I was in fifth grade and my class was studying ancient Mycenae. Our assignment was to make a self portrait in the style of ancient Mycenae’s most notorious art form, the mosaic. The ancient Mycenaeans used small pieces of colored glass to create their mosaics. Since we were fifth graders and a liability issue, we used magazines, cutting the pages into small squares with which to create our own portraits. I couldn’t do it. The magazines, typical of most popular magazines in the United States, didn’t have enough people of color to create the various skin tones for my portrait.
At the time I didn’t find this unusual or even problematic. I still considered myself an American, but in the media I never expected to see people like myself represented as American. It never occurred to me that I, as a South Asian American, deserved to be represented. I understood and justified this as a numbers game. There were simply too few Asian Americans relative to the rest of the American population. I thought that in order to represent America or being American you had to look like most of them, which meant being white or maybe a larger minority group.
This began to change in my late adolescence. The first Indian woman I saw in mainstream American media was Parminder Nagra, portraying Dr. Neela Rasgotra in ER. She wasn’t playing an American, but it was significant to see someone on television that shared my ethnicity. Two years later Mindy Kaling made her television debut as Kelly Kapoor and was my first example of an Indian American in mainstream media. By the time I graduated college, Kaling had her own television show—the first Indian American to headline a show.
It was a heady experience. As a child I could only identify with pop culture role models in a piecemeal way. I identified with Hermione Granger’s frizzy hair and brainy personality, with Halle Berry’s skin tone, with Seven of Nine’s pragmatism and otherness. Kaling’s turns as Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Lahiri were the first characters I could identify with based on multiple defining social categories: race, gender, and culture. It was a validation that I had a right to be American, a right to be recognized, that I possessed cultural value. This, I thought, must be what many other American women feel when they see actresses like Tina Fey, America Ferrara, and Melissa McCarthy (all who have headlined their own shows). Looking back can be painful, realizing what I missed out on as a child. It comes with a question, one Kaling herself has asked, why not me?
I had never realized the value of having role models that looked like me. Understanding this value forced me to recognize the impact that the deprivation of role models had had on my life. I had grown up mimicking and justifying a culture that largely didn’t recognize the existence of Asian Americans and certainly marginalized many other communities of color. I can see it in the awkward self portraits, the struggle to portray myself as authentically American, the heartbreak I experienced as a child when I didn’t look like everyone else. Perhaps the most disappointing is how complicit I felt in my own devaluation and at how young of an age this started. It’s not surprising then that I’d rather look forward and focus reworking my sense of belonging. Yet the recognition of progress will always come with the baggage of the past.
I look at today’s media and just a handful of South Asian actors come to mind—Parminder Nagra, Freida Pinto, Archie Panjabi, Mindy Kaling, Kal Pen, Dev Patel, Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra—but their characters are remarkably diverse. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I can’t reduce their work down to a particular trope; that their portrayals are nuanced and interesting. To me, this is more than just progress for the sake of political correctness. Such appeals, while worthwhile, don’t really get at what I feel when I’m able to see versions of myself onscreen (albeit really really good looking versions). It’s about belonging. It’s about feeling like I belong in this country and that I can belong in a variety of contexts and characters. It’s easy to say it’s all fiction, but fiction is also an aspiration, a definition of what could be. Whether we like it or not these portrayals inform our sense of what is possible.
[Image via FOX]