This week’s episode of NBC’s My Name is Earl (thanks, anonymous tipster) features a neighbor in the trailer park who is supposed to be a Sikh. But he looks more like the usual “turbaned” convenience store clerk/taxi driver stock caricature who shows up in Hollywood movies and TV shows from time to time.
Is it offensive? Going by just the image, I would say yes, and not just to Sikhs. I think it’s offensive to all South Asians, perhaps even to all immigrants. In a sense the “Sikh” neighbor here stands in for all funny-looking/sounding foreigners in the imaginary world of My Name is Earl, just as Apu does in The Simpsons. It’s not just the wrong-looking turban and the glued on beard, it’s the accent — he’s even wearing a Sherwani suit! (While living in a trailer park!)
On the other hand, it could be pointed out that this particular episode is making fun of the anti-terrorist hysteria that swept the U.S. after 9/11 (the conceit is that the show is actually an episode of “Cops” filmed in 2002 — and the claptrap about catching terrorists is of course all the more absurd since the show is set in a small town). It shows law enforcement officers as particularly incompetent and clueless in their attempt to “profile” suspected terrorists, including the character above. But if your goal is to make fun of hysteria using silly caricatures that actually reinforce the ignorance you’re supposedly satirizing, what are you really doing?
It could also be pointed out that a show like My Name is Earl is so generally politically incorrect (and self-conscious about that political incorrectness — “Look, see, we’re being politically incorrect!”) that getting offended about this one thing seems out of place. (Look at how women are represented in the show, for instance.) I’m not sure — but one does think of the recent controversy over the reference to the Philippines in a recent episode of Desperate Housewives, which got a fair amount of media coverage; this, it seems to me, is much more offensive.
You can watch the show on NBC.com here; it’s episode 307. The “Sikh” character (he self-identifies as a Sikh) shows up briefly in the beginning, and then again in the last third of the show.
What do you think? Is it offensive? Are you planning to write NBC?
[UPDATE: One other thing -- in case you're wondering "what self-respecting Desi would take this role?" -- the Sikh character is played by an actor named Alex Endeshaw, who is
ethnicity isn't entirely clear to me from Ethiopia originally.]