July 21, 2020March 22, 2021 4min readBy Kavita Rai
Photos courtesy of the Nithya for the City campaign.
It is not often that young desi women get to say they can see themselves as politicians in the United States. When I first saw that Nithya Raman, a desi woman like myself, was running for a spot on the most powerful city council in the country, Los Angeles (LA) City Council— where each council member represents about 265,000 people— I felt energized. Within 30 minutes of delving into her policy platforms, I cold-emailed her team to volunteer on the campaign.
Raman’s platform extends from fixing the LA housing crisis and improving accessibility for senior citizens to creating a municipal ID program for immigrants and switching LA to 100 percent clean renewable energy. While my values align with Raman’s policies on immigration, the environment, racial equity and her dedication to repairing the vibrancy of LA, my affinity towards Raman as a candidate is much deeper than that.
Raman’s lived experiences as an immigrant, woman of color and American desi have not only influenced her to run for office but have also influenced her dedication to advocacy and solving societal problems. It’s the power of familiarity behind shared lived experiences that makes representation empowering. Raman is familiar to me.
Originally from Kerala, Raman immigrated to the U.S. and grew up on the outskirts of Boston, speaking Tamil at home. Her current quarantine food craving extends to anything Indian street food, like golgappa, aloo tikki, pav bhaji, chole bhature and everything on the menu at Swati Snacks. These are familiar attributes inherent to my culture of growing up with a hyphenated identity. They may seem minuscule to her campaign at large, but they matter to desi girls like me.
“Unless you see people who look like yourself reflected in those who hold power, reflected in those who are making art and culture, unless you see those voices represented in those spaces, you will never feel like you are able to step up in those roles yourself. I do think representation is incredibly important. Especially for women of color because we have double inequities,” Raman said.
I see myself in Raman and I know many South Asian-Americans can, too.
The desi diaspora certainly can understand the hardships of breaking cultural barriers. Just like many of us, Raman had to experience this in the pursuit of a career in public service.
“Growing up, the [South Asian] culture often emphasized financial success and pedigree and this limited the type of work that people did. When I went to India to work with organizations that had no national or international presence, I was fighting against what I had been taught by doing that work, yet it was so essential to shaping my understanding of what needed to change policy-wise,” Raman said.
Despite challenging cultural norms, Raman’s career in advocacy and public service is inherently interwoven with her cultural roots. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree inpolitical theory, she spent nearly a decade in Delhi, working with a network of organizations focusing on developing impoverished and underdeveloped communities and finding solutions to urban poverty, including Sajha Manch in Delhi and the Pennurimai Iyakkam and the Unorganized Workers’ Federation in Chennai. She returned to the United States to receive her master’s degree in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“The issue was that there was a whole invisible city of lower income residents and a group of people who appeared on no maps and for whom access to services was not a right.”
To rectify this, Raman started Transparent Chennai, an organization that worked with residents of slums to create data that strengthened their advocacy for resources like running water and basic sanitation. The urban poverty planning Raman did in India impacts how she grapples with societal issues in Los Angeles and laid the foundation for her advocacy work on homelessness.
“[In India], I was able to work alongside grassroots organizations and support existing social movements, so I had a very different perspective on the type of policy changes that were needed,” she stated.
Tackling homelessness has been a major grassroots effort for Raman. In 2017 she co-founded the SELAH Neighborhood Homelessness Coalition to address the homelessness crisis in her own neighborhood. In fact, the homelessness crisis in LA is one of the reasons why Raman chose to run for City Council, District 4.
Even with her degrees and professional experience, Raman still encounters imposter syndrome from time to time; a familiar concept for so many women of color. Dealing with a lot of external anti-South Asian rhetoric and racism growing up affected Raman’s self-image.
“It made me feel less sure of myself as a leader and as someone who had a legitimate voice. It is something I had to struggle with while running for office, and I still face some of those insecurities and fears. I am constantly learning how to step into myself and my own sense of who I am,” Raman said.
It’s refreshing, and frankly reassuring, to relate to a candidate as qualified as Raman, who is still actively growing into her leadership role.
Raman served as the Executive Director of Times Up Entertainment, where she saw her leadership style and potential evolve.
“It was a moment when I felt like some of my insecurities about the power of my voice began to rest because I was invited to be at the table in that way and invited to take on a leadership role in a movement that still has a lot of work to do but made a big global change in how we talk and think about safety from sexual harassment and assault,” Raman said.
When we see familiar people with familiar experiences in positions of power, we start to see ourselves become comfortable with the concept that we too have a right to those powerful positions. It no longer becomes unnatural for us to have the audacity to lead the conversation.
In LA City Hall, there are 15 councilmembers and 18 total elected representatives, only two of which are women.
“That’s today. That’s 2020. Those numbers are really dark. It is incredibly important for not only Desis but also women to step up. We don’t have the type of representation we need right now,” Raman said.
We may not have the representation we need right now, but I am optimistic about the future. Desi women like Raman pave the way for desi girls like me. Seeing her strive to occupy spaces of power makes me hopeful for a future where one day if I run for office, women of color in leadership spaces are the norm. The idea that someone who looks like me, relates to me may get the chance torepresent me— alongside 264,999 other Angelenos— is an overwhelmingly empowering feeling that energizes me to continue to demand that microphone at the tables. That’s the power of representation.
If you live in LA County, City Council elections take place on November 3rd. To read more about Nithya Raman’s campaign and platform, click here. Register to vote here.
Dolly Singh is a content creator who is from South Delhi. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Delhi University. Singh then attended The National Institute of Fashion and Technology. She even had her own blog called “Spill the Sass.” Fashion is a true passion for Singh as she made her outfit of the day debut on Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaagon. She has even appeared on Modern Love Mumbai Edition! Singh was awarded Cosmopolitan Blogger Award in 2021 and IWM Social Media Star in 2022. Continue to learn more about Dolly Singh’s journey!
What parts of your childhood pushed you into the world of content creation?
I have always been an introverted-extrovert kind of person. During my early teens I wouldn’t speak much at home but in school I was quite the talkative showgirl. When I look back it seems so paradoxical, almost as if I suffer from a split personality. Somehow my earliest childhood memories are of my loving to be on stage. I remember when I was in the 12th grade, I cajoled my teacher to include me in a singing competition since I had never ever sung live on stage and I was persistent in my effort for over 4-5 years and eventually she gave up and she said ‘okay its your last year why don’t you go do it ‘and of course in the process I realized what a bad singer I was. But just the sheer joy of being on stage, performing to a live audience and entertaining people is what stirred me at a deeper level. I think on the other hand my reserved side allows me to study people and their nuances and store all those observations in my memory data bank which helps me create great content. I wouldn’t speak much at home, but you know when I did, it was just 2 punch lines and everybody would either laugh or get awkward. I think I always knew that I was born to entertain, and it was my destiny’s calling. I would always get jealous seeing child actors on newspapers and television and I was like ‘oh my God, I am a child, and I could be an actor, living my dream life but I’m still stuck here’.
Do you feel what you do can inspire and impact the world? Please elaborate.
Of course, I think anybody with a decent following on social media has the potential to positively impact the community. Content creators enjoy a certain reach and it’s so important to handle that responsibility meticulously and the kind of message that you’re putting out needs to be respectful of certain socially expected parameters and mindful of the basic laws of the universe. It’s better to say nothing, then to say something stupid something that is going to just bring out the worst in people or send out misleading signals. I feel like the amount of content that audiences are consuming these days can trigger positive change if it’s done in the right manner. I feel strongly about a lot of topics, and I make sure that my platform is a reflection of that in some way. With content creators as opposed to film stars and celebrities, there is a direct engagement with audiences and a more one-on-one connection and hence content creators stand at a more leveraged position to influence audiences positively. I love body positivity as a topic.
Who were your fashion icons growing up?
Any fashion events that you envisage yourself at in the future to represent the brown renaissance? I think a lot of my inspiration came from the indie pop movement of the 1900s and the 2000’s. I started watching Hollywood movies and a lot of my inspiration started coming from the Bollywood Hollywood section in glossies and I made cutouts of the media, the models, the people. Then came Disney Channel and FTV and I used to watch those when my mom was away at work. I would love to represent India at the Paris, New York and London runways and walk for Indian designers who are using sustainable fabrics and indigenous designs and helping skilled artisans make a living in India. I love Madhu Sapre, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford.
As you started a style blog in college, what were some of your favorite pieces of clothing in your early years?
Yeah, it was called Spill The Sass. I love blogging on T-shirts because there are so many ways that you could style a basic white T-shirt. Another blog I enjoyed back in the day was 5 ways to style maxi skirts. If I had to choose two pieces of clothing it would be a T-shirt and jeans!
How has your style evolved over the years?
It’s evolved from minimalistic and pocket friendly to being experimental and qualitative. The more I visited fashion weeks and events, the greater I experimented with outfit ideas that I curated personally. Over the years, I’ve started leaning more towards keeping it classy, chic and comfortable.
Tell us about your favorite online character since you make a bunch of them?
My favorite online character of mine would be Raju Ki Mummy because it’s based on my own mother.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
I would love to collaborate with Jenna Marbles. I love her to death. I discovered her few years ago and I would love to meet her in person. I mean she’s just a person who if I meet, I will just start sobbing like a child.
Have you faced adversity in your field? How have you risen from it?
Adversities are just an everyday fact of life but I like to believe my dreams and goals are bigger than my fears and setbacks. I know at the end of the day I want to be something; I want to give back and quitting isn’t the solution. Every time I face a creative block, I just tell myself this ‘get up and get to work, there are many who look up to you, you can’t disappoint them’. Also, the support from family, friends is nothing less than therapeutic especially when you’re having that typical bad day. I run towards therapy when I hit rock bottom, which happens quite often. We often feel burnt out, exhausted, tired, and just sad. I’ve been taking therapy for the last two years. It’s been beneficial. I’m not saying all my problems have vanished; that’s not how it works. It’s a continuous journey and a continuous process, but I think therapy is my mantra.
You recently turned into an entrepreneur with your own line of candles. Tell us more on what drove this decision and are there any other lifestyle products you will be launching?
As a creator I think it’s just natural to want to extend your brand trajectory to newer realms and not be stagnant in your growth path. It’s hard to gauge the shelf life of any creator considering there is stiff competition and there will be a sense of redundancy that seeps into the algorithm at some point. It’s always beneficial to expand your forte and explore multiple revenue streams is what I’ve gathered from so many interactions I’ve had with my industry peers over the past few years. There were many opportunities where people wanted to create merchandise of mine or partner on a fashion and accessory line but I wasn’t very mentally ready given my hectic schedules. I was a customer of Rad Living and after the pandemic I went into this zone of binge buying so much self-care stuff and you know candles was one of them. So when this came about I think I was ready to experiment and expand and was looking for an avenue to invest my energies on something enjoyable. I had already made a content piece on candles before this offer came my way so I had a list of quirky candle names, taglines for fragrances, matching the fragrance notes with the names. I think with this inning the whole ‘Creator’ part to me really came to use here as well and that’s what was exciting about this and it was funny because it was such ‘a life comes to a full circle’ moment for me. My mom was into candle making because Nainital at that point was known for its candles and she used to make such variety of candles, 100s of types of candles and all my life I mean the first 16-17 years of my life I’ve just seen my mom make candles at home and our house were full of wax and everything was just candles. My father used to sell candles and it was my family business. Let’s just say that I’m taking forward the family legacy and I’m very excited to go home and to my father’s shop in Nainital and put my candles there and sell them!
Will there be any lifestyle products you’ll be launching?
I was so nervous about this candle launch as I never wanted to mislead my audiences and have them indulge in something that’s mediocre. I really invested my heart and soul in this venture, and thankfully the response has been beyond phenomenal. Courtesy all the good word of mouth publicity, I’m thinking of maybe launching my own beauty and fashion line in about 2 years!
What have been your favorite content pieces that have you worked on this far?
I love most of my content pieces as I’m very particular about each one of them so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of them is a mini film called Aunty Prem Hai and it’s about an orthodox lady finding out that her nephew is queer from his ex-boyfriend, and this is a first time reveal since the nephew has never come out of the closet. There’s also this series called How Aunties Talk About Sex, and I’ve given a twist to how old-timer desi Indians broach the topic of sex based on how I’ve seen my mother interact with her friends, post dinner conversations amongst relatives, and how it’s more like a taboo.
What are your favorite social media trends?
Anything that emits positivity and gratitude. It’s important that social media trends invoke a sense of intellectual enhancement. Anything that kind of teaches you something that enriches your existence or makes you want to live life more wholesomely. I also enjoy throwback trends, something to do with special memories and nostalgia, because I feel old school is always timeless.
Do you feel people are so trapped in social media that they forget about the world around them outside of their laptops, phones, and tablets?
Yes. Personally it’s been a task for me to get detached from technology and balance the real and the reel. In the last couple of years, I have consciously cut down on my screen time, even though it’s all work and no play for me. Social media is so omnipresent and it’s sometimes scary to see this crazy social media obsession where people forget there’s a real world out there with real people and you need to forge real connections that are deeply rooted in authentic exchanges. It’s scarier to see how social media trends have now become rules to live by for a more meaningful existence for many when on the contrary that shouldn’t be the case.
It’s a word that invokes a sense of pride in me because for me it’s all about being innovative, authentic and self-made. Influencer on the other hand is something that doesn’t resonate with me because there’s no real job description. I’ve always maintained my stand of not being an influencer as I create content and make a living out of being creative and curating an audience for myself over the years.
As you’ve worked with Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aayushmann Khurrana, and others do you hope to be more involved in Bollywood? Tell us about your acting projects.
Of course, I would love to be more involved in the film industry not just in India but globally too. I think there is so much scope for the South Asian community to make a mark in world cinema and it’s time we pick up more Oscars and Grammy’s in the coming times. Anyone who is a creator is also a film star at heart. 90% of creators who make sketches and skits are facing the camera 24×7, making original content, improvising on scripts and all of that stems from that innate ability to be great performers who can keep an audience engaged. I would love to someday have my own podcast where I interview film personalities and get into their skin. I love the dance and song sequences in Bollywood films, and I think I’d be great doing that as well! I’d love to see how I can get out of my comfort zone and do something that doesn’t directly relate to my online alias in the future. I got a lot of offers during the lockdown and shot for a film in 2022 which sees me in a leading role and I’m excited for it to launch later this year. I’m working on some writing projects as I would love to script a documentary or a short film.
Lastly, what do you hope to take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I think the questions have been great. The questions have been answered in a way that I feel so confident about myself right now, and I feel so proud about myself and that says a lot. I would like to thank Brown Girl Magazine for taking time out to interview me. I hope this inspires the brown community across the world!
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.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.