Meet September’s Brown Girl of the Month—Raja Michael, a Los Angeles-based stand-up comic, storyteller, and comedic actor. She was born in New York City, grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, in a working class, desi family. Her mother’s side is Telugu and Hindu, and her father’s side is Tamil and Christian. She has worked as a domestic violence counselor, in homeless services, and with youth in the foster care system. She moved to Kenya for two years as an NGO worker in her twenties (where she wanted to find herself). She loves comedy, writing and performing.
“I was at the Comedy Store one evening watching a very funny comic on stage. She was joking about what it was like to work at her job as a first generation American woman. I felt like she was talking about my life. My friend who was sitting next to me whispered to me, ‘You should try it.’ ‘Nah,’ I answered, ‘I’m not good enough.’
My parents aren’t doctors and engineers. They are everyday working class people. They sacrificed a lot to raise me. I don’t blame them for dreaming that their daughter would become a doctor or something else fancy. When I told them that I was going to go into social services, they gave me their blessing. They said they were proud to have raised a compassionate daughter. I appreciated them. I didn’t want to take advantage of their efforts to try to understand me.
But more importantly, I didn’t have the courage to try to get into entertainment. It’s an industry that appreciates women for being tall, thin, and blond, and I’m short, curvy, and brown. I didn’t want to get on stage to make 7-Eleven jokes with an accent and make fun of hard working immigrants. I didn’t want to play a terrorist and propagate Islamaphobia to get on TV. I just wanted to be a human being, and I didn’t feel the industry would allow me to do that.
And of course, there was the ever-present question: Am I good enough?
Over the years, I tried to do many things to fill the void. I worked hard, traveled overseas, and finally landed in L.A. as a graduate student. Los Angeles—where people all around you are following their dreams. I became increasingly depressed. I wanted to love my neighbor and work towards doing good things for the world, but my self-esteem issues and depression crippled me. I realized I needed to do a complete overhaul of my life. I needed to start living authentically, or I wouldn’t make it.
In this journey, I learned four very important lessons:
- I have to trust my parents. I would never intentionally hurt them. But me following my path will hurt them. They are strong enough to navigate that pain. It’s my duty as a daughter to allow them to navigate it.
- Hollywood may not want you. But there is a following out there that does. If the industry doesn’t want you, build your own platform and create your own content. I love stand-up for many reasons. The skill, the art, the process. And the fact that I have the mic. It’s my time, I’m in control, I say what I want.
- I can use my voice for good. Sure I joke about silly stuff. But I also do my best to present content of value—politics, racism, and gender issues. Not to mention, I also focus on important things, like my love for posting selfies on my Instagram (which you should follow *shameless plug*).
- You know what, I’m going to hold off on number four for a minute. But I promise I’ll get back to it.
People always ask me the same two questions about being a comic. ‘Isn’t it hard?’ And, ‘Isn’t it scary to get up on stage?’ The answer to both of these questions is ‘yes.’ Life as a comic is a lot of work. Joke writing is a process. You spend a lot of time writing jokes, trying them out, figuring what works, workshopping them, etc. Improving takes a lot of time and dedication.
You hear a lot about how the industry is opening up for desi comics and the American public loves us now. But something I noticed is, the industry is opening up for us, but it’s not in the way you would hope. For one, the doors that are opening are more so opening for the dudes. It’s still really hard for them no doubt, but there is yet another dimension you deal with as a desi woman. And when the American public “loves” us, it loves us when we are self-depreciating, making accents, or mocking workers at gas stations.
As a desi woman, I am expected to tell some horror stories about my oppressive parents and act oppressed and small and that is supposed to be some sort of joke. But there is little space for desi comedians to share intelligent and nuanced commentary, even though we are just as capable of doing this as anyone. I don’t punch down on hard working people nor do I identify as an oppressed child. And nothing about me is small. And I refuse to buckle under that pressure.
As a South Asian woman, I am first and foremost a human being. And I choose to walk in that truth. As a human being, I am intelligent, thoughtful, loving, multi-dimensional, have quality relationships in my life, have a full array of interests and passions, and am living a full human experience. My comedy will always reflect this truth. I didn’t go into comedy to lose myself. I did it so I can be myself.
There is another question people ask me which has become one of the biggest micro-aggressions in life right now. Yes, I am being dramatic, but I mean it too! And these questions come from desis and non-desis alike. It’s always some variation of ‘Really, you do stand up? But I thought Indian girls were quiet and conservative. Wow…that’s really amazing of you.’ Okay folks, this is the worst compliment in the world. If you ever want to speak this question/bad compliment combo over my life, please stop yourself. I am a desi woman. I am doing stand-up. Therefore, a desi woman can do stand-up. And there is the answer to your question. No need to ask.
One day, a fellow desi woman asked me this question after a show. It upset me because it made me feel small—as if I should be sitting in a corner somewhere with my mouth shut. I didn’t say anything but I called my mother to talk about it. My mom just laughed and said,
‘Well, that’s stupid. If desi girls didn’t go into entertainment, who are all these desi women acting in our films? Or modeling? Or singing our songs? Do you have any idea how huge our film and music industries are? And you are doing comedy. So? You are not doing anything multitudes of desi women haven’t been doing for generations. That woman is confused.’
Duh. Why didn’t I think of that? And even if I was the only one, as I said before, a desi woman is a human being. As a desi woman and a human being, it is absolutely my place to explore new territory and live an authentic life.
As for my day-to-day, I perform stand-up often, which is a huge blessing. I also started acting, which has presented its own unique journey of learning, but I enjoy it.
I also co-produce a fun stand-up shows called, “Headscarves” and “Durags,” with two very talented comedians, Charity Miller and Eric Owusu at the Nerdist School. It’s such a positive show and draws out such a great crowd. We book comics who we love, who are funny, smart, and have unique perspectives to share. We are focused on diversity and make sure our comics are people of color, women of color, queer and trans people of color, differently abled, from various religions, and any other underrepresented community we can think of. It’s been a real blast!
Before I wrap this up, I have to get back to number four. You thought I forgot, didn’t you? Well here it is, lesson number four, last but not least:
4. I am good enough…and so are you.
I never feel more authentic than when I am on stage performing. It was a long road to get me to where I am now, but I am so grateful that I have come so far. And I plan to keep going and going.”