Reflections on Indian American Representation

A question I asked myself a lot when building this section of the blog was, “why should South Asians listen to you about fashion & lifestyle?” There are hundreds of other South Asian blogs or social media accounts that already share Desi fashion tips and Desi American styles. 

As I started thinking about pieces that I thought South Asian American audiences would resonate with, the topics I came up with felt like I was putting my cultural identity into a small box of visual aesthetics.

Talking about keeping tikkas in place and swapping crop tops for sari blouses didn’t encompass the extent to which Indian culture shows up in my daily life. 

I want to share my culture from a holistic view. So, I think it’s right to show you how I got to where I am, how my culture has formed me, and how I intend to engage with it here and on all my platforms.

I have a pretty typical story for an Indian American. I went to school with mostly white kids and I didn’t really see other Indian people in my school clubs or sports teams. I was best friends with one of the only other Asian kids in my grade and generally hung out with the (few) non-white kids at my school. 

But regardless of what I saw in the classroom or after school, every other part of my life was rooted in the culture my parents came from. After school, I’d barter with my mom by offering my labor in chopping vegetables if she promised to turn them into a bhindi or paneer sabji. I’d learn (more like absorb) Hindi by watching my mom’s favorite soap operas on ZeeTV and reading subtitles until I didn’t need to. 

On Thursdays, I would go to my Bharatanatyam lessons, which were my main (formal) education in Hindu mythology and Indian culture. The art and the discipline showed me so much more about my heritage than I would ever find at my school on Teal Drive.

Picture of Indians playing holi
credit: Sahil Prajapati on Pexels

Weekends were always spent being surrounded by a huge extended family that had also found a new home in the Bay. My cousins helped raise me and I feel like I attribute most of my values to the lessons that I learned at family parties.

My family found ways to bring their home here that always grounded our roots even when they were transplanted 8,000 miles from their home.

But if I think about how my cultural identity defines my lived experience, I take so much pride in sharing the beauty that I’ve grown up around.

From the way I engage with fashion to the way I contextualize my spirituality and morality, every part of who I am is undeniably linked to the culture I was raised around. 

This narrative will likely feel familiar to a lot of Desi Americans. It feels rosy, warm, and centers a romanticized lens on the second-generation American experience. However, I’m definitely glossing over some very valid issues I’ve faced within Indian culture, including experiences of misogyny and fatphobia that have taken years of emotional energy to unpack. 

That’s why I’ve never particularly resonated with the (few) narratives of Indians that appear in Western media. There are obvious problems with the ways that white people have portrayed Indians throughout history. But even recently, as Indian Americans make space in the media for our narratives, I still find myself left wanting. 

The current popular stories of Indian American experiences on social media feel like they exoticize our culture. There are countless Indian Americans capitalizing on our culture’s fashion, art, food, and visual beauty. But in doing so, we’ve painted the South Asian American experience as a monolith and displayed the beauty of our culture without acknowledging the harder parts of it. 

It’s almost like the way that Indian Americans share our narratives has been reactionary to the negative portrayals of Indians in Western media.

credit: Robin Kumar Biswal on Pexels

We pick and choose the parts of our culture that we like to talk about, which is exactly what we get mad at white people for doing when we call them out for “cultural appropriation.” 

There are valid criticisms of Indian culture that need to be investigated and rectified. But a lot of us are so used to having to defend our culture to white people that we won’t criticize our own culture in order to appear unified against the oppressor. 

While trying to counteract the negative stereotypes of Indians in Westerm media and appease the white gaze, we have lost sight of the struggle for equity that we really need. We are catering our representation of Indian culture to a non-Indian audience, which erases the real prejudices and discrimination that our communities perpetuate. 

I don’t want to view my culture from the white gaze. I don’t want to understand my culture as it relates to whiteness or in the ways that it has been appreciated by white people. I want to be intentional with the ways that I represent my cultural identity because not all representation is good representation. Our portrayals of our culture convey our community’s values to non-Indian people. As such, we need to critically examine representation of the Indian American narrative even if (and arguably, especially when) it comes from Indian Americans. 

I want this lifestyle section to not only reflect the ways in which my culture appears in my daily life, but also the ways in which I show up for my culture and its people. There may be some light-hearted pieces about South Asian fashion, but I want those to be balanced with real discussions of the harder pills to swallow. I’m still educating myself on a lot of these subjects, but I hope we can take that journey together. 

Published by looks.by.ren

fat positive, ethical south asian fashion model & blogger

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