Growing up, I never saw a reflection of myself mirrored on TV or social media. The color of my skin, the food I ate and the traditions I participated in were starkly different from the fair-skinned actors and cartoon characters portrayed in media. When there were Indian characters, they were one-dimensional and often there for comedic effect rather than character and plot development; their identities were centered around their “otherness” — take Apu from The Simpsons, for example.
At an early age, I learned to feel different because of my Indian heritage. In elementary school, I stopped speaking my language, Tamil, in front of other people. In groups, I often noticed my darker skin set me apart and wished my skin was lighter.
I’ve come a long way since then; I love my language and my heritage, and I love the beauty and intricacy of Indian culture. My brown skin is no longer a source of insecurity for me. I’ve noticed appreciation for Desi culture has grown tremendously, and people are far more willing to speak out against existing racism and stereotypes.
And yet, the problem of Indian misrepresentation is still more prevalent than ever. On TikTok, I’ve found videos that mock Indian culture; they fake Indian accents and mock our food for “stinking.” One video I saw called all Indians unattractive.
In the media, Indian characters often are portrayed as socially inept and unfamiliar with American culture. They do not exist outside of their Indian-ness, manifested through often exaggerated and misrepresentative caricatures of their religion, traditions or way of speaking.
Thankfully, videos and characters like these are becoming increasingly rare, and people are often quick to call out the racism. But I can’t help but wonder what younger generations of Indians may think if they ever saw these videos. I never want anyone to separate themselves from their culture in the same way I did. But when these stereotypes are constantly reinforced in Indian kids and they are told they are “other,” it only serves to reinforce the insecurities many children of color grow up with. I was lucky to have a supportive school and outside community, especially in middle and high school, as well as loving parents, friends and teachers who helped me realize the beauty and intricacy of my culture. Not everyone has the same opportunity.
That’s why proper representation of Indian characters is so incredibly important. Representation is just one small step in dismantling racism against South Asians. But for me, a large step in my path to self-acceptance was seeing others like me embrace their culture — while also being funny, kind, compassionate, talented, successful and so many other things. And as I see more Indians gain a platform — especially with Kamala Harris, the first female, Black and Indian vice president in U.S. history — and more movies and TV shows have complex Indian characters and leads, I feel hopeful that younger generations — including my brother and cousins — can feel unabashedly proud of their Indian heritage and of the generations of Indian Americans and Indian immigrants in the U.S. who have paved their path in America.