Watching this year’s Masterchef grand finale, I found myself crying seeing Sachi Chelaih win. Seeing a South Asian man on national television, portrayed through a lense of success, I was emotional. But the thing is, Sashi and I don’t share a lot in common. I am not a 39-year-old man, a dad or an immigrant. I am a 20-year-old woman, single and an Australian born South Asian. The only thing we have in common is being brown. Having this experience really shed light on the value of representation and the negative power inherent in a lack of representation.
A Screen Australia study in 2016 found that 82% of television drama characters are Anglo-Celtic, and only 7% are Non-Europeans. This is in stark comparison to the 17% of Non-Europeans in the Australian population at the time. Although we live in a multicultural Australia our television screens imply otherwise.
Sashi Cheliah winning Masterchef in 2018. Image from www.delicious.com.au/food-files/news-articles/article/sashi-cheliah-wins-masterchef-2018/8hw38ntd
Consciously or unconsciously the media sends us messages about who we are, and what our position in society is. These forms of mainstream communication play a central role in forming archetypes and informing the public imagination of ideals. The filtered and curated images we view on our screens carve narratives about social power and identity. Social constructs such as race and gender have especially been sculpted by the forces. Stereotypes delivered by the media are instrumental in moulding the perceptions of cultural groups, both externally and internally.
The media reestablished destructive power relations among racial groups by exhibiting who is powerful and who is not, leading to isolation through racialised messaging. If all we are seeing in television, films and advertising are distorted reflections of ourselves, constructed through racist stereotypes, or no images of us at all, the message that is relayed is one of inadequacy and worthlessness.
In her Junkee article Why It’s Important To See Asian-Australians On Screen In This Racist Country, Michelle Law talks about ‘dreaming of being white’ and the ‘automatic and unconscious process of having to project [your]self onto white characters.’ This process of constantly projecting yourself onto white characters is emotionally draining and fuels self-hate. Part of the diasporic experience is being obliged to understand the majority culture while they don’t have to understand yours. It’s pretending to be immersed in football at work, just to seem relevant or relatable to the majority. It’s throwing out your mum’s food at school in fear of receiving judgement from your white friends.
Still from the film Crazy Rich Asians. Image from www.graziame.com/culture/film-music/why-ill-be-watching-crazy-rich-asians
When you don’t fit in here, in Australia, or there, back in your country of origin, you search desperately for a sense of belonging; a sense of home. This is where a lack of representation can breed a dangerous form of cultural appropriation. Problematically, I have found members of my cultural community borrowing from the African American community. When we don’t see ourselves represented here, we find the closest mirroring of our experience – the closest thing we can relate to even if, in reality, their experiences and history are far different to our own.
In his act ‘Why Indians and Asians Think They’re Black’, Neel Kolhatkar talks about the experiences of being brown in a country with a complete lack of representation. Once you have removed the overtly racist messaging in the talk, he provides valid reasons as to why communities who experience a lack of representation, co-opt African American culture: to feel better about their conflicting social identity.
In my personal interactions, I have repeatedly come into contact with individuals who use racially derogatory language, presuming that being a member of a minority group, affords them the freedom to use language that further disenfranchises and invalidates other minorities. We have the responsibility to band together to eliminate racism and discrimination, and this means informing ourselves of others’ histories, and being aware and sensitive about the language we use. We don’t have the right to co-opt African American culture, a community that has worked and fought painstakingly hard, across generations to gain some sense of equality and space to share their narratives. They have worked to eliminate stereotypes in the cultural imagination about themselves, and in this process, it is undeniable that other minorities have benefitted from their work and struggles.
A still from the film Black Panther. Photography Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios. Image from www.refinery29.com/2018/01/187845/black-panther-representation-female-heroes
Much like my fellow friends from minority communities, I consume a lot of African American created content. From Janelle Monae’s ‘Make Me Feel’ to Marvel’s Black Panther, immersing myself in this media does make me feel more like I belong. They portray the experiences of being in a minority. But these are not our stories. These stories do not characterise the struggles of growing up somewhere where your parents didn’t and the accompanying learning process. These stories don’t explore how you are forced to find your own path, without the support and wisdom of your elders, detached from the accumulated knowledge of your own ancestors. These stories don’t depict the conflict between neither belonging here or there,guiding yourself through the unknown of ‘home’. These stories don’t illustrate what it’s like to be a child of an immigrant, where you face generational, cultural and often communication barriers. Because that is not their story, that is not their experience. They’re telling their story, and everybody’s story has the right to be heard.
And I understand, the isolation is difficult and agonising. But I have hope that our time is coming. With the popularity and success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, I have hope. I encourage anyone of any minority to tell your story. Your voice is as important as anyone else’s and don’t let the lack of representation of people like you on our screens nullify your voice. Your story is powerful. I know that is scary, especially in the face of lacking representation, but vulnerability is at the heart of courage, and courage is at the core of empowerment.
More importantly, people in the majority need to provide greater support and opportunities to minorities to act as allies. Amplify voices of people of colour and offer them your platform. Raise the stories of people of all genders, races, cultures, sexual orientations, abilities and religions and always remember to listen.
Sanduni Hewa Katupothage
Sanduni is a body and a soul: a human. She is interested in arts, science, social justice and spirituality. She also loves lemonade and cupcakes.