You may not think you have a problem with South Asia, but you do.
It started with Bodyguard.
Well, it didn’t start then. But the BBC drama managed to somehow consolidate not only an audience of 14 million people, but a painful Muslim stereotype as well. It also consolidated a thought brewing inside me for quite some time.
You still have a problem with South Asia. You may not think it, but you do.
Since then, there have been at least three other incidents that remind us of the one minority that go unspoken and un-fought for. And it’s certainly no stretch to extend this beyond brown Muslims to South Asia as a whole; in fact, there was a line I used during my stand-up comedy days that made fun of some pointed graffiti I saw while studying in Edinburgh 10 years ago: ‘Scots, not Brits’.
“That’s funny,” I used to say. “Whether we’re Indian or Bangladeshi you call us all Pakis anyway.”
That was 10 years ago. And it’s still applicable now, even in the dressing of generic ‘Asian’ here, generic ‘Indian’ in the States.
There have been at least three more incidents since Bodyguard to highlight the general contentment people have with ignoring issues pertaining to Muslims or the South Asian community. For one, Home Secretary Sajid Javid saying that he vows to tackle whatever there is Pakistani culture that promotes child sex abuse.
Pause for a second there. Look at that statement. That it was said by a brown man means nothing at all. Look at the uproar there might be were that to be said about any other nationality or group of people. The fact that there was very little is something we’ll get to a bit later.
Next, the statistics that show ‘Muslim-sounding names’ on a CV are less likely to be called in for job interviews. Or the brilliant woman on Question Time who called out a white man for trying to define racism, only to be lambasted for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with her original point.
There’s also the assassination of Jameela Jamil. Don’t get me wrong, I fully agree with the idea that she appropriated a movement started by black women, and cannot understand the struggle they have gone through. None of us can, and what I’m writing about doesn’t compare to other communities who do have it worse.
But the same people supporting those statements — often in the same week — are seen making excuses or championing for Azealia Banks, a woman who on record has called a prominent recording artist a Paki, accused another of fabricating a rape story, among countless other transgressions. The attitudes toward both are quite shocking, despite the marked difference in what they are trying to achieve.
Go further back and we see the reaction to Nadiya Hussain on a daily basis. Nobody giving a fuck about the ‘Punish A Muslim Day’ letters. Or the celebration of Nike’s “This is what it means to be a Londoner” ad clouding the fact that, well, according to them South Asian people don’t really count as Londoners.
Why don’t we fight back, people ask? Why don’t we create a movement? The truth is that we cannot speak out for ourselves without fulfilling certain criteria first, and in the current climate most allies simply do not care enough to take up that cause.
For almost 20 years, a lot of brown faces have been associated with terrorism. I know firsthand what that does to a person, to a community. You become apologetic for everything, things you even have nothing to do with. You start to second guess your movements, your actions, your words, for fear of what they might stir in other people. You realise you have to defend things that you never would otherwise, and you realise that you’re still doing that two decades on.
You are viewed as less than human, and you begin to see yourself as such too.
That has a knock-on effect on popular culture. You become embarrassed to share anything, to break into a mainstream that doesn’t want you and confines you to the insular Asian Network. There are huge industries that run by the interest of British Asians, but you’d never hear about them because we’ve been shown our place by society.
The other week I was given some feedback on something I was working on by a cis white male. He said we needed some sort of cultural touchstone there, a relatable pop culture reference.
He suggested Punjabi MC and Jai Ho.
That’s where we’re at when it comes to South Asian cultural touchstones at the moment. Things that seeped into the mainstream with the help of external forces — Jay Z and The Pussycat Dolls respectively — but the fact that those are still being touted by prominent industry people is frustrating to say the least.
And if you’re going to prop up Citizen Khan as a success story, ask any young South Asian what they think of it. It succeeds as a broad ethnic comedy, Mr Brown’s Boys if you will, that’s seen through the acceptable prism of the white gaze. Let’s laugh at those odd, different people, not with them.
Our culture hasn’t been allowed to seep into society because we’ve been too busy trying to keep our heads down in the midst of endless pressure to fit in, to prove that we’re of value as people first. Yes, each group within the South Asian does have its flaws. But in a time when other groups are allowed to make mistakes, our flaws have come to define us. What positive remains is merely caricature from years past.
The intersection is another story altogether. If South Asian attitudes to things like homosexuality are improving, you’d never know about it. And in the meantime, once you traverse the hurdle of ‘no Asians’ on gay dating profiles, you’re only allowed to become part of the fabric of gay culture once you please its gatekeepers with a mix of stereotype and taste. Conform, assimilate, and jettison another part of yourself just to fit in.
And if, like the wonderful woman on Question Time, we do fight back we are shouted down, or told our struggle doesn’t compare to one of another group. You’re right, it doesn’t. Instead it’s very much it’s own beast, one that deserves to be understood should people take the time to actually understand it.
And in the meantime, for every performative bit of campaigning on Twitter from the usual quarters, the silence when it comes to these issues means a hell of a lot to us. Staying quiet in the face of these incidents continues to push down a community and complicitly reminds us that our voice doesn’t deserve to be heard; a ‘like’ on a tweet about Azealia Banks says to us that maybe on some level you’re ok with someone being called a Paki.
The UK, America, Twitter, popular culture. All of them have a very clear South Asia problem. By the nature of who governs and makes up the majority of them, you do too.
But of course, the first stage of dealing with something is admitting that there indeed is a problem. Now that we’ve done so, only one real question remains.
The next time it happens, what will you choose to do about it?