Like many 90s kids, I was obsessed with Disney and the beauty of its animation. At four years old, I saw my first move in theaters: The Lion King. I spent the next year watching the movie everyday and singing along to “Hakuna Matata.” Disney was a way to relate to my peers and bridge the gap between my two identities.I remember being especially fond of Jasmine and Pocahontas. Their brown skin and black long hair matched mine. When I wasn’t watching Disney movies with my sisters, we watched Bollywood movies of the Golden Era. As the years passed, I prioritized balancing my passion for Disney with the intersections of my identities.
2022 was the first time Diwali merchandise became available in large retail stores. My town’s library even had a “Diwali” section in the Children’s section. The world is finally transforming and Diwali is becoming “mainstream.” After years of advocacy and cultural awareness, we are finally witnessing the representation of our culture, traditions and holidays. Upon hearing of JASHN Productions’ first-ever Diwali Dance Fest taking place in Walt Disney World, I immediately began planning. My passion for Disney had grown from movies to theme park adventures. Diwali, the festival of lights combined with Disney World magic was bound to be spectacular. And, oh boy (Mickey Mouse voice), did JASHN surpass all expectations.
The first event, held in Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs, was the first Diwali parade. Dancers of the many dance studios performed in 20 minute synchronized dances. Hearing Diwali announced over the PA system had me near tears. The vibration of the dhol beats within the Bollywood rhythms had the shoppers engaged. The sea of dancers adorning the vibrant colors of Diwali fit in perfectly with the Florida sun.
The real dream was seeing Mickey and Minnie Mouse on stage with “Diwali” spread across. The Diwali Dance Fest included over 400 youth dancers from across the United States. These dancers, from 17 different dance schools, specializing in a variety of different forms of Indian and Indo-fusion dance, performed in Animal Kingdom’s Finding Nemo Theatre. Each dance led the audience to different regions of India; the music ranged from classical and folk to Bollywood and hip hop.The hosts Nisha Mathur and Sway Bhatia represented the joining of both worlds. Mathur is known for her SonyTV show, “Keys to Kismat” and Bhatia is the voice of character, Karishma on the very first Disney children’s show Mira the Royal Detective. International singer and performer Raghav, ended the show with his hit, Angel Eyes as a select group of dancers performed beside him.
Hearing the Indian music I had grown up with, brought me endless joy to finally witness such a level of representation, especially in a place so special to me. Experiencing a Diwali celebration in the most magical place on Earth with all generations was one of the best parts.
An after-party for performers and families, took place following the showcase in The Lion King theater. I was dancing and singing to my favorite Bollywood hits after enjoying this Disney Spectacular. Disney has always been my happy place; Walt Disney World will forever be the place where my greatest dreams came true. From enjoying a day at Animal Kingdom, in Indian attire, with Minnie Mouse ears to dancing along to the songs that filled my home. I have experienced a level of representation I never even knew possible. I have finally seen the gap bridged between my two identities. Never have I been more proud to be an Indian-American.
The onscreen representation of South Asians has never been great in Hollywood. In fact, I learned not to look for it in my favorite rom-coms, superhero series, and family dramas. In my TV-watching experience, though, comedy has been a different story. I love sitcoms and have watched nearly every popular sitcom from the early and late aughts. When I turned to these comfort shows, I never felt unrepresented. Some of the most iconic sitcom characters in recent decades are South Asian: Kelly Kapoor in “The Office,” Tom Haverford from “Parks and Recreation,” Cece Parekh in “New Girl,” Tahani Al-Jamil in “The Good Place,” and in the past year, Sid from “How I Met Your Father.” For most brown viewers, like me, this felt more than satisfactory. Any representation felt like good representation, and as an audience, we weren’t in a position to critique networks, producers, or writers on how we appeared on screen. It was, and still is, a celebration to appear at all.
The portrayal of South Asians in sitcoms is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it opened doors for South Asians that were unavailable through other creative endeavors. Comedy as a genre is weird, and smart, but relatable. It has given our community a far-reaching platform to unite and connect with people of all cultures. As a minority group, exposure — especially in an industry held together by connections and clout — is integral for our collective success. South Asians have seen more success with comedy than any other genre because making people laugh is the most palatable way to present our similarities and differences. We can tailor our political statements, social frustrations, and marginalized experiences into fun, raunchy, non-threatening, and insightful content. Comedy is versatile enough to capture our most unique and marketable traits, and sitcoms, situational comedy, is an extension of this in the form of 24-minute episodes.
While a handful of sitcoms employed South Asian talent, our inclusion has rarely been well-intentioned. As of its last season in 2019, “The Big Bang Theory” has won 10 Emmys and made history as the longest-running, live-action sitcom. It is unclear whether these accomplishments occurred despite the poor representation of South Asians or for those very reasons. Raj Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar, is the only person of color among the show’s eight cast members. Raj’s character was built around various stereotypes, extending beyond the standard nerd archetype. Raj was coded as the most socially inept, emasculated, and undesirable character in a group of awkward, geeky men. He is often put down, humiliated, and misunderstood. This type of representation, especially in a sitcom that ended just four years ago, is regressive and tiring. Characters like Raj really aren’t representations at all. He isn’t meant to be. Raj was characterized for the enjoyment of non-South Asian viewers. His “fresh-off-the-boat” attempts at assimilation are the jokes. His cultural traditions coupled with his Western ambitions are supposed to make Western audiences laugh. When Raj is the butt of a joke, the “ultimate loser” in a group of three other losers, nobody is laughing with him. They are laughing at him.
“Aliens in America,” another 2007s sitcom, lasted just one season on The CW for good reason. This sitcom featured a white American family in Wisconsin that decided to host an international student to help their son make friends in his high school. The family is dismayed when Raja, the exchange student, isn’t from a European country but from Pakistan. Here begins 18 episodes of overt racism, xenophobia, and religious and cultural intolerance posed for laughs. It’s a frustrating watch, and unfortunately, its gross premise can be explained by the lack of South Asian writers and directors credited. Representation on screen is only tasteful and compelling when there are South Asians behind the scenes sharing input, expertise, and experiences. Mindy Kaling’s work is evidence of what it can look like when South Asians have the resources and support to shape their own narratives. While her South Asian characters may fall under a similar archetype, their stories are expansive and authentic.
Sitcoms have both enforced and subverted South Asian stereotypes. Much of the work South Asian creatives have done to separate our identities from racist characterizations was simultaneously perpetuated by the entertainment industry. On the same screen as Raj and Raja, we watched Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford and Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil. These two characters diverged from the former in that their culture and “brownness” were seldom mentioned. They seemed to exist almost separately from their ethnicity and carried visible confidence and self-assurance, pulling laughs with their eccentrics and quirkiness.
Hannah Simone’s Cece Parekh and Sid, played by Suraj Sharma in the “How I Met Your Mother” spin-off, “How I Met Your Father,” are both refreshingly original. Sid is a South Asian bartender from New York, and his ethnicity is neither ignored nor a point of mockery. Cece is a high school dropout turned professional model, continually recognized throughout the show for her confidence, savviness, and beauty. Their personalities not only subvert the nerdy, meek, and undesirable traits typically associated with brown characters but also inspire much of the witty and sharp dialogue among their respective ensemble casts. A government official from a modest Midwest town, a model in Los Angeles, a British philanthropist, and a New York bartender will never fully capture our individual experiences. Yet, their stories represent small yet significant aspects of our lives. These characters, born between 2007 and 2021, are indicative of the evolution of South Asian characters from prior caricatures. Our inherent identities, communities, and fundamental beliefs are not and should no longer be the joke.
Comedy, specifically sitcoms, has been a gateway for South Asians to enter the entertainment industry. While representation has been lacking in other genres of television, sitcoms continue to be home to notable South Asian talent. Brown characters in the past were depicted with varying degrees of accuracy and integrity, but our prolonged presence on network television has slowly led to main billing on genres outside of a comedic scope. Netflix productions and Marvel films are among the big-budget projects entertaining the idea that South Asians can be superheroes, love interests, and so much more. While Hollywood’s motivations to feature South Asian characters may have initially derived from a place of ridicule, South Asian creatives made comic relief characters their own. Sitcoms have matured into a genre where we can take ownership of our stories, evoking the raw, hilarious, and painful moments that make us the fully-fleshed people we are on and off the screen.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.