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ON THE FRONT LINES: South Asian Americans need more representation in media

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In a highly diverse and densely populated area such as Central Jersey, it is easy to overlook discrimination against certain minorities, especially South Asian Americans. Due to their accessibility and proximity to large international airports, big cities near the coasts are home to many South Asian American immigrant families. According to the 2010 United States Census, more than 528,000 Indian Americans lived in California, while more than 292,000 lived in New Jersey. This statistic is on a constant rise, and “Indians have a higher percentage as a ratio of a state's total population in New Jersey,” according to the census. These statistics also do not include all South Asian American populations from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and others. As any Rutgers student knows, South Asian Americans are a prevalent community. So, why are we so often misrepresented and mistreated?

There are countless stereotypes perpetuated about South Asian Americans. "The Simpsons" character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon represents many of them, starting with his unusually long last name following a common theme that many South Asian Americans have names that are impossible to pronounce. The character also owns and operates a convenience store, has a Ph.D. in computer science, began as an illegal immigrant and (most disturbingly) has an unrealistically heavy Indian accent for a naturalized immigrant living in the United States for many years. This accent was, of course, voiced by Hank Azaria, who is not South Asian. "The Simpsons" portrays this minority character badly, pouring all possible stereotypes into one mold. The difficulties ensued by this stereotyping affect all South Asian Americans. As comedian Hari Kondabolu said in an interview with The New York Times, “Everything with Apu is like this running joke. And the running joke is that he is Indian.”

This is of course not the only instance in which the community faced misrepresentation. 

South Asian Americans are rarely ever featured in movies, shows or other media. When they are, they are usually portrayed with aspects similar to Apu — side characters with heavy Indian accents, such as Baljeet from "Phineas and Ferb," or working in a stereotypical job, such as a call center in "OutSourced." South Asian Americans are stripped of their humanity and portrayed to play a simple role as the token minority. In the media, they often do not have personalities or life stories — they are usually criminalized or portrayed as terrorists. This causes a majority of the nation to view them as merely stereotypes. The reality that South Asian Americans face is one of constant dehumanization, treated as side characters in the media and in real life.

But, in recent years, there has been more attention brought to this topic. Before the rise of sexual assault allegations against him, Aziz Ansari was a reputable figure in the media for South Asian Americans. His show, "Master of None," portrayed South Asian American life as it is for most first-generation immigrants. Included were his struggles with his parents, as well as his experience facing stereotypes. Hasan Minhaj is another South Asian American artist gaining fame. His Netflix special "Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King" is a rhetoric on facing racism in America, along with the general experience being Indian-American and Muslim. Minhaj went on to feature as a host at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he said, “Who would have thought, with everything going on in the country right now, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage?”

The recently famous movie "Crazy Rich Asians" featured an all East Asian cast. This movie gained both criticism and support. The support primarily came from the fact that an all-Asian cast was hired — not just as  token minority characters to support white protagonists, as per usual. While this was a major feat for East Asian Americans, we have yet to see a similar space with similar fame for a South Asian cast. 

While it is true that some light has been shed on the difficulties of being a South Asian American, it is not enough. Stereotyping us to be terrorists, convenience store workers and so many more disgracing and derogatory narratives is not okay. South Asian Americans have a history and place in the United States, as do all immigrants. We deserve proper representation in the media, proper treatment in the workplace and an erasure of stereotypes that define our realities. We deserve our discrimination to be recognized and actively confronted.

Priyanka Bansal is a Rutgers Business School junior double majoring in business and journalism and media studies. She is an editorial assistant at The Daily Targum.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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