3 Times ‘The Mindy Project’ Tackled Race and Desi Identity

By Sameer Rao Nov 15, 2017

Following a writing gig and supporting role on the U.S. version of "The Office," Mindy Kaling made television history when she debuted "The Mindy Project" in 2012. The first series created by and starring a South Asian-American woman, it lasted through six seasons of countless plot shenanigans before concluding with last night’s (November 14) finale episode.

"The Mindy Project" started on Fox before moving to Hulu in 2015, which made it one of the first original series to find success with the streaming giant. Kaling starred as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a self-absorbed Desi obstetrician-gynecologist enduring workplace drama, family pressures and successive turbulent romantic relationships. 

That last part—specifically, Kaling’s tendency to cast predominantly White men as her character’s love interests—prompted backlash from critics and audiences who accused her of recycling media tropes that center Whiteness. That concern also guided criticism about the show’s mainly White cast, gender politics and her real-life brother’s opinions on affirmative action.

Despite its problematic aspects, "The Mindy Project" stands out as one of the first network shows to tackle race, gender and identity from an Indian-American woman’s perspective. For reference and nostalgia, here are three key episodes in which the show faced these topics head-on: 

This third-season episode follows Mindy to Stanford University, where she accepted a prestigious medical research fellowship. She gets off on the wrong foot with most of her new colleagues, including Neepa (Gita Reddy, "Orange is the New Black"), a working-class Indian immigrant fellow who disregards American-born Desis like Mindy as entitled and Whitewashed. Their animosity turns to genuine affection in later episodes, but not before Mindy angrily tells Neepa, "You know what? You think I’m a spoiled second generation? Well guess what honey, [your American-born son] Neal’s gonna be an outdoor pool DJ in Vegas!”

"Bernardo & Anita"
Mindy confronts her own feelings about her hyphenated identity in this episode. She dates Neel (Kristian Kordula, "The Haves and the Have Nots"), a handsome Desi man who rejects her advances because he regards her as a "coconut"—Brown on the outside, but White on the inside. Mindy’s initial hurt turns to curiosity, and she befriends Neel in the sincere hope of bonding with other Indian Americans. A positive meeting with Neel’s Desi friends helps her to reconcile what she thought were two irreconcilable parts of her self—even as her ignorant White colleague and love interest Jody (Garret Dillahunt, "The Gifted") tries to fit in by making racist jokes. 

"Mindy Lahiri is a White Man
After her workplace turns her down for a promotion, Mindy goes to bed wishing that she could be a White man. Her wish comes true when she wakes up as one (Ryan Hansen, "Veronica Mars") and discovers the perks that come with White male privilege. She uncovers just how deep sexism and White supremacy run in her workplace when she fails to secure that promotion for a woman of color (Ellen D. Williams, "Baskets").

Catch up on "The Mindy Project" on Hulu.