Where do South Asian-Americans fit into multicultural American storytelling? Representation, Black cultural appropriation, and the South Asian-American story

By Niyathi Maya

South Asians have a rich storytelling and artistic tradition. From Bollywood to Vedas, Sutras, and the Mahabharata, we have established ourselves as creators of art, curators of history, and connoisseurs of renaissance thought. We discovered atoms before Democritus, invented the number zero, and gave the world Amitabh Bachchan.

Yet in America, we are still finding our foothold in a slowly growing market for diverse stories. If you’re like me, a second-generation immigrant, you’ve been called an ABCD (American-born confused Desi) more times than you can count, are generally horrified at the BJP but mainly informed by Hasan Minhaj, and find yourself torn between worlds, with neither a perfect fit. You look to Hasan, Mindy Kaling and Lilly Singh as voices of the second-generation identity. You crave cultural inclusion.

My parents used to sing Hannah Montana’s “The Best of Both Worlds” to us kids, explaining the beauty of our cultural intersection with high-pitched Miley Cyrus impressions. I love this unique identity. But as an Indian-American who knows only English (and high-school level Spanish…), with no talents in Bharatanatyam dance or Carnatic singing, I often don’t fit anywhere. “Some old loser was telling me that I’m too Indian, and some other people think I’m not Indian enough!” says fellow Tamilian hothead Devi in Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever

Underrepresented and craving cultural inclusion, South Asian-Americans find ourselves latching onto what we can find, be it hip hop, anime, John Hughes films, or our gracious cameo in Black is King. Young second-generation immigrants may be torn between traditional family values and modern culture, largely defined in America by two groups: white and Black Americans. We have learned to define ourselves in relation to various identities, and latch onto cultures with which we can relate and gain inclusion, sometimes without a deeper cultural understanding.


a difficult, bidirectional, and deeply important line

In our search for inclusion, South Asian-Americans have reached a perilous cultural intersection. Black people are the greatest creators of culture in America, and we want to be part of this, too. But the creation of culture in response or tangent to oppression cannot be truly appreciated without literacy in this oppression. Lack of literacy comes from antiblackness in American and Indian cultural education, and cross-generational lack of exposure. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, one might have heard such things from South Asian immigrants as: “I came here with nothing and I’m not a criminal.” These statements can be difficult to unpack, particularly across generational divides which have been influenced by casteism, colonialism and colorism for centuries.

In our generation, the little things are often the most telling: using Black emojis, looking around to see if anyone in the room will be offended if you say the n-word, dressing and speaking in Black American styles. The line between appropriation, and inspiration or appreciation, is a difficult one, best demonstrated by Canadian YouTuber and now talk show host Lilly Singh. Raised in a predominantly Black Toronto community, Singh has come under fire for appropriation of Black and Indo-Caribbean culture for her tendency to don a “blaccent” in rap videos sporting chains and cornrows. Singh is one of many North American Asians who have built a following and profit on Black culture. In a much greyer area is the character Aparna on HBO’s Insecure, whom I assumed was Latina until I did a double take hearing her name. As someone born in LA, who might have developed a similar accent had we not moved, I identify with Aparna. I identify with Hasan Minhaj, who looked to rap, sneakers and Tan France-influenced streetwear for cultural influences in his childhood. 

We can compare Singh to Minhaj, Mira Nair and Hari Kondabolu. Nair, a pioneer filmmaker who graced us all with a young Denzel Washington in the 90’s Black-Indian romance Mississippi Masala, and Kondabolu, who has artfully tackled poverty, racism, and gun violence in his comedy since early Seattle days, join Minhaj as South Asians who have integrated multiculturalism and commentary into their work with great success. They contextualize this integration with a clear understanding of their background and privilege. Rather than simply use and profit from it, they make a point to elevate Black stories, and educate about the South Asian identity in relation to this culture.

Education is crucial. Asian Americans grow up under the dark light of the model minority myth, where we are posed as the “solution” to the “Black American problem”. At the same time, we are subject to antiblackness ourselves. With miseducation available at every turn, taking education into our own hands becomes even more vital. Knowledge of the cultural history and importance of cornrows helps me avoid wearing them. Knowledge of the history of South Asian Black appropriation helps me avoid slipping into a blaccent in my own work, though it’s hard. And it is hard. I don’t know all the right answers, nor do you. But as we do know, minorities are deeply attuned to identify microaggressions versus simple gaffes. The difference lay in cultural competency and resultant intention. It lay in education.

This education goes both ways. We grow accustomed to casual mispronunciation of our names, and we often “don’t make a stink,” as I’ve heard it put, when we are appropriated or misrepresented – and when we do, we are not heard. We see bindi-donning white women, Heidi Klum in an offensively terrifying costume of the Hindu goddess Kali, and even Selena Gomez in “Come & Get It”. We hear white Americans critiquing Indian Matchmaking with no other knowledge of arranged marriage and the positives of our culture. We see strange or stereotypical Indian characters like Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Apu in The Simpsons, and all those Indians eating monkey brains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. How is this different from Beyoncé wearing a saree in Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend,” or New Girl’s Jessica Day wearing one at Cece Parekh’s wedding? It comes down once again to the background behind the work. Dark-skinned Afro-Indian representation and non-stereotypical appreciation, or a friend asking you to dress for a traditional Indian wedding, are different from a semi-unique Coachella look. If you are wondering on which side you land, do some research with reputable online resources, and/or ask someone who has this understanding – if they are up to educating you. 

The Power of the South Asian-American Story

Representation is powerful in its inclusion and education. South Asian inclusion in the American cultural conversation, with the context of our place in it, is a win for all cultures. Moreover, the South Asian-American story is a powerful one. Our millennia of recorded history and academic thought, rich heterogeneous culture, and modern global perspective are deeply valuable. Aparna Nancherla provides an elucidating, universally relevant perspective on mental health. Padma Lakshmi tastes the nation; Priyanka Chopra graces football; Mindy Kaling speaks to brown girls everywhere in Never Have I Ever, albeit with gaps. Kal Penn, Kumail Nanjiani, and Russell Peters bring us new brands of humor, though sometimes also with stereotypes; M.I.A., Jai Wolf, and Raja Kumari create fusion music; Rowi Singh, Bibhu Mohapatra and, in an irresistible plug, Niyathi Maya assemble multicultural looks. We learn from the growing progressive movements in America, South Asia, and beyond to create something which is uniquely, and beautifully, our own.
We must grow in our racial and cultural competency, as must America grow in its South Asian literacy. Just as we grow in our understanding of our place among other cultures, South Asian Americans need to be viewed from an intersectional lens and with an understanding of our colonial history and how it has shaped our identity; to do otherwise would be reductionist. In addition to larger conversations, this growth will likely show up in small ways. A South Asian rapper will address his privilege and improve cultural understanding. An American Ivy League “Ancient Philosophy” will include not just Greek and Roman, but also South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern philosophy. Through mutual representation, tolerance, and initial assumption of good intent, we can have and provide the education and space to learn. The renaissance only grows from there.

About Niyathi:

Niyathi is a screenwriter, poet, musician, stylist, and software product manager at Microsoft. She studied neuroscience and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she led a chemotherapy nanotechnology startup. 

Instagram: @fashio.nia 

Website: www.niyathi.work.

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