Tag Archives: desigirl

Why representation matters: Media and mental health

Growing up as a Brown Asian Canadian/American child first generation immigrant in Nova Scotia, Queens, Virgina, and Michigan, I never really saw anyone who looked like me in the media. The TV shows and movies I watched mostly concentrated on blonde-haired, white, or light-skinned protagonists. My two best friends, who were Black and Syrian, and I, the Desi girl, played Charlie’s Angels, about the whitest show ever made. Of our friend group, my Syrian friend, Mohja, had the lightest hair and skin, so she was always Farrah, the one we all aspired to me. She is now a feminist , award winning Middle Eastern poet and tenured Professor, who pokes fun at patriarchy, both Western and Middle Eastern.

Shows hardly ever depicted things that reflected my everyday life. Desi characters were actually caricatures, such as convenience store clerks, nerds with calculators, or seductive women wearing kajal. It was equally odd and fascinating that people on TV didn’t eat rice at every meal; that their parents didn’t speak with accents; or that no one seemed to navigate a world of daily microaggressions. I was frequently called a camel driver followed by requests to instruct boys about the Kama Sutra as I got older, Idiosyncratic images.

Despite these experiences, I continued to absorb this mass media—internalizing messages of what my life should be like or what I should aspire to be like.  I spent an entire high school year wearing Polo and Izod with khakis and dock siders. Because that’s what all the girls were wearing. There is nothing less interesting or flattering in the entire fashion world. My delicious curries, lentils, and Biryanis that I grew up with were teased and mocked by classmates eating their Oscar Mayer bologna, mayo, and velveeta sandwiches on Wonder Bread. Ironically, present day, some of the top Michelin starred restaurants in the country are Indian. My henna hand designs raised eyebrows, my desire for beautiful blingy jewelry was extra, and the pronunciation of my family names and everyday terms were massacred by tongues far from mellifluous. I speak six languages fluently and I will never tolerate anyone making fun of somebody’s accent. Also, you cannot shorten someone’s name without their consent because you can’t pronounce it. Practice.

Fact:
Every immigrant has the familiar experience of having their name mispronounced as they sink at their chair, their packed lunch made fun of, and even the dearest traditions mocked.I have Hindu friends who were told that the dot on their head was for target practice. Now Beyoncé wears a fake Bindi in her videos. I found it ironic when I was in college at Duke and Virginia Tech, two very Southern colleges, that all the girls came by to borrow my clothes and jewelry. Virtually every spelling bee in the United States and Canada is won by somebody from India. We know your language but you don’t know ours. Most countries in the world including the tiniest like Belgium have multiple national languages.

The Research:
Clinical psychology research clearly indicates that people desire realistic, non stereotypical representations of their own culture. About six in ten parents (57%) say it is important for their children to see people of their own ethnicity/race in the media they consume. But it’s most important to Black parents, 75% of whom say representation is important. Also, 70% of parents want media that exposes children to more about their family’s culture, religion, or lifestyle. The melting pot ideal is not something that is conducive to loving your own culture and is not associated with a strong sense of self-esteem or identity.

The research also clearly indicates that people want stories that are inspirational and aspirational. About two in three parents (65%) feel that media has a big impact on their children’s professional aspirations, which underscores the importance of providing positive role models for Black, indigenous, and children of color. They want diversity because it teaches acceptance and inclusion. Almost 6 in 10 (57%) parents say that the media their child consumes has prompted conversations about diversity, and 63% of parents believe that media has an impact on the information children have about people of other races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.

Media is slowly changing. Many of you may know that I write for several media outlets. I insist on accompanying photos in any article that I write depict POC. We are vastly underrepresented in all Western advertising forums, from print to media.

Check out shows like Ms. Marvel on Disney+. It actually made me tear up, because nostalgia is not allowed when you are being assimilated (Borg reference for my fellow star trek geeks). Watch a Bollywood flick, listen to some music from South Asia or Africa, have conversations with people who don’t look like you. It is amazingly beautiful.

I love being Brown, I love my food, I love all my languages, art, music, jewelry, architecture, appearance, apparel, history, ancestor stories, I love the scents, sounds, and customs. Take a look at us. You won’t regret it.

You should read:  poetry from Dr. Mohja Kahf and Dr. Siddique’s chapter in The Meaning of Difference, Published by McGraw-Hill, New York.

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