I was sitting with C. having a coffee, an Italian woman from work in her 40’s. We found our way onto the topic of inter-racial marriage. She asked me of my background, “Anglo-Indian”, I replied. “Your mum Indian and your dad English, right?”, she enquires. “Yes. Why did you presume so?”, “Because Indian men are usually very ugly, and you are not ugly, so your dad must not have been the Indian one.”
I laughed nervously as didn’t really know how to react. Depressingly, I wasn’t even shocked at this casual display of racism (even if it was supposed to be some kind of backhanded compliment). This just compounded a belief I’d had for a long time about my heritage; about the way South Asian men are talked about in many circles of Western society.
See, I’ve grown up in middle-class Surrey. It is an overwhelmingly white-dominated area, most of my friends were white-Brits, and to be Indian in this environment was predominately to be a joke. The accent is a joke; the smell of your food is a joke; the traditional clothing is a joke; your physical appearance is a joke. There was very little chance to meet many other South Asians in my area, so I was stuck within this narrative. To exist in these parameters as a young mixed Indian male, is as you can imagine, entirely emasculating.
So I distanced myself from my heritage, because I could as someone of mixed ethnicity with light brown skin. If you were to look up cultural assimilation in the dictionary, you would find a picture of me in my teens. I rejected my Indian roots, refusing to engage with it on any level except privately with my family. I’d even go as far as just agreeing with people who thought I was Spanish- as to be Spanish was to be sexy, but to be Indian was to be an ugly joke of a man.
Much of these ideas of my own heritage came from the media image of the emasculated South Asian male, which supports an old colonial rhetoric of stripping the non-white, non-English male of their agency. Case in point: Apu Nahaspeemapetilon of The Simpsons.
This isn’t a new criticism levelled at The Simpsons, many Indian-Americans have spoken out against the character before. But it is something still felt amongst my generation on this side of the Atlantic.
He’s a character whose humour is based on nothing more than his otherness: his ‘wacky’ arranged marriage; his eight children; his poorly executed accent; his silly catch phrases. Yes, there are other Simpsons characters whom are also characterised outrageously, but the problem with Apu occurs with the fact this is the only image of a South Asian male that many children and teenagers in the West are seeing on television (me being one of them, I was a huge Simpsons fan up until Season 15). So it stops being just a parody, and becomes a reality.
It it entitles young white teens to regurgitate Apu’s catchphrases to every South Asian they meet; to ask about their future arranged marriage; to ask about their ambitions to own a cornershop (or ‘Paki Shop’ as many in my ends felt they could call it).
This portrayal of South Asians on UK television extends even further. Some of the only other South Asians on mainstream television in the UK are Raj Koothrappali from Big Bang Theory and the Ahmed family from Eastenders. I must admit I have watched very little of either of these shows, but from what I have seen of them their portrayals aren’t very flattering. One a desexualised ‘nerd’ with poor social skills incapable of talking to women, the other a struggling, two-dimensional, shop-owning family who couldn’t come to terms with the fact that one of their sons was gay (yeah, because all us South Asians are homophobic)*.
With these being the dominant images of South Asian men on UK television, how do you think this makes young South Asian men feel? How do you think this affects white British perceptions of South Asian men?
Just for once it would be nice to have a positive portrayal of us on mainstream UK television for young South Asians boys to aspire to- of South Asian men who are intelligent, artistic, sexual beings. Some shows like Desi Rascals are changing the game in this respect, pushing a different kind of South Asian onto the UK mainstream: wealthy, well-groomed socialites who can compete with the best Made in Chelsea has to offer. But this is of course still problematic: these are just characters that exist in a wholly materialistic bubble, rather than for example, the political or philanthropic persons that also make up our diaspora. But at least they’re not just silly caricatures of the racist Western imagination.
I return to C.’s accusation. If I’ve felt this way in my adolescence as someone of mixed heritage, think of what the implications are for those British South Asians with darker skin who cannot ‘pass’ for European. When a South Asian male wants to step out of the masculine parameters laid out for him by white hegemony, he steps into a void. He is stuck with the skin he has and whatever is equated with men of that colour. Although every man’s masculinity is initially judged by his appearance, a white male’s masculinity can be fluidly changed through his own choices. The South Asian male in Britain has no such ability.
*I’m aware this is a dated storyline, but if it sticks in my imagination I’m sure it a portrayal that many others hold onto.
by Rohan Rice