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SAWANT: South Asians deserve fair representation in society

Column: Sincerely Rue

South Asians are spread out across the world, but it is easy to feel invisible without fair representation in society. – Photo by Pixabay.com

You can probably tell by my name, but just in case it is not obvious, I am South Asian. 

Billions of South Asians are dispersed all over the world, with a great number of them growing roots right here in the U.S. So why then, as a South Asian, do I still feel so invisible in this country? 

Like some people reading this article, I enjoy watching TV shows and movies. Unlike some people reading this article, I have never really felt seen by any character I enjoyed. I never saw anyone that looked like me in the shows I watched, and when I did, there was always something left to be desired. 

Mostly because South Asian characters, actors and actresses were subjected to the most overdone, wrung out, stale stereotypes, wedded to the model minority myth. Whenever South Asians receive a morsel of representation, more often than not, it is the same recycled storyline of the obsessive, strict parents, the nerdy, outcast student obsessed with their grades and a tech support joke haphazardly thrown in there. 

It is as if South Asian characters are not South Asian if they do not portray stereotypical South Asian characteristics. That kind of inaccurate representation perpetuates an image of South Asians that billions of us do not identify with. And when this image is reproduced hundreds of times in American media, it becomes a norm, effectively erasing almost every South Asian that deviates from the stereotypes.

Suddenly, you do not fit others’ perspective of a South Asian. And almost too quickly, your being feels microscopic due to it.  

Sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as a “bad Indian” when I struggle with a math problem or cannot figure out why my code is not running. It is all jokes but at the root of those jokes, it is really nothing to laugh about. 

As kids, we watched "Phineas and Ferb," where the only South Asian character, Baljeet Tjinder, was your stereotypical bullied brown boy who got the best grades at school and had the most exaggerated Indian accent. In the same way, Ravi Ross in "Jessie" dressed in kurtas every day, cared too much about school and also spoke in an intense Indian accent. 

These characters were often the butt of distasteful jokes and ridicules. The repeated use of exclusively South Asian characters for comedic relief in the same space as other respectable, witty or charming non-South Asian characters is frustrating.

As a child, to grow up watching your own people, in the very few times you see them on your screen at all, be disparaged and belittled by others, you almost are made to believe that that is just how it has to be. It is demeaning.

Whenever South Asians try to point this out, we get told it is just a joke. To not take it too seriously. To just enjoy the show. That it is not that deep. Sometimes, fine. But it is nobody else’s place to tell a South Asian person that that kind of racism and those microaggressions are “just a joke” when for their entire life their entire culture has been perpetuated as a joke. 

Racism against South Asians is so normalized to the point when the gag is straight up racism. It is invalidating to get told your anger is misguided in that sense.

There is also erasure in the alteration of names. Your name is something so personal to you. It is your title, you put it on everything you own, you tell it to everyone you meet, it is the first thing people know about you. It is a special part of the human experience to have a single collection of letters symbolize your entire being. South Asian names are not like American names.

They sound different, obviously, and can vary in difficulty of pronunciation to those who have not grown up regularly using their phonetics. 

But a name, nonetheless, commands respect, no matter how hard it might be to say it. If it is hard, then you learn it. The shortening, the repeated misspelling and mispronunciation or the anglicization of a South Asian name that I have seen, time and time again, contributes to increasing feelings of imperceptibility. 

When you shorten “Nikhil” to “Nick,” for example, without their permission, when you repeatedly mispronounce or misspell their name even if they have corrected you many times (I cannot tell you the number of times this has happened to me), when American TV shows and movies give South Asian characters American names, (like Owen Sharma in "The Haunting" of Bly Manor or Simon Masrani in "Jurassic World"), there is quite an expunging effect about that. 

I am not saying that every South Asian has a South Asian name, but how is it that in one of the very few times there is a South Asian character in American media, they have an American name? 

Oh, and we have to talk about the controversial identifier. I know a lot of people who are not a fan of the term “Asian” when it comes to identity due to its tendency to lump all Asians together as a single monolith. “Asian” itself is such a diverse term. 

It consists of many different cultures, but I am willing to bet when you hear the word you think of East Asians, first and foremost. It is not your fault if you do (I am South Asian and I think the same) because in America, “Asian” is used primarily to refer to East Asians, effectively erasing South Asians from the conversation. 

I am Asian American, but if I am honest, I do not feel like I can confidently categorize my identity as “Asian” because more often than not, South Asians get left out of “Asian” discourse. So when our colleges report diversity data, or the Census Bureau releases racial and ethnic diversity data, the “Asian” slice of their uniform pie charts means very little to me. 

“Asian” is anything but a uniform term. Unless they disaggregate that data, it tells me nothing. Who are they really talking about? Because it does not immediately feel like they are talking about me.

There is a certain significance when your culture, your people, are presented properly to others. When you are included in the conversation. When you are actually perceived. It signifies not only pride, but also visibility. The human need to feel seen, fulfilled. Yet the more inaccurate the media gets, the more insensitive others act, the more my existence as a South Asian woman in this country feels translucent. Feels see-through.

We are not see-through, though. We never were.

Rujuta Sawant is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in business analytics and information technology and minoring in political science. Her column, "Sincerely Rue," runs on alternate Mondays.


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

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 500 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 850 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to oped@dailytargum.com by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day’s publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article was titled "South Asians deserve fair media representation."


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