aim is to defile America’s white daughters.
Ansari is a product of this white supremacist culture just as much as he’s a product of patriarchal bro culture. This doesn’t excuse the obtuse entitlement that characterized his alleged behavior with “Grace” that night. It simply complicates it. For black and brown men, possessing a white woman is often a path to assimilation. In fact, Ansari has built his comedy around his pursuit of white women. It’s one of the reasons white people—especially men—relate to him. He aspires to the same things they aspire to, and one of these things, sadly, is the objectification and domination of white women’s bodies.
Still, Ansari calls himself a feminist. As part of the Babe story, the site linked to a 2014 clip of Ansari on the Late Show with David Letterman, where he enthusiastically proclaimed his support for feminism. For many, this is what made Ansari fair game for the Babe expose, in addition to his decision to wear a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes. In publishing “Grace’s” account, Babe probably assumed it was doing womankind a favor by unmasking Ansari as a phony, a hypocrite. Except Ansari’s feminism was never particularly subversive. From the outset, it was a watered-down, don’t-rock-the-boat, market-friendly version. If you agree that men and women have equal rights and that Beyoncé should be paid the same as Jay-Z, then you’re a feminist in Ansari’s book.
Lindy West took Ansari to task for his generic feminism. In her New York Times’ editorial, “Aziz, We Tried to Warn You,” West schools Ansari on some of the central arguments that prominent feminists have made during his lifetime. She implies that if Ansari truly walked the feminist walk, he would have acquired a more sophisticated understanding of consent and might have responded more appropriately when “Grace” attempted to thwart his advances.
I agree with West, but her critique deposits Ansari in a racial vacuum. The darkness of his skin becomes insignificant in light of his fame, fortune, and male privilege. Yes, Ansari is a famous actor worth millions, but for me as a South Asian, it’s impossible to witness his trial in the public sphere without noticing the colonial shadow hanging over it. It makes me recall another Aziz, the one in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. In Forster’s novel, a white British woman mistakenly charges Aziz, an Indian doctor, with sexual assault. She eventually retracts her accusation, but by then Aziz’s life has already been ruined. I worry that the Babe story plays on some of the racial tropes that have been part of Western culture for centuries, and that many white women are blind to these nuances. In her piece, for example, West fails to mention feminist arguments about intersectionality, which recognize how race and class affect gender dynamics.
When I look at Ansari, I don’t just see the not-so-woke bro that a lot of people have been pouncing on for the past week. I also see a parvenu—a racial outsider who’s trying to make it in white culture. I understand both the culture he’s coming from and the culture he’s trying to assimilate to, and how juggling these cultures’ competing expectations can be messy. There’s no sex education in most South Asian households beyond “Don’t do it until you’re married.” Most of us didn’t grow up seeing our parents kissing and hugging, let alone touching. Many of us also grew up being told to fear the dominant culture, especially its permissive attitudes towards sex. Part of that fear is rooted in our parents’ feelings of powerlessness. If something went wrong for us in this new culture, our parents worried they wouldn’t be able to protect us.
Ansari’s Master of None broke a barrier in our community by centering a South Asian character who dates and has sex outside the confines of marriage. Millennial and Gen-X South Asians now have a high-profile example of a person doing what many of us have been doing for awhile. We can point to Ansari when our parents give us grief and say, “See, this dating business isn’t just for them. It’s for us too.”
Of course, South Asian culture is steeped in its own misogyny, and sexual violence occurs with appalling frequency both on the subcontinent and in the diaspora. As a boy in the community, Ansari surely received different messages about sexuality than I received as a girl. What we have in common though is that both of us embraced the sexual norms of the dominant culture, trading modesty and prohibition for hook-ups with white people.
But hooking up with white people isn’t a free for all. Despite what some in our parents’ generation might think, there are rules of engagement, and Ansari is learning this the hard way. Part of Ansari’s journey as both an artist and a human being is to figure how to navigate this terrain with a more critical lens. If he pays closer attention, he’ll hear the diverse spectrum of women’s voices calling out the deep flaws in the culture he’s chosen to assimilate to, including the toxic masculinity that pervades the version of the American Dream he’s been pursuing. I hope he continues to raise the bar for men by committing to the hard work of shedding his rapacious attitudes towards women in favor of the more thoughtful and radical feminism that West described in her post. And I hope that South Asians and other diasporic communities in the West interpret this moment as one not of shame but opportunity—an opportunity to adopt a more discerning stance toward the dominant culture and to find the courage to reject its more pernicious elements without abandoning the rewards of sexual freedom.
* I reached out to both Babe and the story’s writer, Katie Way, for confirmation of “Grace’s” racial identity, but I haven’t heard back.