There’s this thing that all South Asian children grow up with—this deep sense of what they’re “supposed” to be or expected to be. This, I contend, is compounded for a girl child. I’m going to go ahead and call this The Brown Girl Template.
Let’s first talk about its components…the recipe to make one Brown Girl, if you will.
The Brown Girl Template:
So, what’s wrong with these? They all are great qualities to have and imbibe in a child! Looks like a pretty solid template, right? Nope, nope, nope. We need some more context here.
If you’re a #browngirl, I’d bet you’ve been asked at some point to downplay your talents. But this is conditional humility. If you’re first in your class in terms of academics, let’s shout it from the rooftops. If you’re good at any of the traditionally accepted female talents, let’s perform in front of as many people as possible. You dance? Okay, that means you dance for visitors who come over to your house. You are obliged to perform at all weddings and functions. You bought a Mercedes or moved into a mansion? Hmm, perhaps we should take out an ad in the newspaper! Your parents just brought back a designer outfit or jewelry costing thousands of dollars, better wear that the first chance you get. And don’t forget to talk about how expensive/exclusive it is!
On the other hand, please withhold your pride about paying your own way through college working at a fast food joint. Eek, you’re a boxer? Better change your name so that in case you get famous, the family doesn’t have to be embarrassed (remember Mary Kom?). You want to be a…_______ (WHAT???)?? Let’s fill in the blank with any number of professions—model, bartender, comedian, biker, etc. Well, I guess that may be alright, if you do a “normal” day job and keep your “interests” on the DL. Essentially, be humble about things that are socially unacceptable.
“All I’m askin’ is for a little respect,” croons Aretha, but that’s not really all that is asked of us. “Respect your elders” is something that all #browngirls have heard their whole lives. It’s important, isn’t it? Elders do deserve respect, right? Even when they’re wrong? Must I respect bigotry if it is spewed by an elder in my community? Even if they don’t respect THEIR elders? How many of our elderly are cast off into poor conditions rather than taken care of when they’re old and helpless? For a culture that is the poster-child for the “Respect your Elders” campaign, it’s shameful. Even if they don’t respect the younger generations back?
Respect is not earned in our culture, it’s demanded, with no thought of returning it. It all comes down to power—age, gender, profession, caste, and so on.
Do as I say, not as I do. Blind obedience is a big part of the #BG template. Again, it goes back to the power and respect issue. Obedience should not be tied to respect! The whole concept of “respectful disagreement” is considered an oxymoron by our people. This obedience is expected to guide our whole lives—what we do, when we do it, where we do it, how we do it. Often including our jobs, whom we marry, how we raise our children. Nike should pay us—we pretty much invented “Just Do It”.
We must be smarter than everyone else. Period. But let’s use that appropriately shall we? Become a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, a software developer, etc. But please continue to stay in a box. Don’t question! Let’s go back one step—O.B.E.Y. No one likes a dissenter.
Oh, and heaven forbid you become something other than one of these—you’re perceived to be not intelligent enough. A beautiful model friend of mine completed her electrical engineering and received the high paying engineer job just to prove she could, and then quit to follow her dreams of traveling and modeling. That’s a lot of years and a huge investment just because “log kya kahenge?” (what will people say), don’t you think? Two other South East Asian models I know did the same! Intelligence should not be contingent upon foolish notions of what others would say and think. Intelligence is USELESS without the freedom to wield it!
Okay, I’m going to say this once and for all. Silence is NOT freakin’ golden. Peace is a state of mind, and those who are incapable of attaining it in the hustle and bustle of daily life and all the noise of today’s world, will most likely never find it alone in silence. Moreover, silence has a dark underbelly. It implies acceptance of the world the way it is today and what we see in front of us. The world today SUCKS! What we see is unacceptable! But speaking up and out is seen as a distinctly non-brown quality, particularly when it comes to the girl child. Issues of power and fairness will never change in silence. I’m going to sit here and meditate in the hope that those in positions of power are granted with the wisdom to get off their crystal towers and empower women and those less fortunate. Riiiiiight. Now, THAT’S revolutionary.
We grow up with the expectation that we must always put our family, our cultural traditions before ourselves. Collectivism. But this can be slightly sheep-like in execution, and its all-pervasiveness is dangerous because it is not taught or applied correctly! Collectivism must not equal learning to live in fear of what others say and mimicking what others do—and yet, that’s exactly how it is manifested in our culture. What we must learn to do is put HUMANITY before ourselves. Not consider religion, caste, creed, sexual preference, color, race, etc., just put people first—no matter what/who they are and where they come from. Collective Humanism, even. What a concept!
The impact our culture has on #browngirls is clearly evident in that I am struggling to write about this. To admit that I may know anything about sex? *Gasp* To say that purity should not be a pre-requisite? Ludicrous. The thing is, we’re not talking about purity of thought, we’re talking about purity of body. Sex doesn’t tarnish a body, but rape does. And not at the hands of the victim, but the perpetrator. Rape victim blaming and shaming—it all comes from this word. I watched a Documentary, India’s Daughter, based on the infamous Delhi gang rape of a medical student, Jyoti Singh. Raped to DEATH. Some of the interviews made me sick—she shouldn’t have been out late, she should have just been quiet and taken it, it was worse because she fought it. Just some of the many pearls of wisdom that dropped from those disgusting people’s mouths. How about the rape survivors, treated like food that has been left out too long and has gone bad? Purity is so overrated. Sex should be just as pleasurable and just as accepted for women as it is for men. And at the same time, don’t ridicule those who want to abstain. We must be PRO-CHOICE. A woman has every right to choose to or not to have sex. ‘Nuff said.
There’s a lot of beauty and hypocrisy attached to this word. I love being Indian, being from a culture with so much vibrance and meaningful traditions. But traditions should not be shackles. Don’t expect your #browngirl child to follow the same traditions you did in the 1970’s. Don’t expect your #browngirl grandchild to adhere to your archaic rules. Traditions should be taught in such a way that a child wants to learn more, and wants to practice them rather than feeling compelled to do so. You can’t move to America, and expect your kids to not be American! Teach them to love their culture and traditions, while accepting the parts of them that veer from the culture and they will not be resentful towards the very traditions you’re trying to enforce.
#Browngirls are taught to say “Namaste Aunty” and “Namaste Uncle” as soon as they learn to speak. They’re guided with protocol on when, where and how to touch feet. They’re taught how to be sociable, so that they are socially liked. But before you think this means they can be party animals, let me stop you right there. #Browngirls are often not allowed to spend time with their friends alone, have sleepovers, go out, etc. Be charming, but within the limits set for you. Be social, but only within our society. Always a caveat. These social skills we learn are so important, but when we apply them with intent, with choice, it’s looked down upon. Being gracious is not like painting within the lines— you’re either gracious to everyone, or not at all.
I know, I know—this one’s a head-scratcher. The term “Indian Standard Time” is a thing. #Browngirls (or really people) seem to be late to everything! But think in terms of life. Imagine a #browngirl asking to take a year off from college to travel. A #browngirl who is unmarried at 35 years of age. A #browngirl who is close to 40 and doesn’t have any kids. If you think we’re not on a timetable the second we’re born, you’re deluding yourself. Our lives were not meant to follow a timeline! We shouldn’t have to avoid our family members for fear of being asked/nagged about these things!
Cognitive dissonance is excruciating to live with; yet, we’re condemned to be stuck between our own dreams, and a need to “fit in.” There are a lot of emotions tied to this template—all the heavy stuff—guilt, desperation, rage, resentment. I feel lucky that my mother did not expect many of these things. I give her immense credit for all she has done for me. But I want her, and the parents of all #browngirls, to know that our backs are bending and breaking from the weight of these expectations.
We’ve all felt these things. I hope each of you reading this, are relating to it on some level. Because we can change these expectations for our kids and the next generation. This Brown Girl Template is literally distorting our capacity and binding us, many times to mediocrity.
The Brown Girl Template has GOT to go.
[All photos are courtesy of Pooja Dhar.| Models: Ashni Mehta & Smita Das]
Pooja is the quintessential “Jill of all trades”. A #BG who spent the first 17 years of her life in India, and the next 16 years of her life in the US, she has never truly “fit in” with either culture, and has found reasons to rebel against and embrace both, for various reasons. She’s a proud Indian, and a proud American, but resists the term Indian-American for unknown reasons. A corporate Training & Development professional by day, Pooja has had a checkered past littered with artistic pursuits – from acting in plays as a child, to being her school’s beloved emcee at a moment’s notice, to a brief and highly unsuccessful stint as a dancer, to an advertisement dubbing artist, to a wedding singer, to a blog/poem/short story writer, to a photographer. The singing is now mainly contained to the bathroom (!), but the writing and photography are and remain front row center. To support her quirky artistic pursuits, follow her on Facebook and Instagram or check out her website.
The expansion of digital content across radio, television and the internet has allowed audiences to engage with media rapidly. As technology advances, the entertainment industry has grown exponentially and people have a wealth of information at their fingertips in the blink of an eye. Since high school, Deepa Prashad was fascinated by this power of media and aspired to be an on-air personality who could interact with viewers through creative content whilst representing her Indo Caribbean heritage. After navigating the competitiveness of Canadian broadcast hosting for seven years, Prashad continues to push herself into various modalities of media and add to her growing successes, while championing others to share their own authentic content.
Self-confidence and the desire to show a different perspective on entertainment prompted Prashad to be interested in broadcasting. While initially nervous about her family’s reaction to a nontraditional career path for Indo Caribbean women, Prashad received her parents’ full support and became the first person in her family to study broadcasting at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
She began applying for television-hosting positions in her first year despite not having any experience or a finished degree, affirming, “I totally believed in myself and my capabilities.”
In an interview with Prashad, we delve into her career path, diverse representation in media and her courage to create and promote content that reflects her individuality.
How did you begin your career in hosting and digital content production?
The kids channel I watched growing up, The Family Channel, was doing a nationwide casting call for their new TV host. The host would host interstitials between shows, digital series, and do TV show and movie interviews. I didn’t have an agent at the time so I applied on my own. I was called in for my first audition ever and it was quite shocking. A room full of 10 to 15 people just observing me as I delivered lines and did mock interviews for fake shows. Two months later, I was officially cast as the host of The Family Channel!
While ecstatic about her first job, Prashad was met with racism. She stated,
Someone else, who applied for the position, made it a point to come up to me in person to say that they hoped I knew the only reason I got the job was because I was brown and the company obviously just needed to fill a quota.
Brushing the words aside, she continued hosting on The Family Channel for five years. She has also worked as an entertainment and food reporter on Canadian shows, Breakfast Television and Cityline. By advocating for herself as capable, personable and multifaceted, she did not shy away from new opportunities to advance her career and showcased herself as a leader who could resonate with broad audiences.
Wanting to explore new horizons, Prashad approached the social media company blogTO and pitched herself to be their first full-time video host focusing on Toronto food hotspots. After being hired, she visited multiple restaurants daily to host, film and edit her own content and curated personalized food videos for viewers to immerse themselves in. Prashad later forayed into the world of radio, one she never thought she would join but quickly fell in love with. She was most recently the first female voice on Toronto’s KISS 92.5 channels, The Roz and Mocha Show. Prashad enjoyed the greater flexibility of being on the radio compared to television and video hosting,
All I had to present was me. It became such a personal experience for me getting on that mic, sharing stories with listeners about the way I was raised, coming from a Guyanese household, being part of an (interfaiths marriage), [etc…] That created an incredibly strong bond between myself, our listeners and our friends that I’m so grateful for.
Tell us about your current position.
“I’m moving onto new adventures now and adding sports reporting under my belt. I will be joining BarDown | TSN to cover Formula 1, this includes doing content for TSN in the digital and TV space. I’ve never dabbled in the world of sports, so this is going to be an interesting new road for me.”
What topics are you most passionate about when creating digital content and why?
Food has to be my number one passion when it comes to digital content. Obviously I love eating and trying new things, but food is such a universal language. It connects people, it excites people and often teaches people about different cultures. I love to see how that content can generate conversations and I love to see when people admit they’ve never tried that particular food or cuisine, but added it to their list.
I also love creating Formula 1 content because Formula 1 is a massive passion of mine! I currently Twitch stream playing the Formula 1 video game F1 22. I’ve been on a pursuit to continuously learn more about the sport and to even get better at the game, because let’s be real, I’m terrible at it but I’m also OK with that!
Prashad is not immune to online mockery and negative comments about her work. When making the switch to Formula 1, she was ridiculed by some male viewers over her love of the sport and was inundated with comments like “Go back to the dishes” or “Go do laundry where you belong.” Antiquated and sexist notions about being a working woman in the media led to her looks being graded; there were comments regarding her extroverted personality and rampant discussions over her weight. There was a moment in her career where Prashad admits,
I actually wanted to make changes to myself — try to be a little less outgoing, not be so loud, change my hosting style from this incredibly bubbly style to a more laid back informative take.
Drawing on her self-belief, she soon realized that, “This doesn’t work for me. I began to appreciate all my quirks.”
Is there an area of hosting or content production that you believe you’re better at?
I really love to host digital content in particular because there’s a certain freedom that comes with it. I don’t always have to be prim and proper like sometimes I do need to do for TV. I can be me — loud, goofy, and incredibly dorky. I never want to have two different personas — one for the public eye, and then a private. On social media, what you see is exactly what you get. Digital content has allowed me to love myself even more.
Prashad plans to continue in the industry for the foreseeable future. She recognizes the impact of being an Indo Caribbean woman at the forefront of media and defines her success as “…I can continue to represent my culture and how I make others feel.” Her best moments are connecting with others through their lived experiences and offering a different lens on growing up in Canada.
How did you feel breaking into the industry as a woman of color?
What a great feeling that was, and even better, being an Indo Caribbean woman. I went through my fair share of hardships. I’ve faced racism, sexism and bullying throughout my journey of getting to where I am today. But, I have stood up for myself every single time. I will never allow myself to be walked all over. And believe me, people have attempted MANY times. But I pick myself back up and continue along my way.
I think it really hit me that I was making an impact when I started to hear from people how much they related to my childhood stories, the way I was brought up, the movies I watched as a kid. It’s those moments that made me realize I accomplished my goal.
How has your background influenced your interest in hosting and digital content production?
I never saw people like me in the media growing up. I always wanted to change that. I didn’t feel that I had anyone I could personally connect with when I watched TV. And to me that was always so mind blowing because the media, although so broad, is such a personal industry.
I have always been proud to say on air that I’m a Guyanese woman. I have made it a point to fight for more Caribbean content on air. I’ve made it a point to share stories about my family, where they came from, and even the experiences I’ve had growing up in a Guyanese family. Promoting Caribbean culture in general has always been important to me. And progress has been made! At my previous radio job, I pushed incredibly hard to start interviewing Caribbean artists and to highlight them. I had the opportunity to interview artists like Sean Paul, Kes and Konshensand those interviews aired nationally which was massive.
Prashad often infuses cultural content into her work by showcasing Indian and Caribbean food, offering Bollywood movie recommendations, detailing her trips to Guyana, talking about new music and sharing information about Caribbean events in Toronto. She does not believe that cultural content needs to be pared down for the masses but instead advocates for aspiring Indo Caribbean creators to keep releasing diverse and authentic content that is representative of themselves.
She notes that the Indo Caribbean experience is not a monolith and that,
We need more representation! What feels most authentic to you can be vastly different from other content creators. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of creating content, but the best version of content you’re going to create is when you’re being true to who you are, and having fun.
At only 27 years old, Prashad’s journey has taken her across multiple forms of media. From interviewing Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities to hosting various television shows and being an online and radio voice, she continues to explore different mediums as a means of storytelling and connection. Hardships were plenty during Prashad’s rise to fame, but a steady belief in herself and a willingness to take on new endeavors with authenticity have provided her the grit to overcome challenges.
Prashad is eagerly awaiting to leap into her next digital venture and is actively commending more Indo Caribbean content creators to step into the spotlight with their own personal stories.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Bihar, India. They dated for a few years before getting married and moving to the United States, where they had me and my two older brothers. To our house in the States, they brought some remnants of home with them: old filmy Hindi music that always echoed in the background, my mom’s masala chai recipe that still entrances anyone who catches even a whiff of it, and a love for dance in any and every form.
They tried their best to fill our lives with as much cultural celebration and ritual as they could, but despite their genuine attempts to keep us rooted, being a product of the South Asian diaspora was complicated.
Growing up, my relationship with my culture looked very different throughout distinct stages of my life. Despite being a diaspora kid, I had a unique experience in that when I was four years old, my family packed up our lives in California and moved to my parent’s hometown in Bihar. We lived there for almost three years, and for each of those three years, I absorbed every ounce of India like a sponge. I learned how to speak Hindi fluently (along with some cuss words). I tried the classic Bihari street food — litti chokha — and watched how it was masterfully made over hot charcoal. I observed Chhathpooja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the solar deity, unique to the northeastern region of India. I developed an unhealthy addiction to chocolate Horlicks and Parle-G biscuits. I even tried, but ultimately failed, to master cricket. But sadly, all of that cultural immersion was short-lived and eventually came to an end. When I was seven, my family moved back to California.
Working with the cards we were dealt, my family still tried to stay connected to our heritage in whichever way we could. Our weekends were filled with trips to the mandir and Nina’s Indian Groceries. Festivals like Diwali and Holi were always embraced with parties and poojas. During Navratri season especially, my best friend Camy and I would dress up in matching lehengas and dance with dandiya sticks so forcefully that they would literally break in half.
Within our microcosm of a world, I never once paused to think about how I would carry these traditions forward.
It wasn’t until college, when I was trying to navigate who I was outside of my family unit for the first time, that I began to ruminate on my independent relationship with my culture. I didn’t have the structure of my family and childhood home to reiterate and reverberate Bihari traditions, Hindu customs, the Hindi language, or my family history. How would I embody them henceforth? Would I be able to make my ancestors proud?
My college roommates and I used to joke that despite us all being Indian Americans, we all spoke different mother tongues: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu. This obviously made it tough to engage with our languages, even though we still made our best attempts. I learned how to read and write in Hindi during my senior year of college, but my skills are still rusty and elementary at best. Without continuous exposure and practice, I’m scared that one day I’ll lose the ability entirely.
As a child of immigrants, out of the context of my motherland, I find myself grappling with guilt or fear of losing touch with my roots. It can feel that with every passing generation, pieces of my culture may slowly diminish or get lost in translation. Bits of wisdom that are so niche and particular that, once I forget them, who will be there to remind me?
As I’m scouring the web for hair rejuvenation remedies and get overwhelmed by the surplus of opinions, I get frustrated that I can’t remember which ayurvedic oil is better for hair regeneration: Amla or coconut? If I catch a cold and need to make my nani’s cure-all tulsi chai recipe, I cross my fingers and hope that I’ve gotten all of the ingredients and measurements right. When I seem to be trapped in a continuous cycle of ebbs and want to consult my Vedic astrological chart for some insight, I find myself lost trying to navigate the implications of Shani and the meaning behind my houses.
It took a lot of time and reflection to let go of feelings of guilt attached to this notion of preservation. This isn’t to say that this process isn’t continuously ongoing. But, what I’ve ultimately reconciled, is that as a diaspora kid, I’m creating something that is true and unique to my nuanced experience as an Indian American.
Usha Jey, a South Asian-born and raised in Paris, recently fused urban and Bharatnatyam dance forms to create “Hybrid Bharatnatyam.” This dance form so perfectly encapsulates the blending of culture. As a dancer who grew up performing urban choreo with a mix of Bollywood, this fusion of East and West was such a validating thing to see. Dance has always been a medium through which I’ve been able to connect with my American and Indian identities. A lot of my childhood was spent performing Bollywood routines at temple events or Neema Sari showcases. In high school, I was introduced to competitive urban dance and fell in love. Excited to give my teammates a peek into my culture, I choreographed and taught an urban-Bollywood piece to the classic “Sheila ki Jawani” that we ended up performing at our annual showcase. Similarly, artists like MEMBA and Abhi the Nomad subtly weave nostalgic Indian sounds into their electronic and hip-hop music to create something entirely unique. As someone navigating both of these worlds, their music tugs at my duality. When I lived in San Francisco, during the festival of Diwali, I would cook up a feast and host all of my friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds to eat, do rangoli on the roof, and light sparklers. While that may not have been a traditional celebration, it was my cliff notes version of Diwali that I was giddy to share with my community.
Historically speaking, in any culture, there are traditions and customs that will be safeguarded until the end of time, but on that same note, there will be so much of culture that will evolve and soon look different. And maybe embracing that is something beautiful in and of itself.
While I’m still navigating my connection to my motherland, heritage, and roots, I’m allowing myself the grace to see that elements of them may manifest themselves differently in my life and the community of culture surrounding me. And while I may be creating something unique to my own identity, I still hope to honor the traditions and customs of those who came before me.