Much as he put the humor back in human trafficking, comedic provocateur Ashton Kutcher—like the Lenny Bruce of celebrity endorsements—has sparked a similar furor over a new series of ads for PopChips, in which he sports brownface and adopts a thick Indian accent to portray a character named "Raj," thereby breaking down the last remaining barriers to our new post-racial society. Or, maybe just perpetuating those racial stereotypes and being horribly unfunny, which is what Kutcher has been accused of in this post from blogger and fellow tech entrepreneur Anil Dash.
"I can't imagine I have to explain this to anyone in 2012, but if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad 'funny' accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course," Dash writes, before expressing his belief that neither Kutcher nor PopChips deliberately set out to be offensive. His complaints were echoed slightly more bluntly by hip-hop group Das Racist (two of whom are Indian), who tweeted, "Hey @aplusk, what’s with the racist brownface video you talentless, pretending to care about sex trafficking piece of shit?"—thus proving that theirs is not just a clever name.
The commercial—which also features Kutcher playing a white dreadlocked Rastafarian-type, a grizzled biker, an obvious Karl Lagerfeld parody named "Darl," and, most unbelievably, Kutcher himself—is ostensibly meant to be a message of unity, demonstrating how people of all cultures can be brought together by their need for love and a shared affinity for pressure-cooked potato discs. Or, as the official PopChips statement-slash-ad copy on the matter reads, "At PopChips we embrace all types of shapes, flavors and colors, and appreciate all snackers, no matter their race or ethnicity." Unfortunately, the flavor some people got from Kutcher's "Raj" was sour cream-and-racism, prompting the company to issue an apology and pull the extended-play "Raj" ad from their YouTube channel—though the character lives on in the montage below.
Meanwhile, the discussion continues over whether Kutcher's caricature is simply the latest in a long line of comedic, occasionally terrible Indian impersonations—a lineage that stretches from Peter Sellers in The Party through Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit, Hank Azaria on The Simpsons, and Mike Myers in The Love Guru—or evidence of an innate, institutionalized racism that would somehow preclude someone like Ashton Kutcher from pausing from lathering on brown makeup, looking in the mirror, and saying, "I don't know, guys, is this a good idea?" (Not that Kutcher has much of a history with forethought.) But in the end, isn't the fact that Kutcher managed to spark a national dialogue about these issues with something as innocuous as a potato wafer commercial what's really important here? The answer is no.
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