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.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
In an age where algorithms dictate viewership, Nancy Jay uses her love of dance to propel herself onto TikTok’s “for you” pages. Jay is an Indo Guyanese, Bronx native who began dancing at the age of three. As an influencer and content creator, she amassed a social media following of more than 500,000. Versed in many styles of dancing including Caribbean, Bollywood, urban and Latin, Jay can be spotted in soca music videos such as Linky First’s “Rock and Come in” and “Jeune Femme,” Adrian Dutchin’s “Roll” and by soca king Machel Montano’s “Mami Lo Tiene.”
Many content creators are typecast into the niche but Jay has defied this norm and proclaims she is more than just a dancer.
“I dance, travel, post lifestyle and beauty content. I’m an Indo Caribbean woman who enjoys being myself and promoting my culture. I like showing viewers it is okay to be who they are and embrace what they look like, despite what they see on social media. I did not plan on being a TikToker. As I started posting videos, the love and support I received from viewers was amazing. I have never experienced anything like that before on Instagram, where I started my content journey,” Jay said.
In conversation with Jay, the following answers have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Why is it important for you to create content related to your Indo Caribbean roots?
Growing up, I never felt represented as an Indo Caribbean on television, in movies, social media or anywhere else. My goal as a content creator is to promote the Indo Caribbean culture through my content and be the representation the Indo Caribbean community needs.
Are there unspoken rules about being a content creator or an Indo Caribbean woman on the platform?
Being an Indo Caribbean woman on TikTok can be challenging when you are trying to find your identity and do not feel represented.
Jay explains her frustration with the lack of Caribbean representation and acknowledgment from platforms, as well as her goals as a content creator in this video.
Do you ever experience a block, similar to writer’s block, when it comes to creating content? How do you overcome that?
I have yet to experience a block. However, I do have days where I want to take a break and just relax instead of filming. As a content creator, it is important to take breaks and schedule days to just relax because being a full-time content creator is a 24/7 business. It can be draining and you may lose your sense of reality when you have the mindset that everything is content. I enjoy taking a day or half a day to cook, watch TV or go shopping with my partner without the worry of filming any of it.
How has your social media presence changed your daily life?
When I am in public, supporters approach me to express their love for my content and sometimes ask for a selfie. When I find people staring at me in public now, it’s most likely because they recognize me from social media and not because I look funny.
In May of 2021, I used my platform to reach out to brands and ask for their support in a project I named ‘Nancy Jay Gives Back.’ I put together care packages, using products donated by brands, and drove around the Bronx sharing them with people experiencing homelessness or those in need. Seeing the happiness on their faces upon receiving these bags was priceless. Additionally, I spread some extra joy through dance. I remember one lady telling me she’d never been to a club or party so I told her I’ve brought the party to her and we danced to her favorite genre of music right there on the street.
Jay plans on continuing this project as her social media presence has grown.
How has your family reacted to your social presence?
My family has always been supportive of my talents and the path I have chosen. My first public dance performance was at the age of 12. I performed a fusion of Bollywood and chutney music at middle school events. When I got to high school, I participated in our talent show to a fusion of Bollywood, chutney, soca and top 40. I won the talent show three or four times. I also performed for fundraisers organized by mandirs in Queens, the Bronx, weddings, sweet sixteens and other social events.
My family always came out to support me. They love seeing my content and always encourage me to film and create. My mom in particular tells everyone about my TikTok videos.
While enrolled at John Jay College, Jay founded the first West Indian student organization called “West Indies Massive.” She captained the dance team, taught dance classes and won the talent show multiple times while pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with a minor in law and police studies.
Any advice for creators who may not have the support of family?
Do not let this discourage you. If content creation is something you truly want to do, stay consistent and eventually your family will support you for doing what you love. Social media is still new to some and the idea of it being someone’s career or business is new as well. I say be patient. Also, talk to them about your social media goals, as perhaps they do not understand the full picture.
What is your dream partnership and why?
My dream partnership would involve acting. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, preferably a Bollywood actress because I know I would kill those dance numbers (haha!). Also, I would love to partner with Sandals Resorts and bring that Caribbean flavor they should be promoting.
Jay has collaborated with major brands like Samsung Mobile, Norwegian Cruise Line, AC Hotels, Disney Music Group, and Dunkin which is paramount for the Indo Caribbean community.
“I am the first Indo Caribbean woman to work with Norwegian Cruise Line as a content creator. Cruise travel is a huge part of my content journey. I love cruising and creating unique experiences and content. While cruising, I connected with the crew while most people typically do not. I treat everyone with respect,” Jay said
“I started a fun series called ‘Cruise Dances with the Crew’ back in August of 2021. There’s a playlist on TikTok with all of the fun dances. Prior to my first video, I had not seen anyone dancing on cruise ships with the crew. I guess you could say I started that trend.”
Nancy intertwined this partnership with her content and further put herself on the map.
Another pivotal partnership for Jay occurred in March 2021 when Dunkin chose her as one of 10 from a nationwide competition to feature her signature drink on the local menu.
How has content creation changed in the past two years?
Within the past two years, my content and style has grown tremendously. My gear list has also grown tremendously. I’ve been a content creator full time for a little over a year now. I have had more time to focus on the presentation and editing of my content.
What else do you want your viewers to not know about you or your work?
I stay true to who I am. Supporters who I’ve met in person can attest that I am the same, in-person and online. I like to keep things relatable, fun and authentic. I am working with a lot of big brands. I try to incorporate dance in all my content to capture my passion, diversity and culture.
I started teaching Caribbean Dance Fitness classes and private dance lessons officially in 2016. Since Covid, I moved everything online. Not only have I helped many learn how to dance but I have also helped build their confidence through dance and expression.
Lastly, I love traveling and encouraging others to live their best life.
Jay is more than a dancer; she is unapologetically herself. She maximizes opportunities and is building a brand that highlights her Indo Caribbean roots – a culture often not highlighted in mainstream media.
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.