(Master of None, Netflix Screen Grab)
There’s a throwback scene at the very top of Master of None‘s Season 2’ episode, “Thanksgiving”, during which little Denise, BFF of little Dev, over for the holiday, mentions that she thinks he’s Black… like her. Denise’s mom gets the convo started by asking Dev if celebrating Thanksgiving is a thing done in the Indian Community (Dev’s answer: They eat lunch together and his dad falls asleep watching “The Godfather”.)
Denise is confused; what is this “Indian Community” of which her mom speaks? “Dev is Indian,” Denise’s Momma, played by the ever-youthful Angela Bassett, explains.
“I thought Dev was Black,” says a confused Denise.
“I’m brown,” Dev says.
“Black people are brown, too,” Denise responds with some urgency.
At this point, Denise’s Momma, clearly ready to stamp out this spark of an argument before it turns into a blaze, lets the children know: “Look, both of you are minorities… a group that has to work twice as hard in life to get half as far… You’re both gonna be disenfranchised.”
At Vanity Fair, Lena Waithe, who plays adult Denise, a reoccuring character on “Master of None” since it’s first season, described how she played a big part in writing the episode with show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, pulling details from her childhood and adolescence:
Although she was not best friends with an Indian kid like Dev growing up, the part when Denise thinks Dev is black did come from real life. Waithe remembers making the same mistake when eating at a restaurant with her family—and spotting an Indian family dining nearby.
So here, in the second part of this ongoing series, “Come Clean“, I’ll fess up: I thought Indian people were Black, too. Or rather, I saw they were brown like me, so I thought we were all in the same category of browness. My pediatrician was an Indian American woman with long black hair that she wore in a thick braid that hung down to her waist. Sure most of the Black people I knew, in my family and out, did not have that hair texture of loose waves. But some did: our half Native American neighbor Ms. Oliver did, as did my church friend Lakeyia’s mom.
Maybe it was the category of Black that I didn’t fully get. My mom, half White, half Black, very fair skinned, with thick, soft curls, was Black… kind of. I remember my White 7th grade teacher referred to her as a “Mulatta”. Being that it was 1994 NJ, and not 1934 Alabama, I found his referring to her as such to be… weird. I responded, “It’s biracial.” He shook his head, “No, no you’re wrong about that. It’s Mulatta.” For clarity’s sake, this teacher is not of Latino/Spanish/French/Portuguese/Caribbean background. He just never stopped using the term “Mulatto” and pronounced it with an “a” at the end. I was pretty sure after that he thought of me as a “Negra”.
But anyway, my mom was Black, or Black adjacent. She had been adopted by an African American family, but had been told her bio mom was from a family of mixed, light skinned Blacks, while her bio dad was a Latino soldier. So my mom was kind of Latino, too. I decided my mom was of the Mariah Carey School of Racially Ambiguous Peoples, and that all such members could check whichever box or boxes they liked. Current members of this fine institution of Americana include Wentworth Miller, Bruno Mars, Rashida Jones and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Speaking of identifying as they like, living in this swath of Jersey guaranteed I’d grow up with a great deal of Latinos, especially those of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Colombian ancestry. Some of them were freckled with red hair and green eyes, while others had deep, dark skin close in color to Wesley Snipes. Were all these people the same race? And if they were, what was it that seperated White and Black Americans from being one? Why did our shared nationality not unite us similarly?
And then there were White people. They didn’t have actual white skin, so why that label? Another thing about living in this part of NJ is just how many Portuguese people made their lives here. Some of my closest friends during the horrible period of my life known as “The Trinity Christian Academy Years of Misfortune”, had Portuguese immigrant parents. And like so many others from Southern Europe, they didn’t fit into a blond Barbie mold. Olive skin, deep dark eyes and thick hair… in college, I met even more White people like this with ancestries from Greece, or that swath of Europe that smashes into Asia. I was aware of Armenia before millions raced to keep up with the Kardashians.
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not saying I am or was colorblind. I knew I was, as my dad liked to say, honey brown, while he was milk chocolate. I knew my friend Naomi was a color like butter pecan ice cream and Janelle had light creamy skin with peachy cheeks when she laughed. I saw color. I liked that people came in a variety of colors. I just did not understand race. Even now, in my 30s, I must admit to apprehending race more than comprehending.
For my mom’s last birthday, I got her one of those DNA genetic kits. I’ve done it before, but I wanted more details. An earlier test showed a near 50/50 split between European and Sub-Saharan African. The last one listed top country matches. Some of her European side: Egypt, Syria and Pakistan. The fact that none of those countries are actually on the continent of Europe? I don’t know. Anyway, her Sub-Saharan side included Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. She’s more like a Middle Eastern/North/East African. Has her race changed? No? Maybe just an ethnicity change? Or nah?
In the end, she’s still my mommy. I’m still me, honey brown, or cinnamon in the summer, or that washed out brownish yellow I am in the winter. I’m still Alisha, even with the surname change when I got hitched. And even though Indians aren’t Black, I’d love to invite a bunch of them to the The Cookout, including Aziz, I think it would be pretty dope.