For those who didn’t catch this bit of news, Indian-American actor Kal Penn has left his current role as Dr. Kutner on the television series House in order to pursue his new position as associate director in the White House Office of Public Liaison. His work will involve focusing on outreach to young people, art professionals, and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Penn was an advocate for Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential Election, writing to the Huffington Post in support for Obama and appearing in online campaign advertisements. Though he is typically known for his roles as Dr. Kutner in House and Kumar in the movie Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, he has also been involved in South Asian diasporic films including American Desi and Mira Nair’s The Namesake.
Penn’s new position suggests that the Obama Administration is taking an interest in reaching out to more Asian Americans involved in the arts. But I also find it ironic that with Penn’s removal from House, there are few actors of South Asian descent remaining in non-comedic roles on primetime television. With the series finale of ER, English actress Parminder Nagra is no longer playing Dr. Neela Rasgotra. Sendhil Ramamurthy continues to play Mohinder Suresh on Heroes. Comedic or reality television roles such as Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali (played by Kunal Nayyar) on The Big Bang Theory or Padma Lakshmi hosting Top Chef provide a different kind of exposure for South Asian Americans on television. Their character development is either nonexistent or is built upon stereotypical representations of South Asian people.
In 2005, The Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) published a follow up report to their previous year’s document entitled, “Asian American in Primetime: Lights, Camera and Little Action” (PDF). The new report, entitled “Asian Pacific Americans in Primetime: Setting the Stage” (PDF) showed that APIA”s made up only 2.6% of all prime time television regulars, and that many APIA regulars continue to be nonexistent in shows that are set in APIA populated cities. The report concludes that the number of APIA regulars on television is still not representative of the actual APIA population in the United States.
I look forward to hearing about the work Kal Penn is doing and to seeing the results of his advancing equality for young people and Asian Americans in the media.
Kal Penn talks about his new job: