First-Generation South Asians Who Inspire Me

Until very recently, I felt painfully misrepresented in the media. I watched American and, more recently, East Asian culture celebrated on the big screen, in the beauty industry, and on YouTube, and was waiting and waiting and waiting for South Asian representation to grow. It never seemed to arrive. All I had was Apu from the Simpsons, Raj from Big Bang Theory, and Ravi from Jesse. The lack of authentic representation felt so defeating, that for a long time I felt like I just didn't have any role models; no one I related to whose story I wanted to follow. I felt removed from my own culture, because I had no one to look up to who shared my journey as an Indian American, as a child of immigrants, as a person whose identity is not limited to a single country or race.

I am so happy to say that has changed recently, quite honestly in the last year alone. With each passing day I find more South Asian beauty influencers, actors, comedians, and business owners who are taking ownership of their identity and culture. They are fighting stereotypes, showing the world that South Asians do more than eat curry and work in customer service. I finally feel empowered to embrace the beautiful collision of culture that I experience on a daily basis. There are a select few role models who have surfaced recently for me, and I have them to thank for this eye opening change in personal expression. These are the first-generation South Asians who inspire and empower me.

 

Deepica Mutyala 

"Before, I had to mix my [foundation] shades. Besides the handful of brands that actually had my color...most of the time I had to mix together formulas, and that was a defeating feeling. It makes you feel like just the way you are isn't enough."

Here’s the thing...the beauty scene for so long has been dominated by white women, for white women. I remember when I started getting into makeup, I relied mainly on YouTube and Instagram tutorials, and I took issue with the fact that all of the branded, popular YouTubers and influencers I found at first glance were Caucasian. Until very recently I felt unrepresented in the beauty industry, I felt really alone, and then I came across this amazing company called Live Tinted. Live Tinted was founded by Deepica Mutyala, a first generation Indian-American from Texas. This girl has revolutionized the beauty industry with her viral discovery of red lipstick as an agent to color correct dark circles. Since then she has founded her own company, Live Tinted, which preaches inclusion and cultural diversity not only in the faces of the beauty industry, but in its audience as well. I admire this woman to no end, who went from filming makeup tutorials online to owning a full-fledged business that sells its own original product for color correction (The Huestick).

 

Payal Kadakia

“As much as I loved to work hard and get good grades, I did get made fun of a lot for being Indian. I looked different, and people didn’t understand...When I was in third grade, I did this Indian folk dance for a talent show at my school, and I got laughed off the stage.”

Payal Kadakia is a first-generation Indian American who grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from MIT, later working at Bain & Company and Warner Music, hoping to pursue business. If that’s not impressive enough, get this— this amazing, smart, talented woman founded ClassPass. Today, ClassPass is operating in more than 20 countries and worth more than $600 million. 

What I admire most about Payal is her commitment to her passions. I follow her on Instagram, a proud mom-to-be, and even today with so much on her plate she makes time to dance and perform. Even six months pregnant, she killed the stage at local Garba events and at her baby shower! It goes to show that commitment is a powerful tool; one can be successful and still pursue their passions and hobbies with fervor and joy. I love watching her perform, even if it’s a cute home video, because I love seeing her authenticity and her cultural pride.

 

Tan France

“I would often get called a ‘Paki’, and that's sickening in this day and age. It was really important for me to have open dialogues on the show to break down these misconceptions about what I might represent.”

This man is an absolute ICON. An Pakistani-British Muslim LGBTQ fashion designer, who has made it big in entertainment? What. A. Badass. For many, Tan France is a member of Netflix show “Queer Eye” who also hosts the youtube series “Dressing Funny” where he gives comedians wardrobe makeovers. But to me he is living proof that hard work and passion pays off, and supersedes what stereotypes haunted our childhoods and young adult lives. 

He represents the battle a lot of immigrant children have to fight with their parents and society, that it is possible to pursue excellence in realms outside of STEM. Not all South Asians are experts at math and dream of being engineers and doctors. Many are artists, musicians, designers, and writers. These are not secondary, just different, and to me Tan France will always represent success in the pursuit of passion. 

 

Hasan Minhaj

“I'm a first-generation kid in this country. I identify with America and its culture. I'm a citizen, I was born here. I'm American. At the same time, like most first-generation kids, I have this other identity to another country back home, which is India.”

Disclaimer: Hasan Minhaj gets automatic additional brownie points from my end because he once responded to my question during an AMA on the popular Facebook meme group: Subtle Curry Traits. Not to brag.

My first exposure to Hasan Minhaj was watching his speech at the White House correspondents' dinner in 2017. To have a South Asian American speaking at such an important televised event during the Trump Administration? Poetry.

To me, Hasan has always been so wonderfully relatable. His hour long standup special on Netflix titled “Homecoming King” features stories about having crushes on white girls, about dealing with anti-Muslim remarks and racism, about going to high school and college like all of us. Even on his Netflix show, "Patriot Act", he covers current events but is sure to sprinkle references here and there about his childhood with immigrant parents, about his love for basketball and shoes, about the Bollywood movies he watched growing up. 

I’ve felt represented as an Indian before, but never have I felt so represented as an Indian American. Both are equally important parts of my identity, and while I adore seeing my race represented on the big screen, I grow tired of the thick accents and the stereotypically genius characters written for comedic value. Being Indian American is a unique experience in itself that has defined an entire generation of immigrant children. I am grateful to see that niche identity so effortlessly and authentically represented in modern entertainment.

 

Jameela Jamil

“There was a moment when we were filming...when I realised I was in a scene with two other women from south Asian backgrounds, and it wasn’t commented on in the show or anything...And we were all shocked by this, for our race to not be fetishised in some way.”

Born to an Indian father and Pakistani mother, Jameela is another first generation person of color that I admire to no end. While there is the surface level appreciation for South Asian representation in media, Jameela Jamil is much more than an actress to me. She is bold, strong spoken, and stays true to her convictions no matter what is said about her race, size, or skill. While she is famous for her role as Tahaani in the NBC show “The Good Place”, I know her for her online advocacy against the advertisement of severe weight loss products, and for her promotion of body positivity and inclusivity. Online she encourages followers to stop counting calories, waist measurements, and pounds, when they could be measuring personal achievements instead. Jamil launched the “I Weigh” campaign on Instagram to encourage people to post images weighing their achievements rather than their bodies, and I absolutely adore that.

The fight for body positivity is recent but powerful, and I am proud to see strong women of color spearheading this movement. I also appreciate her political correctness, as she has stated on multiple occasions that this movement is not for her as she is privileged to be thin and successful in her field—rather, this movement is for those who are severely discriminated against in their workplace and daily lives purely for their size.

 

I am grateful for these people who have represented South Asian culture in such a holistic, authentic, honest way. It is slowly undoing the damage that years of stereotyping has done on not only those who were born and raised outside of India, but immigrants as well. I hope to be as strong and bold as these men and woman have been, I hope to continue changing stereotypes around me through education and authenticity of character.