by Shasti Conrad
This January, a local news station mixed up two elected officials from Washington State — both Indian women. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. In the segment, the reporter references a sales tax cut proposal by Democratic Sen. Mona Das, who represents Washington’s 47th District. The video then instantly pans to a clip of Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra, who represents Washington’s 45th District. It was a mistake, but it was also a microaggression too often perpetrated against People of Color — the assumption we all look the same, and our own identities do not matter.
Representation can be a strong combatant against such microaggressions. And the recently increased inclusion of Indian women narratives in popular culture and media is a crucial step.
As a South Asian woman myself, I often experienced this microaggression growing up in a small town in Oregon where, as of 2021, the population was over 85% white (it was more like 95% white when I was growing up). I attempted to have sympathy for my classmates when they mistook me for other Brown girls and recognized that growing up in a majority-white town likely played a role in their inability to differentiate between People of Color, but I don’t believe that age-old excuse can hold today. Especially not for a verified news station that usually prides itself on fact-checking its work.
Asian American women and especially South Asian women are currently experiencing a pop-culture moment in mainstream media that my younger self could only dream of. Led by the likes of Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra, Hollywood is finally showing us, South Asian American women, as the dynamic and sometimes flawed people we are. Both actresses have taken to writing and producing more content that shows the full spectrum of South Asian women and does not just lean into one stereotype — often of the overachieving and overprotected child of immigrants — over and over.
The Sex Lives of College Girls and Never Have I Ever are prime examples. Both shows were co-created by Kaling and feature diverse arcs and characters. For example, Never Have I Ever features a family of first-generation Indian women. The main character, Devi, is navigating expectations and friendships in high school while her mother, Navini, deals with grief as a new widow and professional challenges in the field of dermatology.
In terms of Kaling’s more recent project, I was initially nervous when I learned there was a sex-positive show about college girls featuring an Indian American woman as a principal character. However, I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. Played by Amrit Kaur, Bela Malhotra is a breath of fresh air. Kaur’s character is charismatic and not afraid to stand up for what she wants. And her Indian diaspora parents must learn to be supportive of her so-called nontraditional ambitions. This differs greatly from the Asian American stereotypes of my youth — often of an annoyingly Type A student, under lock and key by strict parents, and never-been-kissed. Think Bend It Like Beckham or Gilmore Girls.
Instead, Malhotra shows something of South Asian women that we ourselves have always known to be true: We are relatable in our struggles with love and family, and we are also profoundly unique — in our backgrounds, our aspirations, our personalities, and how we look. This last part is particularly important to me as a transracial adoptee. I was raised and adopted by a single white mother, but I am Indian. That sometimes shocks people because it doesn’t fit the narrative of what a South Asian person should be. Growing up, I didn’t see stories of people who looked like me that resonated. As a result, it sometimes made me feel like I was an imposter in my own skin.
We saw the importance of representation with the #VeryAsian trend. Asian American Journalist Michelle Li shared her practice of eating dumplings in a segment about traditional New Year’s Eve dinner in saying, “I ate dumpling soup. That’s what a lot of Korean people do.” A viewer responded in a voicemail, saying, “She was being very Asian. She can keep her Korean to herself.” It’s an obviously racist sentiment, and it’s baffling that people think eating dumplings is unrelatable just because it’s common in Asian households.
Increased representation in shows like Never Have I Ever, Bridgerton, and the aforementioned The Sex Lives of College Girls is important for South Asian women and the culture at large. But even with representation, the harmful practice of people’s inability to distinguish between People of Color continues.
According to an article in BBC Worklife, People of Color face misidentification, especially at the hands of their white colleagues and peers, because our brains are primed to recognize and differentiate amongst people with institutional power. This is why People of Color are more adept at differentiating amongst white people than white people are at differentiating us. This boils down to the fact that most white people are not used to seeing People of Color in positions where knowing their names or being able to identify them out of a crowd is important. Even earlier this week, Beth Huang, the director of Massachusetts Voter Table, was misidentified by a protester as Michelle Wu, the mayor of Boston. Both women are Asian American.
This has to change.
It’s not enough for People of Color to see a nuanced representation of themselves in pop culture when that same change doesn’t take place in the real world. Would I love watching a relatable and witty show about an Indian woman politician in the U.S.? Sure, but I would love to vote for one way more.
It seems representation in mainstream media alone cannot bridge this hurtful cognitive gap. It’s representation everywhere that must take place. We don’t just need more South Asian women stories on television, but we also need more South Asian women teachers, elected officials, lawyers, and more.
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Shasti Conrad is the first WOC chair for the Martin Luther King County Democrats in Washington State, the fourth-largest county party organization in the country. In 2020, Shasti founded two organizations — Opportunity PAC and CTRL Z. Among her other credentials are serving as a senior staff assistant in the White House during the first term of the Obama administration and as a briefings manager on the 2012 campaign.
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