Calling the Working South Asian: American Accents and Outsourced

Curator's Note

In the 2010 season, NBC launched a situation comedy, Outsourced, that focuses on characters in an Indian call center in Mumbai, India that sells American novelties such as celebrity bobble-head dolls and Cheeseheads. The series is the first American television show set in India and features an ensemble cast with five South Asian/American actors and South Asian American writers. According to writer Geethika Lizardi, the setting of the call center allows the show to parody both Indian and American culture.1

One way in which South Asians are racialized in the American media is by their relationship to vocal communications and, in the case of Outsourced, their ability to speak English and even mimic American speech in the communications and technology industries. The performances and sounds of Indian accents are simultaneously comforting and threatening as Indians as compatible with American culture because of their facility with language but also are shown to be an economic threat to national employment because they can also replace Americans (or take away American jobs) as multi-national corporations retain their services. The show attempts to create empathy for the daily grind of the call center worker in the episode The Todd Couple (airdate 3-3-11) when the white American manager Todd (Ben Rappaporte) gives an impromptu lecture to his employees on anger management and dealing with difficult customers.

The episode lampoons American cultural appropriation of India and goes one step further by making fun of American cultural accents and expression. Todd tests the resolve of his workers by playing the part of disgruntled American customers and reveals a fascinating by-play of Indian and American cultural references and conflict resolution. Todd role plays as an offensive customer with a exaggerated Boston accent who sneers that Manmeet (Sacha Dhawan) has such a thick accent that he cannot understand him where the exchange points out the paradoxical nature of accents. Accents, for Americans, are often associated with foreigners, immigrants, and aliens but suddenly, American accents are being juxtaposed with Indian accents where the difference is not as apparent. Later we see a happy go lucky brown man express anger that is normalized rather than “dangerous” or funny and is resolved within the show. As an American situation comedy, the formula to humanize the call center workers also works to alleviate American economic fears and issues of difference.

1See http://www.blogtalkradio.com/saja/2011/03/17/tv-nbcs-outsourced for an interview with the cast.

Comments

Richard Newton's picture

Reactions

I really appreciate your analysis of Outsourced. I have not seen a full episode, but I find the premise intriguing given the current socio-economic climate concerning immigration, transnationalism, and race. What I found most surprising about your comments was your consideration of the work this show is accomplishing for various parties. Prior to reading your post, I had only heard negative things about the show and its portrayals. All of these critics have either been  white or South Asian American graduate students in liberal arts programs. I have not seen the ratings that the show has received, but I wonder if audiences are responding. Are Americans okay with laughing? Are they  "too okay" with laughing? And what do such responses mean?

 

Authenticity and the Critics

Thanks for your comments Richard!

Most of the critics have focused on either the implementation of accents ("they don’t sound right") or how it’s difficult for the show to be funny to an American audience because it is about outsourcing.   The first observation is assuming that there is an "authentic" representation and how for South Asians,  racial authenticity is intimately tied to having a certain kind of accent.  As this clip shows,  the writers are addressing this issue head on. 

As for the "not funny" comment,  the show may not be funny at times but it’s not because the show is about American business practices. The title may not have been the best of choices (why not "The Call Center") but it might have had to do with the film that the show was based on.  Shows such as "Roseanne" dealt with the bad economy and with characters losing their jobs. 

Accent is a representation of foreigner in America meida

 I have to agree with you Shilpa that accent is often associated with foreigners and aliens in the US. I was watching the 1994 television program, All American Girl, the other day and the program uses accent to enforce the idea of American assimilation. In the episode I watch, Margret Cho’s character speaks fluent English, dress in American styles, and study a major that is non-typical “Asian” major. In contrast, her mother, who speaks English with a Korean accent, will occasionally speak in Korean to exclude Americans from the conversation. Like you said, accent is a representation of foreigner. Since the mother choose to keep her accent and speak in another language, it illustrate that the mother is refusing to assimilate to the American culture and wanting to exclude herself from the “norm.” Therefore, speech can be used to drive the narrative of a show. However, sometime it may be use in the wrong way; this is how some stereotypes are form.

 

Simone V's picture

In Comparison with...

 The clip is unavailable but I was able to  watch the trailer for the film Outsourced and even the trailer presents a very problematic story line. White man is sent by leader white man into "foreign land" to teach "foreign people" how to speak. The film screams colonialism, while this idea although seems very obvious at first, it is shed to the side - deemed unimportant - for this underlying story is overshadowed by a captivating love story.  Easily whisking audiences away into thinking that this is o.k. The main character Todd even states " Basically you people need to learn about America" as he sits on a pedestal above the Indian people telling them who they must be in order to "succeed". 

As this occurs, not only are the indian people depicted as animalistic but their work place is as well in juxtaposition with that of the American office. The 2 minute and 21 second clip is filled with instances as such but I found it to be very similar and complementary to your own findings from the clip above.  

Here is the YouTube link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlmhTTFu4b8

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