Author: Zahra Onsori
Content warning: racial slurs.
As an Indian-Iranian woman, my racial ambiguity often leads people to misidentify me. Whether they think me Spanish, Malaysian, Turkish, or just “Brown,” this is something I have become accustomed to. Growing up in a predominantly white town, I found myself being compared by my white friends to fictional characters that bore no resemblance to me bar being Brown in colour. Often times I accepted these comparisons as they were the only mainstream labels that myself and others could recognize.
As a child, I remember going to town with my mother, who wore a traditional salwar kameez, and feeling ripples of embarrassment as her brightly patterned dresses caught everyone’s eye. I didn’t want to be different; I wanted to blend in and be like everyone else. In retrospect this memory brings me a lot of sadness, thinking of an 8-year-old girl embarrassed of her mother’s native clothing, something which I see now as a symbol of my identity.
Tokenism is still common in Western society, which provides the illusion of diversity in the workplace and social settings. However, seeing the token Brown character here and there on TV left me feeling like the token brown friend, one that was kept around for a cheap laugh at the expense of my identity. I cannot recall the number of times I was asked to mimic Apu at social gatherings as a child. At first I enjoyed making people laugh, and I didn’t understand that it was to my own detriment. However, as I got older the realization dawned that I was selling myself out for the white seal of approval, something that I always saw others receive but could never obtain for myself.
The lack of representation on screen as a child has affected my development into adulthood, something which I understand only in retrospect. It is not just the reason I felt so alien in my whitewashed town, but it also contributed to how people reacted to me and my family since they’d never seen anyone like us before.
I knew that I was not alone in this feeling of being marginalized and wanted to interview people of different ethnicities so they could comment on their own experiences.
Shania Albutt (they/them) — Pakistani & white
I remember growing up, even at 4 years old, feeling there was no one that looked like me. Never did I see a Black or a Brown character on CBeebies or even Cartoon Network. All the white girls at my school saw my Brown skin and immediately categorized me as Princess Jasmine, but I didn’t feel that sort of connection to Jasmine. At one point I thought, “Well everyone’s shoved me into these boxes, I might as well take it as a compliment.”
I got called a p*** a lot in primary school. When I got to secondary school, they started calling me curry muncher. My Dad, who is Pakistani, was estranged for 15 years, and so I never had any experience with that. I grew up in a white family and I don’t even like curry. I never tried it, so I was very confused. They were stereotyping me because I’m Brown. It is so far removed from my own experience, but they didn’t care.
If there had been more diversity in cartoons and kids’ media, I feel like I wouldn’t have got so many ignorant comments and it would have helped normalize people like me. Especially as a mixed kid, it’s hard trying to find your place in two different worlds. I feel like when you don’t have representation, you create an environment in which it’s normalized and weaponized to say that it’s just the first thing that comes to your head, to call someone a p***.
I think representation isn’t about putting people of colour in film, it’s about having them in the writing room. For example, I’ve seen so many videos on YouTube pointing out how historically flawed and misrepresentative the Mulan remake was with regards to Chinese culture. You can tell that they did not have any Asians in the writing room.
I feel like representation would make everything so much better. For ableism, homophobia, transphobia, for every minority group. I feel like any representation in the media that doesn’t have an intersectional lens is kind of useless.
Rabmiz* (he/him) — Malawian
People used to call me whatever Black character was known at the time, sometimes from shows I didn’t watch — it used to annoy me but I eventually became numb to the comparisons. In the realm of TV and entertainment, I felt there was a lack of immersive stories and characters, and although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, my unconscious answer was to switch to sports where I could see people that looked like me perform at a high level every single week in football.
When I was young and YouTube creators were on the rise, there was a YouTuber called KSI who embodied Black stereotypes in the form of entertainment. I never gauged the effects completely until a year afterwards, but any British kid that played FIFA and watched YouTube started mimicking African accents and regurgitating racial stereotypes. This would have me shaking my head but since I was around 15 or 16, I had already had ‘the talk’ from my family members about how in society, it’s a lose-lose when you retaliate to ignorance.
My Auntie had me watching adult-geared comedies from a young age such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and My Wife and Kids. On top of that, American kids’ channels had me with That’s so Raven, Static Shock, and Keenan and Kel. For me, what I lacked wasn’t necessarily representation but more so suitable leadership and role models.
Zena Kaur (she/her) — Punjabi
I can remember being called Princess Jasmine at school every time I wore Asian clothing for Diwali. I think when I was younger I was just happy to see an Indian Disney princess to be honest. It wasn’t until I got older that I found out she was in fact Arabian and the culture was misrepresented a bit.
The lack of representation in TV did affect me. It makes you feel ashamed of who you are because you’re not like everybody else. I went to a primarily white primary school so there were only a handful of Punjabis but almost all of us were ashamed and almost quite scared to even speak in our mother tongue. I personally think it’s why I took so long in deciding I wanted to relearn how to speak Punjabi.
In school my mum would constantly put oil in my hair and I was picked on for that until around year nine when I started to stop her. The hair on my arms was a conversation topic a few times too and it was always the white people who’d say the most.
As people of colour we’re all lumped into one group, however there’s so many different and beautiful cultures that many people aren’t aware of. If others were educated on the matter, there’d maybe be a lot more understanding and peace.
I don’t think I know what my ideal form of representation would be. I’m still waiting on an accurate representation of any Brown girl that isn’t tainted with patriarchy or misogyny when it comes from the Brown community or stereotypes when it comes from outside the Brown community.
Deon Graham (he/him) — African & Caribbean
In relation to cartoon characters, I related heavily to Gerald from Hey Arnold. There weren’t many Black cartoon characters in cartoons that I’d watch growing up so it was cool to have that character that stuck with me.
When it came to role playing games where people would be different characters, there wasn’t often one that I would be like, “Oh, I look most like this character so I’ll be them.” I just went with the character I liked the most, whereas for others there were always people that looked like the main characters, or surrounding characters.
I never understood that there was a lack of representation of people of colour in media. I just thought there mustn’t be that many people of colour because that’s how it was in school. It played into my perception of reality growing up; I just thought it’s how things were and it never crossed my mind to challenge that. However, as I was exposed to more of the world and started to experience more life when moving around, I started to realize that just isn’t the case at all. I can really just be who I am, which took me a while to realize.
When I first started secondary school, there were some Youtubers that often made jokes about Black stereotypes and stuff like that, but still I never really thought much of it, it just kind of got overwhelming when every lunchtime someone would offer me chicken or someone would ask why I’m not eating watermelon or something along the lines of that.
Representation to me would probably just be a range of different people within POC households just doing what they normally do, but without the need to accentuate certain slang or stereotypes.
*Pseudonym at interviewees request
Interviews has been edited for length and clarity.