Ashok Kondabolu on Das Racist, Dosas, and Dating While Indian
Ashok Kondabolu, the Indian-American podcaster, personality, and former hype man for Das Racist, a groundbreaking not-at-all-racially-ambiguous rap group, sat down for lunch with The Mash-Up Americans. Despite being self-conscious over using a knife and fork — “Dude, I never used knives growing up. My parents don’t use forks” — he talked candidly with us about racial dynamics in Queens, why his relatives in India think he and his brother, Hari, are singers and lawyers, and why he’ll probably never leave New York.[/highlight]
Tell us a little bit about your family. Are you and your brother first in family to be born in the U.S.?
Yes. One of my parents is from Andhra Pradesh and one is from Telangana. My dad is from a more rural farming background, one of nine kids. My mom, her father was a professor and her grandmother marched with Gandhi and went to jail during the independence movement. She was totally feminist. So my mom is crazy cool.
What brought them to America?
An arranged marriage. My dad came in 1978. I think he was very briefly in a place called Independence, La., with his brothers. He saw Roberto Duran fight in Louisiana in 1979. Then he came to New York and lived in Brooklyn Heights and then Elmhurst. He worked in Duane Reade. My mom came in 1981, and my brother was born in 1982.
Do you travel to India a lot?
Yeah, a bunch of times. I was in there in January. The dialect my family speaks is Telugu. I don’t speak it that well, I speak poorly, but I can understand. Which is obviously frustrating. Like I want to talk about adult things but I can only talk about them like a 12 year old. [Editor’s note: We get it.]
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to the Indian community here?
It’s complicated. There was this Ashton Kutcher incident awhile back when he was a spokesperson for popchips. Me and my brother and another dude were the three people who really made it an issue and forced an apology. There was a huge backlash to us. There was the classic “Stop being so sensitive, quit being the PC cops.” Basically white guys who were like, “I hate when people complain about racism and I want to say what I want to say.” I expect that and I don’t take it personally. The thing that I should have expected and will always expect from now on was the huge amount of Indian backlash, which was exactly in line with the mainstream white response. Like, “I’m Indian and I think you should stop being a crybaby.” It’s such a classic Indian move of hedging your bets and aligning yourself with mainstream sentiment. It’s conditioning. Nobody hates like family. So do I feel a responsibility to them? I don’t know.
When did you start to understand these dynamics?
Growing up in Queens, me and my brother were very aware of racial dynamics from a super super young age. We started out in Jackson Heights, where being white wasn’t a cool thing to be. But then we moved deeper into Queens, to Floral Park, which is on the border of Nassau County that was pretty middle-class Jewish at the time. It was Long-Island-y white people, if you know what that means. If you don’t know what that means, I’m not going to say it. But the kids there would call us “Hindu” or “Gandhi” or “Curry.”
It looked like what you’d throw up for “west side,” but it was actually for white kids. Like, watch out! White kids.
I mean, there wasn’t even a racial slur for Indian kids, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. “East Indian” was a phrase I heard all the time growing up. When I was younger I was like, what is East Indian? In Queens, there were so many people from the West Indies, that mostly socialized with blacks and Latinos. So Indians from India were East Indians, where people from West Indies were West Indians.
Anyways, Indians didn’t even have a slur that you could call us. It was then that we realized it was not normal to be surrounded by Indian kids or Colombian kids. So we’d have little hand symbols — it looked like what you’d throw up for “west side,” but it was actually for white kids. Like, watch out! White kids.
Awkwafina said in her interview that every Asian girl in high school wishes at some point that she wasn’t Asian. Was that true for you as an Indian kid?
Overall, no. There was one incident when I was very young, like seven years old. I went to school with a bunch of Malayali kids, and a lot of them were Christian converts. They had a particular naming system, and the names would be like, John John or Thomas John, a lot of similar first and last names. I guess those are the apostles? Anyways, everyone said my name wrong. Like, ASH-cock, or ASH-hok. And I’m not going to jump all over people for pronouncing it wrong, because there’s lots of East Asian names that I see and I’m like how in the hell do you pronounce that? But after the first day of school, I came home and asked my mom why do I have this name? Why can’t I be like, John, or Thomas? And she got really angry. I hadn’t really thought about identity before that. But she was like, how can you even say a thing like that?
When I got a little older, when I had a crush on some white girl, I’d think about how when she was imagining her boyfriend, it definitely wasn’t some Indian dude. And I was like shit, this would be way easier if I were white. Which is something I still think constantly all the time.
What is best piece of dating advice you got from your parents?
I mean, that question is insane. They would have never thought of talking about dating. They had an arranged marriage. When I was 23, or 24, so already a dude for many years, my parents got wind of some girl I was going out with. I was sitting in the car with my dad and he told this really impassioned story about how one of his cousins got some girl pregnant and then they had a kid and it ruined his life. He got really emotional. And I was like, what conversation is this right now? Maybe you should have had this conversation with me 10 years ago? This is what you have to say to me about men and women? So, yeah, we didn’t talk about dating.
Ha! Fair enough. Did you date Indian girls?
Indian girls didn’t go out with me. And still to a large extent in NYC and a lot of places I go, Indian girls just don’t really like me. That sounds insane, I know. Maybe it was because between like 15 and 24, for all intents and purposes I was a bum.
But now you’re not a bum and in a long-term relationship. What is your girlfriend’s background?
She’s half Mexican, half white, but she identifies as Mexican. Her extended family is all Mexican.
What do your parents think about you living with a Mexican woman?
My parents are super cool about it. Obviously they would prefer if I were dating a Telugu girl. They would prefer it if I had a different job. But they never gave me too much shit about it. I think it’s more because I’ve been such a crazy guy for the last 10 or 11 years that when they met her, and she has a good job and everything, they were like, things could be worse.
Is her family cool with you?
Yeah. They’re Mexican-American and live in Wyoming, so they just thought it was weirder that I’m from New York.
You did a lot of weird stuff when you were younger in New York.
Between like 18 and 24 years old, I was just dicking around the city. I made a living doing all sorts of crazy shit. I had odd jobs like passing out flyers for Greenpeace. I had some legitimate jobs. When I was 22, I was like, I’m just going to falsify a resume and carpet bomb craigslist. I would get weird jobs by doing that. I worked for this guy who was in subprime mortgages. He had an office on Jamaica Avenue by 111th Street. He had this crazy idea that he would was going to go to China and buy thousands of cell phones and list them on ebay, and that’s how he’d make money. So I was in charge of setting up the POS and backend. Then there was Das Racist. My parents didn’t understand that. I mean, it’s weird rap music. But they understood that I was finally making money and was on TV and in magazines, so people appreciated what I was doing, and so it was real. So that’s good.
That sense of validation is so critical for immigrant parents. Because if you don’t understand a culture, you have to hold on to what you do understand, like an audience.
Totally. My brother tells this story about us. Stand up comedian and hype man/dancer don’t translate in Indian. Those words don’t mean anything. So my brother became a lawyer and I became a singer to my family. That’s what people thought we did. So people would be like, are you still singing?
Rob Swift talked to us about what it means to be Colombian in hip hop, especially because he’s black. So people immediately assume he’s Black-American, because his stage name has no ethnic reference. What’s it like being an Indian man in hip hop?
First of all, I remember when the Indians in Jackson heights were like, “Oh no, Colombians are moving in.”
Das Racist always used to get pegged as racially ambiguous. But that just means, not white or black. I’m the least racially ambiguous human in the world. I’m such an Indian looking dude. Look at my name. The other guy in the band is Punjabi, though he could speak Spanish, so he could front like he was Dominican, maybe. The other dude was Afro-Cuban and Italian had long hair and beard and he looks Sikh. So cabdrivers and stuff would nod at him. So that was always weird. But anyways, people thought all of us were Indian at some point, too.
I’m the least racially ambiguous human in the world.
The “racially ambiguous” thing is stupid. The country lives in a black white duality, which doesn’t even demographically make sense any more. A lot of that has to do with our country’s obsession with black people and black culture and constant appropriation and misappropriation. It’s a gross spectatorship. I’m not going to say it was particularly hard to be an Indian in hip hop, but people would say crazy things.
Sometimes it would be like, “What’s the deal with the dot?” Then there’s the classic joke, which is not funny, like, “I like the women and I like the food, but I don’t like anything else.” Which is a lot of people’s attitudes towards other people’s races.
Or they’ll say to me, “I love dosa!” I don’t give a fuck. Why would I give a fuck that you like dosa? Do you want me to be thrilled with you? Do you think I have dosas on me right now? I don’t know why they’d think they were flattering me, or that that is an entrée into a bigger conversation. I thought everybody knows that that’s not a thing you do. But usually I just start talking to them about whatever food they said and my experiences with it. Once I was in this movie called “Dosa Hunt,” but in this video, there’s an Iranian, a Mexican and a bunch of north Indian kids. I was the only one in the video who grew up eating dosa. Well, there was one other half-Kerala and half-white guy. It was only later when I saw that movie that I was like, hey what the hell.
People who don’t know me don’t ask me too many cultural questions or stuff now. They’re afraid I’ll call them racist. But I’m not that dude. If someone doesn’t know something and we’re being friendly, I want them to ask.
Is there a way that people can ask potentially offensive or sensitive questions so they’re not taken offensively?
Anymore? I don’t know. Everyone is rearing to pounce on each other.
Do you ever actively feel discriminated against? Or is it more like this incidental racism?
Not that often. I live in Williamsburg now, and when people think of Williamsburg they think of Bedford Avenue and hipsters. But where I live is super Puerto Rican and Dominican, now a lot of Mexicans. It’s a family neighborhood. There was no white people bar within 7 blocks in any direction. And now when I walk around, there’s white people in the stores and talking to each other. And white kids in that neighborhood greet each other in the street. And I’m like, you guys just came from another place. And sometimes I’ll feel excluded from that, which really annoys me. Fuck you guys. You’re bringing your out of town race shit to New York and you’re self-segregating in your stupid little bars and venues and your crappy fucking coffee shops and restaurants. I feel excluded from that, which sucks, because dude. I was born four miles away from here! But other than that no. Because of the privilege of living in NY, I don’t feel that racism that often.
Could you live someplace else?
I don’t drive, so probably not. I could live in Seattle for a decent period of time. That was the first place I went outside of New York. But maybe not. When I go to other places, I’m a weird guy, just walking around. But here I’m just a guy, and I’m not that weird.