South Asian Representation in the Media

Artwork by Kayleigh De Sousa

The impact of growing up and not seeing people who look like you on the big screen is underestimated.

As a second generation Bangladeshi, I always knew from a young age that I was different to most people in my school, and that I was somewhat able to attribute this to my background. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I was ashamed of it. The fact that my parents would speak different languages, wore different clothes and ate different food felt like a part of me I had to hide in order to fit in and prove my ‘Britishness’.

This internalised self-hatred and racism towards my own shouldn’t be normalised. However after discussion with my POC peers, I was confronted with the sad reality that this is, in fact, quite ‘normal’. The idea of having to go above and beyond to prove yourself to compensate for your skin colour in the hopes to one day be ‘good enough’ is alarmingly common in the minds of many young people, however absurd this notion is.

The reality is that growing up I saw girls with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair set the beauty standard while Asians were heavily stereotyped as undesirable ‘nerds’ who are passive and quiet or ridiculed for having a foreign accent.

But it is not just Hollywood that is to blame. These beauty standards also often fuel existing colourism amongst ethnic minority groups, affirming that a fairer complexion is what is desirable. There is a huge industry in South Asia which profits from the desire for lighter skin and Eurocentric features. Bollywood’s obsession with solely casting ‘Fair & Lovely’* actresses as the heroine should receive more criticism than it currently does. This harmful advertising has become so ingrained within the culture and mindset that it seems inevitable that the regular consumption of such media will later manifest itself as denial and potentially hatred directed towards the self.

The glorification of fair skin should be eradicated and the film industries should feel a responsibility to ensure that they are not supporting harmful systems that prop up blatant racism. I would hate for future generations to feel the confusion that I did, but the conflicts I have faced cannot compare to the horrific racism my parents faced in the past. I have hope that things are changing for the better but there is always more work to be done.

Despite South Asians being the largest minority group in the UK, our presence in the media is scarce. On the rare occasion that we are seen, we are characterised by our ‘Asianness’ and it almost feels like the heavy stereotyping of characters neutralises the initial conquest of diversity. While the likes of ‘Bend it like Beckham’ or ‘Never Have I Ever’ have been clear triumphs for Asian representation, they are still far from normalising Asian presence on the screen. Conservative parents, arranged marriages and perfect grades are not the reality for all of us. We cannot be put in superficial boxes. We are multidimensional individuals with our own unique complexities and are not solely defined by our geographical background or ethnicity. Because as crazy as it may sound, some of us are just bad at maths. Diversity isn’t about mere tokenism, it should be about challenging stereotypes - particularly stereotypes which stem from the damaging ‘model minority’ myth which not only erases diversity among Asian individuals but also re-enforces anti-blackness and systemic racism.

The feeling of being seen on the big screen and behind the camera have proven to be extremely powerful. Take Black Panther, or Crazy Rich Asians - minorities have been given opportunities to create brilliant pieces of art for everyone to appreciate. But when will representation stop being revolutionary and start becoming the norm?

While Western media has come a long way, it is still far from perfect. Besides a few such as Dev Patel and Parminder Nagra, I am yet to see more prominent British Asian figures who can become role models for young people and allow them to feel more secure in their identity.

British Asians play a huge role in British history - there are an endless amount of stories to be told and experiences to be shared. Unfortunately I cannot rely on school curriculums to teach me about my history and to be honest, my knowledge is very limited - but I am always keen to learn more. If anyone is interested but doesn’t know where to start, I found that the Instagram page @brownhistory shares several awe-inspiring, authentic stories of South Asians around the world.

Britain may boast multiculturalism but the media should feel a greater responsibility to give different groups the platform to share such stories and pass the mic. British Asians cannot be confined to boxes formed from stereotypes - they are mothers, fathers, fighters, thinkers, adventurers, designers and so much more.

Representation matters. Seeing your identity portrayed positively on the screen matters. And such representation can be extremely affirming for ethnic minorities everywhere.

*Fair & Lovely is a skin-lightening cosmetic which has now changed its name to Glow & Lovely following backlash

Article by Surma Saif