Mindy Kaling has spoken about being called a 'coconut' in a video posted to her Instagram account on the weekend. The video of the actress and comedian answering questions from fans covered a range of topics from fashion to pet peeves to her advice for making big life decisions. But it was her brief mention of the experience of being called a “coconut” that really spoke to me.
One of Kaling’s fans submitted a question for the video saying she’d heard Mindy speak live about being “often called a ‘coconut’. Brown on the outside and white on the inside.” She went on to ask, “I wondered how you navigated that process both professionally and personally?”
The question itself grated at me. As a brown-skinned Aussie I’ve been hyper aware of the term coconut since I was little. And it’s always been one that I hated. It’s hard enough as a first-generation kid to figure out where you fit without the word coconut following you around as a constant reminder that you will never be brown enough but you’ll also never really fit in in the place that you call home.
The word coconut is a constant reminder that you will never be brown enough but you’ll also never really fit in in the place that you call home.
But then Mindy saved the day. With the kind of grace I could never muster if faced with a question like that, she pointed out that she doesn’t speak any Indian languages because her parents came from totally different parts of India. She said, “because of that I always felt really vulnerable as a kid that I wasn’t you know, Indian enough as some of my Indian friends.”
It was a sentiment that I related to on many levels. Despite my Sri Lankan background, I also only speak English because it’s the only language that my parents used in our household growing up. I never really saw that as a problem until I began visiting some of my older relatives overseas and found it very difficult to communicate with them because of the language barrier between us. The insecurity that I felt about being able to communicate effectively was only magnified when I heard my cousins saying some of the few words I know in Tamil or Hindi or Sinhala with flawless accents while my Aussie, English speaking tongue stumbled and tripped over the sounds of words entirely foreign to my everyday life. So when Kaling told her fans, “I’m clearly not white, but I sound white” I felt seen.
"I always felt really vulnerable as a kid that I wasn’t you know, Indian enough as some of my Indian friends.”
I fully understand where she’s coming from when she says that being referred to as a ‘coconut’ was “always kind of painful”. It’s a pain unique to people of colour who grow up, live and work in the Western world. But Kaling pointed out that her work has been a huge part of how she deals with that pain. She told fans, “I’ve had a lot of fun working and creating shows that really celebrate people that look like me.” She shared that she’s using her art as a way to embrace the idea that she’s an ‘other’ and to showcase all of the ways in which that is both “funny” and “real” for so many people.
That representation is so important. People like Kaling, and people like me; we’re not ‘coconuts’ stuck halfway between two worlds. We’re whole people with important stories to tell. And I’m so glad that she’s helping to share them with the world.
Zoe Victoria is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @Zoe__V