If South Asians only respond to racism when it is directed at them, rather than when it is wielded against people more vulnerable than them, they will forever be held hostage by the need to assimilate into white supremacy.
By Sangeetha Thanapal
Recently, Priyanka Chopra, the lead actress of ABC’s Quantico, was told she was “too ethnic” for a movie role in Hollywood. This understandably upset Chopra. She took it “very personally” and stated that she hopes to change the way the industry functions in time to come.
Chopra has lived in the United States, speaks fluent English, was ‘Miss World 2000’, is able-bodied, thin, light-skinned and has 11 million Twitter followers. All of these should mean she is a shoe-in for major movie roles in Hollywood. Unfortunately, racism within the industry has limited her opportunities, and in her reaction, she pointed out the inherent stereotypes of people of color that plague Hollywood.
Interestingly, this was not Chopra’s position just a year ago. When the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite erupted in 2016, Chopra, who was asked about it at the Oscars, gave something akin to a white, liberal answer. She said that “casting by race is a very primitive idea to (her),” and that she believes she got her role in Quantico simply because she was the best person for the job, despite the fact that the producers have made it clear that they wanted to cash in on her existing fame and reach.
Furthermore, her answer is fundamentally anti-black. #OscarSoWhite was started by black activist April Reign, and much of the writing and commentary on the racism of the Oscars was by black intellectuals. Many of the actors and actresses that refused to attend the show that year were also black. To glibly deny that they even had a reason to point out the racism of the Oscars and to boycott it is essentially anti-black.
This is an actress who by her own admission, had never had to audition for a role before Quantico, speaking as if she knows the ins and outs of an industry deeply steeped in racism and one that especially continues to deny Black talent and achievement. By saying that race has nothing to do with who gets awards, Chopra is denying that the entertainment industry caters towards white people in awards and that race is an underlying factor in who is awarded, as if the Oscars is not a fundamentally racist institution to begin with.
Chopra is buying into the belief that the industry is color-blind, and that everyone nominated that year happened to be at the top of his or her game and just happened to be white.
Furthermore, she has also stated that she does not like the phrase ‘woman of color’ and that she does not want to identify with the term as she does not label herself anything other than human. However, it does not matter what she wants or how she sees herself, because Hollywood labelled her anyway—that’s how racism works.
Priyanka Chopra has spent her time in Hollywood playing model minority by throwing other people of color under the bus just so that she can appeal to white patronage and support. When she was no longer a recipient of this, Chopra seems to have magically discovered racism in Hollywood.
Just like Chopra, there is a long history of South Asians in America disregarding and participating in anti-blackness to align themselves with white supremacy, and this includes a complicity in a neoliberal system that false peddles the myth of meritocracy. They are also happy to profit from the spoils of this, right up until that very system turns around and bites them.
Related: ON PHILANDO CASTILE, AKAI GURLEY, AND NON-BLACK PEOPLE OF COLOR’S COMPLICITY IN ANTI-BLACKNESS
Stars such as Lily Singh and Rupi Kaur have constantly engaged in anti-blackness but have careers built off black culture. Singh has come under fire for blackface in her videos while Kaur has been accused of stealing from a black poet, Nayyirah Waheed. South Asian feminism in the United States is built on the backs of black women, and the reward they can expect for this is the blatant appropriation and theft of black art and labour.
Chopra herself has made a career of selling skin lightening creams and playing on her class and upper-caste privilege in India. She mistakenly thought this privilege would automatically translate to Hollywood, and she expected doors to open to her the way they have back home. However, America reminded her that to them, she would always be a little “too ethnic”.
The recurring thread of fair-skinned North Indians with immense class mobility such as Chopra, Singh and Kaur, who are resistant to seeing racism until or unless it is a personal issue, is a deep-seated problem that the community has trouble acknowledging. As long as the South Asians only respond to racism when it is directed at them, rather than when it is wielded against people more vulnerable than them, they will forever be held hostage by the need to assimilate into white supremacy, and cannot find the emancipation they are hoping for. South Asians must centre black and indigenous struggles, as our liberation is unconditionally tied to theirs.
After the incident, Chopra stated that she wants to fight the current state of affairs in the hopes that future generation of South Asian actresses will no longer experience such blatant racism. She had a perfect chance to do precisely this at the 2016 Oscars by supporting those calling out and resisting racism, but she squandered it in the hopes of appealing to white audiences in America. Let us hope future generations of South Asians do not do the same.
Author Bio: Sangeetha Thanapal is an artist and writer working on the intersections of race, gender and body in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore. Her fantasy fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Brown Girl Mag and many more. Her website is here and she can be found everywhere @kaliandkalki.