South Asian representation: How media can make or break race relations 

By: Callum Denault

Published on: October 20 2022

         Photo: Ketut Subiyanto (Pexels)  

Movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment can have an impact on the world around us with how they depict people, whether the audience wants them to or not. People want to see themselves in fiction through characters they can relate to and understand their own personal experiences through. This should not change just because someone moved to another part of the world. 

When it comes to South Asian representation in media from the Western world, it has the power to encourage much needed representation or perpetuate harmful racist stereotypes. 

What is representation, and why does it matter? 

Representation is how people from various backgrounds are seen in the real world. People of different religions, races/ethnicities, gender, disability, and sexual orientation are depicted in media. If minorities are represented through stereotypes, it can increase discrimination against these groups of people by making them more likely to be unfairly judged by others.  

Children who grow up not seeing anyone who looks like them in the shows they watch may start to hate themselves. Even in countries where the majority of the population does not have European ethnic features, such as South Asian and Latin American countries, their entertainment largely shows the few people who do have lighter skin.  

Colourism is a widespread form of discrimination which favours lighter skinned members of the same ethnic group. Colourism is why the most popular beauty products tend to be skin lightening makeup, even in nations like The Ivory Coast where dark skin is common. In India, darker-skinned women who are proud of their natural tone—rather than trying to lighten it—are the exception rather than the norm

Shamika Shabnam is a PhD student in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. She said her research on South Asian media made after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War found that movies tended to romanticize masculine reactions to the war, while downplaying the experiences of women and poor people. Shabnam also said this era of South Asian media criticized certain groups of people by depicting them as effeminate or darker-skinned. She added that these themes persist in modern South Asian media. 

“The colonizers are gone, but the ideas of colonialism still persist,” Shabnam said, referring to how colourism and the emphasis on masculinity were brought to India by The British Empire. She said there need to be more discussions about “decolonizing the mind” to stop the bigoted, colonial values being kept alive implicitly by modern South Asian society. 

“When an entire generation or population undergoes colonization,” she said, “then it takes more than one generation to do the work of decolonization. 

                  Photo: Polina Tankilevitch (Pexels)  

Stereotypes and ignorance: How media can cause harm 

South Asians living in North America face a different form of discrimination that comes from ignorance. This can either be addressed or made worse by their representation in media. 

The Vancouver City Council put forward a motion in 2019 to address a long, ongoing history of racism against the city’s South Asian population. Members of an advisory board said the apology was not enough to fix the lack of awareness and support affecting their community. They urged the city to invest in promoting South Asian culture, heritage, and language.  

An insidious stereotype affecting South Asians in Western culture is the idea they are a ‘model minority’. To quote an article by CNN: 

Asian groups are still being held up as ‘model minorities,’” [Asian groups are] celebrated for achieving higher levels of socio-economic success than others, often even the White majority. It’s an old tactic that has proven to cause more harm than good.” 

The problem with the ‘model minority’ is it pits various minority groups against each other, spreads stereotypes, downplays the unique experiences of different groups of people, and allows racist governments and institutions to avoid addressing their problems. 

Sikhs are sometimes targeted for the turbans they wear, because Islamophobic racists mistake them for Muslims. This hatred can be harmful. Sikh-directed Islamophobia also affects privileged members of society, such as the Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, who was harassed at a political rally for supposedly being “in bed” with Sharia Law.  

This discrimination is equally wrong when it applies to people who are Muslim. The fact so many people confuse Sikhs with Muslims—despite the two following completely different religions — shows how rampant ignorance on South Asian cultures is. 

Mixed reception 

Sometimes the line between progressive representation and repetitive racism gets blurry. One example is Deadpool 2, where multiple critics noted the film’s insensitive, race-related humour and its narrative overly focusing on violent, white, male leads.  

The Guardian’s Steve Rose took issue with how Deadpool 2 portrayed its one South Asian character, writing, “worst of all is Karan Soni’s taxi driver, Dopinder, a weedy, emasculated Indian stereotype whose superhero aspirations make him the beta-male butt of the joke.” 

However, according to Hindustan Times, Soni was surprised by how much Indian audiences enjoyed his character. Dopinder’s Indian popularity is owed to his introduction in the first Deadpool movie, which was set to the classic song Mera Joota Hai Japani by Raj Kapoor.  

Soni told the Hindustan Times that he hopes his role in Deadpool 2 can start a positive change, after the controversy surrounding a white, non-South Asian playing an Indian character named Apu on The Simpsons. Soni is an Indian-born American actor.  

“Even if there are problematics attached to it,” said Shabnam, referring to Dopinder, “certain people can still relate to some aspects of the character.” 

Shabnam added finding solidarity through fictional characters is something people do on an individual level. 

Representation that helps: Ms. Marvel 

A Disney+ show called Ms. Marvel, which released earlier this year in June, has been praised by both Muslim and South Asian superhero fans for its portrayal of the titular character. Ms. Marvel, outside of her superpowered alter ego, is a Pakistani-American teenage girl named Kamela Khan. Khan—portrayed by Iman Vellani—is based off the comic book character who rose to the number one spot on graphic novel charts after her debut in 2014. 

“I was watching Ms. Marvel yesterday with my sister,” said Shabnam, adding they belong to a Bengali Muslim family, “and my sister told me, ‘I feel like Kamela Khan.’”  

Shabnam said how the show portrays Pakistani wedding dances was “very realistic,” and something she could relate to. 

G. Willow Wilson—the white, American, Islamic convert who came up with Khan—told The New Yorker that she and Marvel editor, Sana Amanet, spent a year working on the character. They considered how both traditional and more secular Muslims would react to Khan, and Wilson also wanted the superhero to break away from how Muslims are often depicted as terrorists by Western news. Like other female comic book characters, the Ms. Marvel series sold better digitally than through paper copies. Wilson suggested this could be because comics now have two different audiences, who shop in different locations, want different things out of the same series, and do not socially overlap.  

Shabnam said while there is value in how the plot of Ms. Marvel explores its main character’s ancestral history, and in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever’s portrayal of grief and loss, she also enjoys Netflix’s Bridgerton as a racially diverse show which does not feel the need to explain or provide context for its character’s backgrounds. 

“It sort of normalizes the idea of racial diversity and a racially diverse cast.”  

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