Earlier this month I read Mindy Kaling’s 2011 memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? It was a Christmas gift in keeping with my reading of Bossypants (by Tina Fey) and Yes Please (by Amy Poehler, my review here). This was perhaps the most interesting as a memoir, because I didn’t know Kaling’s backstory. Unlike Fey and Poehler, Kaling didn’t come to prime-time television comedy by way of Second City and Saturday Night Live. Instead, she and her roommate (from Darmouth and then NYC) wrote and produced a two-woman show that made it big. Well, big enough to land her a spot as one of the original (but most junior) writers for The Office. As with Fey and Poehler, there are plenty of fun stories along the way and I enjoyed her take on life. The latter half of the book was a bit uneven and doesn’t pack the emotional range of Yes Please, but it’s still worth the read.
What will stick with me about the book, though, is what it reflected about Kaling’s own sense of herself. I started reflecting on this when I was having lunch with an old friend, someone who follows show business more closely than I, especially the writing side of things. He shared some concerns in the business that, having made it with her own show now, Kaling’s not doing much to advance the careers of other writers of color. As we talked it occurred to me that she almost never depicts herself that way in her memoir. Sure, there are a few references to experiences with this in her childhood and to her frustration with the portrayal of Asian women. But what she’s much more attuned to is her position as a woman in what is still mostly a man’s profession. Many of her observations are about the distinctions she sees between genders, the challenge of being a modern woman, and the difficulties of heterosexual relationships. But there’s almost nothing about race. Which is fine and also, I think, explains why she’s not “doing more to advance the careers of other writers of color.” It’s because she just doesn’t see herself (primarily) through that lens.
I don’t have the tools to unpack why that might be – though I assume it’s related to her upper-middle-class upbringing and her time at Dartmouth – but it seems to be a constant fact about her sense of self-identity. It’s also a good reminder of the need to let other people decide who they think they are. It’s not enough just to accept that people of all races can determine their own destinies. We must also accept that individuals can choose whether or not to embrace a racial identity in the first place.