No Longer Outsiders? On South Asian Representation In UK Culture

With the debate over #OscarsSoWhite coming to a head, it seems apt to remember that "diversity" isn’t about tokenism for its own sake. Through her experiences as a British South Asian, Tara Joshi considers the importance of representing non-stereotyped ethnic minorities in media, and why UK broadcasting needs to cop on

Photo courtesy JStone/Shutterstock

"[Diversity] is just something other. Something special, like it’s rare. ‘It’s diversity!’ As if there is something unusual about telling stories about women or people of color or LGBT characters on TV. I have a different word. I call it ‘normalizing.’ I make TV look like the world looks." – Shonda Rhimes, Television Producer

"Well, you don’t see me getting angry about the lack of white people in Bollywood".

The above is a paraphrase of the kind of salient commentary one can find under articles on the current debate surrounding diversity in media representation. Actor Idris Elba addressed MPs last week regarding the troubling lack of diversity in British television, highlighting the longstanding truth that ethnic minority actors in this country are underused and often heavily typecast. "#OscarsSoWhite" has been trending and gaining traction this month in response to no ethnic minority actors being nominated for the prestigious Academy Awards, with many big names calling for a boycott of the ceremony. The whole affair has provoked discussions over the necessity of instigating a Bechdel-style test for race.

I cannot claim knowledge of the plight of all minority groups, nor would I wish to appear as though I’m singling out one minority group at the expense of another – but, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, it is British South Asian representation in particular that strikes a chord with me.

It is interesting to see the apparent public response to the debate: from reading the Guardian comments section, for example, it would seem that even the more liberal amongst us are querying how important diversity in media actually is.

Part of me can understand that point of view. It’s not like non-white people aren’t on our screens at all here in the West: we are, to a point, represented. Not in all our various guises – certainly, queer people of colour have faced a much bigger visibility struggle – but, still, there is at least some representation. To go further than peripheral representation is different, though: why, in predominantly white countries, would people want to see ethnic minorities in lead roles? "It wouldn’t appeal to the masses", a British Chinese friend tellingly says when we discuss the matter. Indeed, it’s the reason that Gemma Chan, British Chinese star of acclaimed sci-fi show Humans, was initially hesitant about trying a career in acting. "Growing up, I never saw any Asian faces on TV, so it didn’t feel like a viable option", she told the Telegraph in an interview last year, going on to clarify, "There have been many times when I have been told my audition has been cancelled because they’re only going to see white people."

I mention the interview because the comments below it were particularly fascinating, calling out Chan for playing the victim. If she wants more roles, people wrote, maybe she should go back to Asia. Idris Elba and a multitude of esteemed black actors from Britain have found greater success in lead roles over in the States, and there are several Bollywood actors who are actually British-born. Of course, success can be found in these other countries, but should British actors have to do that? The difference between a lack of white actors in Bollywood and a lack of brown actors on this side of the world is that there are comparatively few white Indian citizens. I’m not asking for every UK TV series and film to have actors of colour in for the sake of it, but there should be more roles that are cast blindly – a British person is a British person, regardless of their skin colour. Gemma Chan got a break, and is becoming increasingly well-respected: the public don’t seem to have had trouble with processing a non-white person as a lead, and this must be an encouraging sight for other British Chinese people.

Stories like Chan’s, however, are not common at all. "Why must Asian actors mainly choose between playing corner-shop owners or terrorists?", Channel 4’s diversity executive Oona King asked in February, and it’s so horribly true. It feels like South Asians are only ever stereotypes in British film and television. Though, I suppose it must be difficult to have them as anything but when UK broadcasting mainly offers a glut of gorgeous period dramas.

Casting agents need to focus on being inclusive and not assuming that the relatable "everyman" is white, straight and male – a point made most poignantly by Aziz Ansari in the wake of his Golden Globe-nominated series, Master Of None. I’m not calling for quotas or anything so dramatic as that, but I would posit that a lot more needs to be done to overcome casting people solely as stereotypes – because, if not, we subconsciously begin to believe those stereotypes. Pop culture does affect our behaviour and our perceptions of others, so it’s about time that we acknowledge this rather than isolate non-white British people.

There are incidences from my childhood which show the impact of not seeing people like me in films or TV: a nursery school class where I told my teacher I wanted blonde hair is perhaps the most telling. It might seem harmless enough – I was only four or five – but it’s troubling when considering I was the only non-white person in my class. My mum was bemused to say the least, and while we laugh about it now it’s still uncomfortable. At such a young age, I had already decided that blonde was beautiful and, by comparison, that my own dark hair and South Asian heritage made me less worthy.

Again, it seems apt to refer to Master Of None. The groundbreaking US show follows protagonist Dev, a New York actor with Indian immigrant parents, struggling with issues that are relatable to everyone: family, career, romantic relationships. While being a strong series in its own right, then, the opening montage of episode ‘Indians On TV’ felt devastatingly spot-on in pulling apart decades of problematic representations of brown people. It shows Dev as a child, watching television and film portrayals of South Asians. These take the form of predominantly white actors in brownface doing ridiculous Indian accents, often playing mystical people in colourful clothing or, of course, corner-shop owners.

There may well be people from the south of Asia who somehow fulfil the stereotypes, but it is offensive and ignorant to reduce a whole culture to that, particularly with white actors donning brown make-up. This is especially distasteful for second-generation immigrants, who identify with the West as much as (if not more than) with their parents’ place of origin. Ansari has countered the stereotypes by attacking the premise and showing that, actually, a show starring a South Asian man in a non-stereotyped role can deal with universal issues in the same way as a show starring a white man. Master Of None isn’t an Indian show, it’s just a generally acclaimed show. This month saw Priyanka Chopra win the People’s Choice Award for her role in Quantico, a show in which her character’s Indian heritage is purely incidental to her character. Again, the show was evidently watched by many – not just Indians.

So where are the UK’s equivalents of this? According to the 2011 census, Indian and Pakistani people are amongst the largest migrant groups in Britain, and it’s hardly as though we’re all "fresh off the boat", with many of us born or raised here. It is rare that I agree with our PM, but I’d concede that David Cameron is ultimately not wrong in wanting immigrants to be integrating more with local culture (if I am dubious about his methods and his linking a lack of English-speaking with extremism). But where are the examples of these integrated immigrants and next-gens on our screens? In reality we exist, so why do the only British South Asians we see take the form of horrendously tired stereotypes as per Goodness Gracious Me and Citizen Khan? The former was seminal in its initial run, of course, but while Sanjeev Bhaskar is great, his seeming portrayal of every British South Asian male ever shows how stale our country’s broadcasting culture can be. In recent special editions of the show, it has also become increasingly evident how dated the whole concept seems now – younger British South Asians have moved on.

The FADER pointed out how much of Zayn Malik’s Desi fanbase respect him for being a "normal" brown guy – he practises Islam, he’s into Bollywood music, but these things don’t define him: he exemplifies what, for many, it is like to be British and South Asian. "I’m just a normal person as well as following my religion, and doing all the normal things that everybody else does. I love music and I get tattoos and I make mistakes, and I’ve had to go through relationships and break up relationships. I feel proud that people actually look to me and can see themselves in that", he said in the interview. Again, that’s exactly what is missing from British film and TV: the integrated.

America’s media remains problematic, but it has Master Of None, The Mindy Project and Quantico – shows which are hardly infallible, but which do have South Asian leads for whom race is both integral and incidental to their characters. They are American and South Asian, in that order. And indeed, for the most part, the second generation in this country don’t just subsist on poppadoms or run cab services (unlike those wonderful South Asian families of EastEnders) – we’re as British as we are South Asian. If we want the world to stop considering minority groups as reductive stereotypes, then we have to actively pursue change in how we are represented.

It is admittedly quite a difficult balancing act, because reductive stereotypes aren’t just found in representations of South Asians as corner-shop owners and the like; there’s also the patronising idea of mysterious exoticism. Yes, the BBC ran an India season last year, but when there were few brown faces on our screens outside of this, people are surely going to buy into an idea of Indian people as some romantic form of alien. This side of things – the Slumdog, Major Lazer types of representation – are not only harmful and isolating to the self-esteem of second gen South Asians, but to everyone else too. It’s a digression, perhaps, but I’d posit that this all fetishises Indian culture, and makes white boys think it’s okay to come up to a brown girl in a pub and tell her she seems "exotic" (this has genuinely happened to me on more than one occasion).

It seems condescending to even have to type this, but I have to stress "diversity" isn’t some dirty, PC word – it isn’t about tokenism or ticking boxes for the sake of it; it’s about genuinely representing the wealth of people out there and giving everyone the same opportunities. In an ideal world, none of this would matter – but, unfortunately, the world isn’t ideal, and it’s still almost universally the case that people are treated or perceived differently dependent on their skin colour.

Master Of None is very much a part of a timely sea change, though Ansari pointed out in the New York Times, "as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low". America’s race issues are troubling, and though the Oscars debacle is at least getting people talking about representation, opportunities and casting, there’s still a long way to go.

And what of the UK? In 2015 British pop culture was still only feeding us a narrative of South Asians as outsiders. How on earth are the children of immigrants supposed to feel anything but isolated, both in the UK and back in South Asia where they are mainly considered as "westernised"?

There is ultimately a failure to represent a generation for whom being from Britain is as important and relevant to them as having parents from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, there’s a failure to represent a whole lot of minorities. Blind casting and integrated, non-stereotyped ethnic minority representations aren’t incidences of political correctness gone mad or actors playing victim; these are still important steps in being considered as equal, as normal – in reminding ourselves and others that we have just as much claim to being British. As a British South Asian, my life is more than curry and arranged marriage chat, and I’d love to see characters on this side of the world who convey that. It’s about time Britain got its Master Of None.

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