As hate crimes against South Asians continue to rise, we need to dispel stereotypes and wear our voices.
By Rachna Shah
On Sept. 4, 1907, a mob of around 400 white men attacked the homes of South Asian Indians in Bellingham, Washington. They threw them into the streets, beat them, and drove them out of town. Similar riots happened in Vancouver, in California, and elsewhere in the state of Washington during the rest of the decade. It was only a century later that the horror of these events was recognized by Bellingham’s government.
Yet while race riots and Asian exclusion efforts are a part of American and Asian history, they are largely ignored in textbooks and the media. India is associated with the caste system and third-world diseases. In film and on television, South Asian Indians are portrayed as extremes rather than as spectrums — as either too willing to assimilate or not willing to assimilate.
In moving forward, the coverage of South Asia must be more accurate and comprehensive. Mainstream media not only mirrors, but shapes our culture. It produces and reinforces stereotypes of certain cultural groups. Having one’s history and experiences recognized and appreciated in mainstream media allows young South Asians to embrace their culture, not be ashamed of it.
South Asians have long been portrayed as separate and different than white people. They have heavy accents, eat spicy foods, and are generally nerds or geeks, until the very recent past, according to Dr. Bhoomi Thakore, Assistant Professor and Director of the Sociology Program at Elmhurst College.
“Today, actors such as Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and Priyanka Chopra are players in a larger Hollywood elite circle that inform the ability to move ahead in that industry,” Dr. Thakore explains. “For example, Kaling originally started as a writer for “The Office”, and essentially wrote her character for the show. Over the years, Kaling’s character existed as someone who just happened to be Indian, who was ‘just like everyone else.’”
The work isn’t to ask more from Rupi Kaur. The work is to read broadly and deeply from progressive South Asians.
By Sagaree Jain
In the weeks surrounding the release of Rupi Kaur’s second book, it became virtually impossible to have a conversation of any extended length without discussing her. For me, a Punjabi American woman with ties to progressive South Asian organizing and racial justice oriented poetry communities, Rupi Kaur began to shadow my life with a certain inevitability. I could only go so long, among new and old friends, before a joke would be made, or a meme would be referenced, and then off we went, discussing Rupi Kaur for the third time that week.
I think many South Asians in the US and Canada, especially South Asians with strong commitments to feminism and movements for justice, have been deeply split on how to think about Kaur and her poetry. On one hand, seeing Kaur’s face in the Style section of The New York Times when so many of us are aching for representation of our stories is undeniably moving. And Kaur comes from a history many of us resonate with, and she speaks sometimes on the alienation of moving to the US when she was four, growing up in a Punjabi speaking home, and knowing that her family escaped the 1984 Sikh Genocide in India. The way her poetry resonates with young women, young brown women especially, is beautiful, a joy to watch.
But on the other hand, there’s something immovably frustrating about what she has come to represent. Kaur’s work puts forward her experiences in simple bites, with a minimal range of theme and concept. The most popular pieces resonate with white women as easily as they do with women of color, and for a woman internet-famous for posting menstruation blood on Instagram, her public persona is very much apolitical. On the Poetry Foundation, Kazim Ali writes that Kaur’s verses “identify; they do not interrogate.” On Buzzfeed, Chiara Giovanni critiques the homogeneity of her depiction of South Asian women. As Kaur builds momentum, commentators from South Asian traditions ask, dismayed, is this really all an American public wants from us?
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