Can TV Make Us Not Hate Ourselves?
I don’t know whether more brown girls on television would have cured my adolescent self-loathing. But it might have made me nicer to brown guys.
An easy way to measure the whiteness of your hometown is how you react when you see other brown people.
My parents are Indian immigrants, and they raised me in a pocket of Canada known for its whiteness, its big and small "C" Conservatism. Our family was one of a few South Asian families in our neighbourhood, so if we went out and ran into other brown people, there were good odds that we knew them pretty well. If we didn’t, my mom would slow her grocery cart down, squint at the fellow brown lady, and quietly posit how we might know them.
“Maybe she’s Monica’s cousin? Or Sonia’s ex-boyfriend’s mom? What’s her name? Anjalee? Anjana?” Then they’d accidentally make eye contact and smile at each other politely, reinforcing my suspicion that I was connected, somehow, to any brown person, whether I wanted to be or not.
The whole world felt white when I was younger. There wasn’t a version of me anywhere—few on television, fewer in movies, and none in my day-to-day life who weren’t related to me. This was before Tom Haverford and Kelly Kapoor, to say nothing of the recent influx of South Asian actors on shows like Sense8, The Grinder, and Quantico. These new shows have people talking about the importance of representation again, and rightly so. The absence of people of colour in movies and television has a dehumanizing effect for the people it neglects to portray: You can’t be what you can’t see.
Without any South Asian romantic leads, or news anchors, North Americans see women like Quantico’s Indian lead, Priyanka Chopra — but, more likely, men who look like her male relatives — and think, cab driver or terrorist? It sounds paranoid, but to the people so poorly represented on a screen (if ever), it feels true. When I was a young, brown girl living in a world that only reflected white people back to me, I found brown boys unappealing for precisely all the reasons my television told me to. And the small pieces of the world that did resemble the wide bridge in my nose or the dynamics of my family were often so unrecognizable that I grew to hate them instead.
I grew up with television, to a fault. I watched it all night after school and all weekend; any free time I had was dedicated to my best friends on network TV. I watched Seinfeld and Friends on Thursdays, The Simpsons every weekend, All in the Family with my mom on Mondays. I was allowed to stay up late on Sundays to watch 60 Minutes with my dad. As a family, we watched Survivor well into the night, making me sleep past my alarm the next school day. Plenty of kids carve out identities by staring at a screen and mimicking what they like, but how do you build yourself when you don’t see anything that looks like you?
Limited representation can feel just as bad as crummy representation, and both made me develop a particular kind of self-loathing for my own people. In junior high, I resented my thick hair, my parents’ inability to speak English without some cross-pollinated Indian-English accent. My idiot friends made jokes about me being a terrorist and I laughed with them because it was the only place I could find my family or myself out in the world. I refused to identify as Indian because it meant admitting that I was not supposed to be here. Classmates would ask me what my name meant and I’d demur —no one asks a Jessica whatever the hell “Jessica” means. I didn’t like talking about whatever warped dishes my mom made for dinner. "Fried cheese?" one girl, Mandy, said to me with her nose wrinkled as I tried to explain saag paneer to her. I reassured her it was good, really, no, honest, but it was no use. I watched the sunlight bounce off every strand of her naturally platinum-blonde hair as she ran away from me.
My self-effacing racism was particularly pernicious when it came to Indian men. Had you asked 15-year-old me what I thought about dating a brown guy, I’d groan and recount their flaws. They were lecherous, or they were repulsive, or they were cheap, or they were meek, or they were weak, or they were aggressive, or they were terrifying, or they were asexual. They were whatever version of an Indian man has been on television the week before. South Asian characters — particularly men — were only represented as either things to fear, or things that feared. They were nerds or zealots, but either way, never presented as a romantic lead. Straight, gender-normative girls are induced to want to be swept off their feet by the man of their dreams, and I insisted mine be white. (While I was wishing for things, though, I also would have preferred to be white myself. White guys like white girls, I thought.)
Regardless, it was easy for classmates to pair me with brown guys because our skin looked the same. Any act of kindness toward the one or two brown guys in the entire school was considered an admission of love, that we were obviously destined for each other. None of them were bad guys, but teens are horrible and I was horrible and it was easier to hate them than myself. None of us had seen a portrayal of brownness not built out of a stereotype. In romantic comedies, beautiful white women dated handsome white men. There was no mixed-race dating in the shows I was watching. You stayed with your own kind, and that was if you were lucky enough to even see your own kind represented.
Years later, I ended up dating my first and only brown guy. We bonded quickly and intensely because we knew the experience of the other: brown, sure, but trying to fit in all the same. He was Muslim, I was Hindu, and it was never going to work, but we liked the idea of trying anyway. As far as we were concerned, we were almost like an interracial couple: Our parents had their own ideas about who made acceptable partners, and two people from historically warring religions weren’t a great fit. But everyone else at school seemed to think our relationship was inevitable. He was brown, I was brown, and so it made sense. I loved him, but I still felt at odds with how we compared to a white couple. Are we too stereotypical? Do we smell bad? Are we only dating because we couldn’t find white people to date instead? We only talked about our race in relation to the white people around us, or in vague terms about how we were both trying to escape the implications of our skin colour. I never told him how surprised I was to fall in love with someone who even remotely looked like me.
We broke up when I moved away for university. Neither of us ever dated another brown person again.
White men are — sorry — the worst. I know they’re the worst and a lot of the ones I know are aware they are the worst. But I like them a lot. I like how they burn in the sun and how their parents can’t pronounce my name and how some of them hardly have any body hair. (How do they keep warm in the winter???)
But I’m never sure if I love white men because I’m predisposed to being attracted to them, or because at some point during my upbringing, the world told me enough times that to be valuable, you needed to get a white man’s attention. Even in Indian movies, the most beautiful or interesting female characters are acting out in ways to get white male attention: small skirts, frosted lips, a few white backup dancers inexplicably bopping along at the front of the line. To be anything in this world, you need to get a white person to like you.
Mindy Kaling was the first actress on American television who actually looked like me: small torso, dark skin, tiny forehead. (Why don’t brown people have foreheads??) She was on The Office when I first saw her, and despite being insane, she managed to get the whitest of white boys in that office to sleep with her. It was more than a victory: It was hope.
My boyfriend is white and if you ask him why he came over to talk to me that first time, he’ll list things that are because of my brownness rather than in spite of it. My dark eyes, my thick brows, my full lips. My body is shaped like a pear and he likes it. But I’ve always been more focused on how I can change these things: How can I make my skin more golden and less yellow, or how I can get my thighs winnowed down to make me waif-like?
Does this mean all that representation is working? My boyfriend filed my features and coloring under “romantic lead” rather than “meek storekeeper’s daughter” or “probably arranged.” But, well, the only people more transparent in their self-loathing racism than hormonal teenagers are babies. And my half-Indian niece, who is 5 years old, is very, very racist.
My niece is following a pattern I know so well. She’s half-white, with almost no physical resemblance to your typical South Asian girl, but she has a fully Indian name and her grandparents teach her Hindi words and slather her in ghee and turmeric. She refuses to acknowledge she’s brown. We’ve tried to explain it, how her genes have mixed and she’s a little of both, but she tells us she doesn’t like brown people. They smell, they’re poor, she doesn’t want to go on the trip to India we’ve planned for later this year. Aside from the four brown people she knows in her family, she has no idea what being Indian means, aside from the worst kind of representation she sees on the screens in her home.
It’s absurd to think she developed this in utero. She’s heard someone say it. Someone verbalized the shitty things we think about people who are slightly different from us, and she’s taken it as gospel. Honestly, it’s possible she heard it from one of us: my parents, or my brother, or maybe me, saying what we always say about India because we’re flippant and we don’t live there. But now we’ve let this tiny body record it all and internalize it, hate a part of herself that we gave, and we can’t take it back.
I got over my self-loathing the way plenty of other people do: I went to university and met a bunch of people and some of them looked like me and hating myself just stopped being interesting. For once, television had no influence over this shift — I never even watched more than a few episodes of The Mindy Project, as happy as I am that it exists. My niece is in no different a place than I was when I was her age. Better representation might help her through and out of this ugly phase, as increasingly the people who look like half of her family are portrayed like real people and not archetypes. But for now, according to her, there are still only two types of brown people in the world: the ones who love her beyond comprehension, and the ones she hates for reasons she can’t possibly yet grasp.