Calling the Working South Asian: American Accents and Outsourced
by Shilpa Davé — Brandeis University
March 25, 2011 – 00:00
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.