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To All the TV Shows I’ve Watched Before

I’ve always wondered why I never saw people who looked like me when I turned on the TV. In the late 2000s, every Disney and Nickelodeon show had one set formula: a white male or female lead, their white best friend, and a supporting black friend. Seeing this, I often wondered why I didn’t have the same physical features as them or why my voice didn’t sound like theirs. I convinced myself that they were normal, they were real, and they were how the rest of the world looked — it was just me who looked different. The first time I saw India in western media was when I came across Cheetah Girls: One World on the Disney channel. I expected to see beautiful brown-skinned girls and my culture represented in a positive light. Instead, I got an hour and thirty minutes of stereotypes, cringe-worthy representations, invalid portrayals of India, and maybe a handful of somewhat culturally appropriate moments.

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For the next couple of years, I grew up wishing my name was 'Lilly.' That might sound a little strange coming from an Indian girl from a semi-conservative traditional Indian family, but I never realized that. Mind you, I don’t have a particularly “Indian” sounding name – it’s quite Western in fact; still, I wanted to assimilate into the culture I saw as much as I could. Looking back now, there’s no doubt about the fact that this came from my obsession with Hannah Montana, and the predominantly white culture and western film and media I grew up watching. I never saw any problems with a TV show with an all-white cast and I didn’t understand how seeing blonde, skinny white girls and guys on my TV screen was unconsciously affecting me. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t okay for the only person of color in a TV show to be the main character’s best friend, where their only storyline is directly related to whatever was happening in the white, cis protagonist’s life. Even as I reached my early teens, I didn’t know that brown people could be more than just the butt of a stereotypical insensitive joke in a show about a group of friends (I’m looking at you Raj Koothrapali) and that they could be their own brave and strong protagonists with complexities and struggles of their own — ones which did not perpetuate the “conservative” Indian narrative and model minority myth. 

I grew embarrassed by my own culture because of the way it was presented. Inherently I didn’t want to be associated with a culture that got made so much fun of and that was hardly ever talked about. I did small things to disassociate myself; I avoided Bollywood music, I tried my best to dress as “western” as I could and I made sure not to mention any parts of my culture to my friends. The few other Asian-Indian boys and girls in my middle school followed suit, and we all seemed to indirectly validate each other’s white-washed-ness. This changed a couple of years ago when I learned that people of color can in fact be appropriately integrated into a story. They can have their own voice, their own coming of age moment, and be funny and interesting and “three-dimensional” — all the things I could’ve never have imagined seeing growing up. It changed when I saw shows like Scandal and Jane the Virgin, where the leads were strong people of color, not just tokens cheering on the sidelines. I began to grow proud of my own culture as I saw others on the big screen and, albeit indirectly, it made me feel seen. Representation matters. Seeing people who look like you, whomever you may be, in mainstream media is important. The issue, however, is that there are only a handful of characters that meet all of these requirements. Most of it is still mere tokenism, not real diversity. 

Tokenism refers to characters who are predominantly portrayed in the negative stereotype of their culture and get little to no screen time. It’s the general idea of there being a mixed bag of characters, one from each ethnic background to add to the ‘variety’ of the cast, while still keeping the protagonist white. These BIPOC seldom have storylines of their own, but most of them focus on their minority culture and the struggles that come with it. This isn’t to say those stories shouldn’t be represented and acknowledged, it’s saying that those should not be the only stories we see. Diversity comes when we don’t just have these ‘symbolic’ characters, but accurate and fair representations of cultures without the pretense of having them fill a quota. Tokenism can only be combatted via inclusion, learning, and understanding the problems with the norms and unfortunate stereotypes that are being created.

[bf_image id="73kjx7trsp5x9hx43xnpj"] In our social climate today it’s difficult to see a company or brand do this well, let alone television media. While there have been slight shifts over time, most other media industries remain the same. All the most famous models look the same; fitness brands and clothing stores are filled with catalogs of light-skinned, small women, and arguably, the worst of all, the beauty industry is still filled with little to no products or shade ranges for people of darker skin. This is a problem that needs to be tackled and can no longer be brushed under the rug. I want the next generation of children to look at the TV and not bat an eyelid at the inclusive, diverse environment they see because of how ‘normal’ it is to them and I want them to never feel the need to be embarrassed by their culture because I sure am not anymore. I want the world we live in to create space for the people whose voices may not be as loud, just because they’re outnumbered, and for each and every person to feel seen. 


Natasha is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Davis double majoring in Psychology and Communications with a minor in Economics. She has a variety of interests ranging from marketing and media to human rights and policy and continues to seek opportunities to explore them. Being an international student she brings with her a unique perspective which she hopes to share through her writing.
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