Mindy Kaling’s Brother Trying To “Pass As Black” For Med School Should Bother You A Lot, Even If You’re Not Black
To be a bonafide celebrity is to know that at some point an errant family member will crawl out of the woodwork, hoping to leverage your fame into their 15minutes. And while bad attempts at cable reality TV can often be forgiven (looking right at you, Eastwood family), what Mindy Kaling’s brother Vijay has done — writing a smug and preening book about the time he willfully pretended to be Black to gain admission to medical school — is not only an embarrassing attention grab, it’s racist, lazy, and willfully ignorant.
Vijay Chokalingam, Mindy’s older brother, is currently peddling a book proposal about his experiences applying to med school in the late ’90s. Thanks to an unremarkable 3.1 GPA at the University of Chicago, Chokalingam found that he was getting little to no attention from med schools (how he gauged said lack of interest is unproven — I’m wholly unclear on how med schools can show any real interest until after you’ve applied and are hoping to set up interview), so he decided to go by his middle name, Jojo, when applying to medical programs. He also shaved his head and trimmed his eyelashes in an attempt to look Black, and also joined the Organization of Black Students, to put a cherry on top of his racially devious shithole sundae (more info of which can be found at the not-at-all-offensive URL AlmostBlack.com). I’ll give you a second to go lean your head outside a window and scream as loudly as you can. I did it last night, it was helpful!
Chokalingam did ultimately get into a medical school at St. Louis University, though he says he stopped attending after a year. (Jenn, the blogger who runs Reappropriate, has published a fantastic writeup about how the stunt likely wasn’t even the reason Chokalingam got into St. Louis University, which is ranked 57th in the country, given that he was rejected or waitlisted at every other school he applied to). But while this failed experiment at stunt journalism irks on a level of failed scientific experiment, it’s gross for many more reasons — primarily, just how offensive it is not only to the black community, but to all minorities.
Regardless of where you stand on the battle over the efficacy of affirmative action, it’s wholly undeniable that students of color — especially Black students — have a significantly harder time getting into college and post-graduate school than their white counterparts. Chokalingam’s attempt to game the system makes a mockery of what affirmative action intended to do, which is overcome the socioeconomic setbacks dealt to minorities. Like Chokalingam, I’m a minority from a privileged background (Chokalingam grew up comfortably as the son of a doctor and an architect). I too, like Chokalingam, have conflicted thoughts on the efficacy of affirmative action (Chokalingam, a staunch Republican, does not support it). What I don’t do? Lie about my background in order to game the system that is set up to help people of less privilege than me. I also don’t steal food from the very old, even though they will probably die soon and are in less need of critical nutrients, just to make a statement about government assistance for baby boomers.
As a minority, even a model minority, Chokalingam is likely acutely aware of how difficult it can be to get by on every level — in education, in work, even in day-to-day life when you’re just trying to buy some groceries and make it home in time to watch “Jeopardy.” By commodifying his minority status and pretending to be Black, not only is Chokalingam thumbing his nose at the problems that affirmative action is attempting to rectify, he’s sullying the name of immigrants — and their work ethic — in general. His conservative values may have led him to believe that hard work is entirely what you need to get ahead, and his fudged applications may have been an attempt at making a statement against affirmative action, as if to demonstrate that if you make programs to help minorities, minorities will just abuse them to game the system. But Chokalingam’s antics are derived from his position of privilege, someone who didn’t need to do this but did to make up for his poor GPA, but what if Chokalingam hadn’t been raised middle class, with every opportunity afforded to him? What if he was one of the many, many South Asian second-generation immigrants born to working class parents — the cabbies, convenience store operators, even the unseen blue collar brown workers in this country — who didn’t have access to his parents’ paychecks to help him prepare for and get into college? How would he feel if he was one of those disadvantaged students, and an olive-skinned American friend joked to him about how she pretended to be Indian, instead of Greek, to take a seat that might otherwise have been open to Chokalingam? Probably not that great.
This is the problem with stunt journalism in general. So often, we get focused on the stunt, that we forget what the broader applications even are with regards to educating. As someone who has previously trafficked in stunt journalism, it’s something that’s easy to lose sight of, and yet the most important part of any piece. It’s easy to do attention-grabbing things, and much harder for them to have resonance, especially in a way that doesn’t undermine the entire community and beliefs that are being used to further said stunt.
What is Chokalingam hoping to prove with this book anyway? That affirmative action has lower standards for minority, or specifically Black, applicants? Getting into ONE not-all-that-great medical school out of over a dozen that he applied to hardly proves anything, especially when you consider he offers no evidence of how many schools he applied to or was rejected from when he was honest about his race. In Chokalingam’s case, as Jenn points out, it’s more likely that this isn’t even stunt journalism to prove a point, but rather an example of retroactive continuity — that Chokalingam only now is claiming social experiment for something that was likely initially undertaken in earnest. But regardless of his original intentions, the fact that he is now trying to commodify this “experiment” in a book is cheap, lazy, and, most of all, racist.
[Image via Vijay Chokalingam]