Special Issue: Being Brown

Addressing the West’s Stereotypes of South Asia

  • Graphic Andrew Ryder

Switch on your TV and put on any series that includes a group of friends. Do you see a brown character there?

Are they awkward? Do they dress funny? Are they constantly embarrassing themselves in social settings?

Sadly, in most cases, the answer is a big “yes.” Be it Kelly Kapoor from the The Office who constantly wants to get married, have babies and settle down, and is shown to be someone whose life choices are dominated by her parents.

Or how about Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, an Indian scientist who has trouble speaking to women and constantly makes a fool of himself?

The stereotyping of these characters—be it their accents, their demeanours, or their personalities—is constantly blown out of proportion.

I walk down the hallway, I see smiling faces, I see friendly gestures, I feel like a part of the crowd, no different than anybody else. But with each passing day, I realize I am indeed different. I am often told, “Wow! How long have you been here? You speak English so well, you don’t seem to have an Indian accent!” An accent is something we acquire based on the region we grow up in and the kind of people with whom we are surrounded. Who decides which accents are more appealing than others?

Friends of other ethnicities have told me that they are grateful that I’m not like the “other Indians” and “thank God that I am more westernized.” This makes me wonder sometimes if I am doing something wrong or just doing everything right.

The worst part is that it was meant to be a compliment—as if I am supposed to feel like I accomplished something just because I appear more westernized.

Most brown people tend to struggle between the two extremes—being called timid on one hand and being classified as dangerous on the other.

There have been multiple occasions where I have been classified as the non-threatening one, the one with the smelly food, and the one who would break into an elaborate song and dance at any given moment.

The seriousness with which people have asked me if we in India really dance on the roads randomly during the day really amazes me. And the little dance they themselves break into to illustrate what they’re talking about is hilarious at the same time.

As far as the food is concerned, the diarrhea jokes never seem to end. Not to mention the numerous times I have been told that I have been missing out on the best tasting meat, since I am assumed to be someone who doesn’t eat beef. When I tell them that I do, I am frowned upon and my integrity is questioned.

We are not born racist. We develop it over time. We are influenced by what we see and what we choose to retain. Most of the time, we just tend to create a mental image pertaining to a certain culture and classify people accordingly.

There is an Indian actor who is light-skinned, green eyed and in great shape. I once showed his pictures to a friend of mine and she asked me if he was an Indian. When I said yes, she replied, “How is it possible? He is so attractive.” I really didn’t know what to say. Are we not supposed to be attractive?

She never realized that there was something odd about what she said. In fact, she was still in awe and very much convinced that it was just not possible.

Most brown people tend to struggle between the two extremes—being called timid on one hand and being classified as dangerous on the other. I had mentioned an incident of violence in India to a friend once. It was a serious topic so, naturally, I was concerned. Not long after I started, he began laughing hysterically.

When I asked why, he said: “I can never imagine Indians to be violent. What would you do? Give me spicy food?”

The whole essence of the topic was lost, and it all became about the mockery. A few days ago, I was buying vegetables at Marché PA with a friend. There was a middle-aged lady standing next to us. Our carts collided by mistake. My friend went to apologize, but before he could, the lady shouted “Pakistani” at him.

Is it meant to be a swear word? Are we supposed to feel sorry for being brown? It was a very uncomfortable situation, for us and also for the people standing around. Being thrown between the two extremes time and again tends to build apprehensiveness, and, when apprehensive, you are never yourself.

There seems to be this need in society to be more westernized and therefore more accepted. I have even myself tried to modify the way I speak. I have tried to tone myself down in public so that I don’t stand out from the crowds.

It seems harmless in the beginning, but then you see yourself getting lost in the fog. Our cultures make us who we are. More importantly, we are all humans; we have our own virtues and our own vices.

Each one of us has so much to give, so much to learn and so much to teach. All this can only be accomplished once we aren’t stressed about masking our true selves. After all, as the African-American author Aberjhani once wrote: “Beneath the armour of skin and bone and mind most of our colours are amazingly the same.”

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