A Critique Of Sociological Images’ ‘India As A Magical Negro’

By Guest Contributor Colorblue

I’m still trying to work my way through my discomfort and analyze exactly where my discomfort of this Sociological Images post is coming from, so if this critique seems a bit scattered, it’s because my thoughts about it, at the moment, are that way.

First: I agree with where the post is coming from, in that the disenfranchised rarely ever have a voice of their own in mainstream Western culture, are always portrayed as the Other, which is defined as everything that said mainstream Western culture isn’t (at best as something that props it up and provides an aesthetically pleasing contrast, at worst as something that must be exterminated). And this leads to remarkably similar cycles of dehumanization and disenfranchisement. As so many minority thinkers/activists have noted, manufactured binaries between the privileged West and everyone else, even seemingly positive ones, ultimately end up reinforcing destructive hierarchies.

Where I disagree with the poster is the framing, which I feel makes the post, in some ways, as reductive as what it’s critiquing. Because there are different contexts in which the above cycle/process of exotification occurs, and those contexts matter and shouldn’t be handwaved, even (and I would say especially) if you’re taking the pov of the white outsider and attempting to deconstruct it. Social justice discourse loses its meaning when it becomes divorced from one of power relations.

In this specific example, while making its comparison of India as a magical negro, the post fails to both note and appreciate the following bits of context:

That both the main white actress and the main desi actor in the film are British, with Dev Patel adopting an Indian accent and playing the part of a “native”. That all the featured Indian characters are coded as middle/upper class (the dress, able to speak fluent English, etc) and light skinned. That in many ways this is how India is actively marketed by its tourism sector (and also its government. Did a project once which involved collecting promo material from the Indian consul — I think in Chicago? — and it was quite hilariously illuminating), because they’ve judged that this type of pandering will bring in the tourist dollars.

And this exotification of India in the West has been happening since before the time of Columbus, and reducing said things to a “phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment…” seems rather glib. (Just because it appears in tvtropes does not mean TV created it!) And that’s not even getting into how most isms seem to inevitably become just like the racism that blacks (had) face(d) in the US.

I also thought it was telling how none of the links elaborating on the ‘magical negro’ trope went to one of the many black writers who’ve done the major work of deconstructing and dissecting it, much less linking to desi writers talking about colonialism and othering.

So what my disagreement boils down to, I think, is this: that this is a discussion about the Othering/exotification of India in mainstream Western culture that succeeds in further marginalizing/disenfranchising desis and other minorities. It doesn’t consider that we might be among the audience for this post (much less making room in the conversation for us, much less acknowledging all the times we’ve already discussed this), and in the way it takes something that rose out of certain contexts, misidentifies said contexts while applying it to different ones with no mention of the consequences of the differences, makes it, again, similar to what it’s aiming to critique.

And it brings home the point that, for all its social justice aims, this is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.

Another note: it is interesting to read the comments, to see all the places East/West binaries crop up. For example, this comment (which thankfully was critiqued):

So, this is probably why you’ll never find a movie about a Westerner in Latvia trying to find himself- “finding oneself” usually requires immersing oneself in a setting completely different from the everyday humdrum norm.

I do find India humdrum normy, actually. And infrastructure specifically designed to ape the west is increasingly common in cities, and you can always find people in the touristy parts who speak English and cater to Western tastes in a thousand and one ways. (Actually, you won’t need to find them, if you are white they will find you and you will not be able to escape them!) Latvia, I am assuming not so much?

I feel as if the manufactured differences that so many Westerners create for India, while completely missing the deeper and more significant ones, are part of the same binary that Fanon was talking about when he said: “The settler is all that is good and of value. The native is the negation of the settler’s value”. And a lot of the appeal of India, the reason for it not being “everyday humdrum normy”, is that it still gives middle class white Westerners who go there chances to personally experience the colonial British sahib lifestyle.

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  • DS

    Completely agree with this article…I am an Indian also and that socimages article just seemed a little off.

    I want to make a different point though:

    The movie of course does look ridiculous:  the parts where the british lady keeps making fun of the food, and where the guy talks about learning so much after playing soccer with some kids really hit my ‘warning, objectifying movie’ button. 

     But the real kicker is that the book it’s based on actually makes very valid points about our more western culture of throwing away old people, not living together as an extended family etc. In the book the white protagonists were sent to India by their children because it would be cheaper.  Therefore (if they filmed the movie right) this is what the majority of it will be about! 
    So we have two separate problems here:
    1. Not being willing to be forthright when marketing a film dealing with issues of aging and how old people are treated in various cultures.
    2. Marketing the film (via the trailer) using borderline-racist remarks as punchlines. Is this truly how they feel they will best appeal to audiences? Bait them with some racist remarks and then make them sit through an retirement-age family drama?

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    I can understand the critique behind Soc Images’ post about this movie. It’s like they had good intentions in highlighting the film’s extreme othering of an entire nation, but then seemed to rush through their critique.

  • Guest

     this movie looks like rubbish anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    “[Sociological Images is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.”I learned about Sociological Images last year because of a post from that site that was crossposted on Racialicious. Since that time, I have periodically commented on that blog. first under my name Azizi, and later when that blog switched to Disquis, under my facebook name that I also use. There is at least  one other Black American,  Tusconian, who I believe commented there before I started to do so and still omments there more frequently than me. 

    I only comment there sparingly now because my sense is that Sociological Images is much more focused on feminism and gender issues than it is on race, and while those subjects can be interesting, and important, and often intersect with race, those topics usually aren’t something I want to comment on.  

    I also comment on Sociological Images less often now because when the moderators post about race,  in my opinion, the subject selected and/or the treatment of the selected subject is often rather shallow or not as culturally competent as one would expect given that at least one of the moderators teaches Black Studies on the university level.  I  (and others)  have shared my (our) concerns about the treatment of race and racism on that blog, so my opinion that I’m articulating here isn’t something the moderators or bloggers aren’t aware of.That said, I believe that a considerable number of persons who comment on that blog sincerely want to understand race & racism.  And, in my opinion, some of the “regular” commenters do understand the impact of White priviledge and are culturally competent.  But that site really needs more People of Color to comment there and guest post there. [Full Disclosure: I had a post (on Stomp & Shake Cheerleading) posted on Sociological Images].  There have been a number of other posts by People of Color published on that site long before and since my post. I’d love to see more crossposting from Racialicious to Sociological Images and I’d love to see more of the Racialicious community support the race & racism (and other) posts that are published on Sociological Images.  

    • Lillian

      Hear, hear.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this. I’m an Indian living in Bangalore, and like you I’ve had this nagging feeling about the Soc Images thread on the video.

  • Frowner

    this is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group
    of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails

    I’ve been thinking about how many white people tend to write (I’m white; this is about how I tend to write)..that no matter how critical/informative/radical the content, we always tend to imagine our audience as white and we never foreground this.  We tend to assume understandings of whiteness; we tend to flatten the experiences of people of color and to speak about people of color as though none are in the room and as though no white person is ever partnered with/related to/close to a person of color.I think this is unconscious, or at least it’s something I have definitely done without conscious intent; I think most white  people of my general politics would, if asked, critique this approach.  

    It’s like we can’t imagine writing or speaking in solidarity; we can’t imagine the kind of relationships where we’d be speaking with people of color in a real way instead of speaking about them.  

    Thus we end up falling back into “authoritative” and “analytical” ways of writing, or assuming that we are speaking to white people for whom white/European stuff is “normal”, as in the quote that was pulled. 

    I think there’s also an unconscious sense that white audiences are the politically important audiences – like white writers need to persuade and organize them to the exclusion of working with people of color.  (Not that white people don’t need to organize and persuade white people, but the writing I’m talking about is sort of based on “white people make all the decisions, so I need to sway them” rather than “white people need to become aware of how white supremacy works”)

    And I also think there’s a tendency to generate “rules” of analysis that lead to a very shallow reading of pop culture – as much as I like some things at Sociological Images, I think that everything there is always “pop culture as it appears to a middle class white person who is not an expert and has progressive views”.  Whereas the stuff that you point out about India marketing itself in a particular way and the identities of the actors in that commercial really complexifies my understanding.  

    There’s also a tendency to be overpowered by analogies, or to use them as blunt instruments.  The “magical negro” trope is historically specific, not a universal.  (Also I feel weird as a white person using that phrase.) I think it’s tempting to let those tropes float too much, cover too much, lose their specificity – especially when you’re white and the trope isn’t about your racial identity.

    • Jay

       I think your comments are right on. I’ve noticed this in myself (I’m also white) and other white people. Learning a few things about race doesn’t make us instant experts, and I
      think many middle class whites have difficulty accepting that. Sometimes a little knowledge can make us too overeager to apply it everywhere, even in places where it doesn’t fit. We find out about a certain trope like ‘magical negro’ and suddenly see it in every problematic dynamic, not realizing that there are so many other complexities there, which, as you said, washes out the specificity of that trope and makes things less clear, not more.

    • Anonymous

       Ever since I moved to a northern college town, I’ve been overwhelmed by exactly the attitude you describe. I’m a light-skinned woman of mixed race, and it seems like I have to say “I’m NOT white” to people several times a week, and it’s usually followed by yet another confrontation on racist assumptions. I’ve attended multiple classes where the whole time I just wanted to scream, “Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” And it seems like the higher level and Honors classes are the worst.

  • C W

    I also thought it was telling how none of the links elaborating on the ‘magical negro’ trope went to one of the many black writers who’ve done the major work of deconstructing and dissecting it, much less linking to desi writers talking about colonialism and othering.”

    So you went through all this trouble to write up a response and criticize commenters, but didn’t post any links yourself?

    “And this exotification of India in the West has been happening since before the time of Columbus, and reducing said things to a “phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment…” seems rather glib.”They are both valid criticisms. They are not the same thing.

  • TyphoidMary

    “[T]his is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group
    of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.”

    Exactly.  I’m one of those white people it’s designed for, and I still read it, but it is definitely not a space for advanced conversations about sociological issues.  I appreciate it for bringing topics up that its readers might not otherwise ever think about, but…. well, thank goodness for Racialicious. ( ;

    • C W

      I generally like the topics sociological images covers, however their commenters include a bizarre number of trollish people who have found the site by searching for “race” or “sex”, but I’m guessing not in the manner in which the site intends. These people have zero interest in sociology and understanding.

      There’s useful talk there, but the trolls are numerous and frustrating.

    • guest

      Yes, exactly. SI is useful for getting these types of conversations rolling among people who don’t normally have these types of conversations. Inundate them with race/gender analysis from their POV so theybegin to recognize their white privilege and then introduce racialicious, colorlines, angry asian man, etc.