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Too Dark/Not Dark Enough: Being a Bi-Racial Woman & Performer Today

Image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I am a half South Indian/half Scottish, American-born woman. My whole life has been a cultural conundrum, both in how I see life and how others see me. I grew up in California with the Indian side of my family, saturated in Indian customs and culture. I also got to visit my Scottish/Southern family in Georgia every summer. Curry and fried chicken are the pinnacles of my childhood, as are Hindu ceremonies and Sunday church. In an industry and society that tells us all value lies in looks, money, and Instagram followers, I feel incredibly lucky to have a tremendously sundry view on life.

I am also white-passing, I have white privilege.

In the wake of this extraordinary, most necessary BIPOC/#blacklivesmatter movement, the fact that I have fair skin is all that matters. I don’t get pulled over because of my skin color. I won’t have to give my kids “The Talk”. I am white-passing and that’s all that matters about me in regards to this movement. The last few months have been a wildly confronting, enraging, devastating, and vital look at this privilege- supported by reading anti-racism books and articles from BIPOC voices, watching documentaries, having profoundly confronting conversations, and continuing to work to understand racism more and more every day. I know that as a white-passing person this work is critical and I don’t take that lightly.

But also, my own personal experience has been very mixed.

This, of course, is a different subject. I’ve had white privilege in society (with cops, at work, and in more ways than I know I’m sure), yet a very different experience socially, in drama school, and within the performing industry. I’ve continually experienced people not knowing how to place me or what to do with me, people communicating to me that I’m not Indian or caucasian “enough”. Cultural mocking and assumptions, never quite fitting in, being told I’m an asset but not actually when it comes down to me and a fair blonde- all of these have played into my experiences as a bi-racial performer.

I’m curious about where this unique standpoint puts me and people like me, both in this industry and beyond.

Image by Fas Khan on Unsplash

My name is Asha Iyer (a very Indian name).

My dad and his family grew up very poor in Kumbakonam, India. He came to America to become a doctor and has made an incredible life for himself and his family. He/they are quite literally the American dream. My mom is of Scottish descent and grew up in the South (Texas & Georgia). She is an amazing nurse, they met while delivering a baby! They had my brother eight years before me. He is a drummer and marine biologist, and the coolest person you will ever meet. And then came me: the artsy optimist!

I never quite fit in with either side of the family, though I got on with both sides fabulously.

I rarely knew what my Indian side of the family was saying as they conversed in Tamil and Hindi together (I picked up the bad words). I’d get so upset when everyone would laugh at a joke that I’d make them repeat it, of course I was the only one laughing the second time. When I didn’t fast with them in observance of Hindu rituals, I’d awkwardly eat dinner with my mom while they drank water. If I didn’t want to watch Hindi movies because I couldn’t understand anything, I’d go to another room and put on a Disney movie. When we went out, their friends asked who I was, genuinely curious why this little white girl was with them. We laughed, I of course teased about not “really” being Indian or being “the white Indian”. On the other hand, my family just saw me as one of them. I was treated just the same as the other kids- stuffed to the brim with chapati and rasam rice, taken to Dandiya festivals, and made to sit through countless pujas that lasted all day long- despite my cousin and I’s fierce insistence otherwise.

When we visited my mom’s family it was the same combination of fitting in, but not. In that same stroke of love, I was never made to feel different. They stuffed me full of collard greens and fried everything. We’d have long, family beach days, attend the Scottish games, and do big 4th of July blowouts. But it was the small things: I never wanted to have the spaghetti with beef meatballs (South Indians don’t eat beef, cows are holy in Hindu culture). I didn’t want the pork either. My poor family was always trying to figure out what I would and wouldn’t eat. I eventually realized how much I agreed with the South Indian philosophy of eating vegetarian. I always took my shoes off at the front door, but was horrified when others left their shoes on as they walked around the house and into the bathrooms (Indians keep their shoes at the door, the home is a sanctuary to be kept clean). I’d try to tell them how dirty that was, my mom swooping in to shut me up. If we went to a restaurant I always took my leftovers home, and insisted on taking my family’s left overs if they didn’t want it (Indians don’t waste food, not a morsel.). When we went to beach gift shops with my cousins, they’d proudly find their name on a keychain as I scoured over and over the “A’s” looking for “Asha”, sure I had missed it.

But not finding a keychain or wanting to watch a Hindi movie didn’t phase me. I realized I was different in both climates, but I also felt unique and both sides of the family loved me and each other HARD. Family is everything on both sides, so I was never truly phased by any of these differences, just looking to fit in.

At a Diwali celebration (middle) with my cousins, circa 1996

I didn’t feel separate until kids in elementary school started realizing I was different.

When 9/11 happened, my class interrogated me asking if my family had something to do with the attack. When I invited friends over, they asked if they’d have to eat that weird Indian food or could my mom just make us something normal? When they did come over and we were playing with Barbie dolls, they always said I had to play with Barbie’s friends who had dark features because I was Indian, no way could I be Barbie! I remember once a kid ran up and said, “Hey Asha listen to my terrorist accent!” and then proceeded to do an attempted Indian accent. When it wasn’t successful he said, “Wait how does your family sound again? Help me out!”

In middle school my booty grew in. It was the most “not white” cliche physical trait about me, becoming curvy. I was horrified, and wore pants as loose as I could find them. The boys begged me to get tighter pants, “for them” (we could definitely talk sexism, but that’s a whole different article).

All the girls were getting high lights. I loved my super thick, curly, dark brown hair. It was my favorite trait about myself. The girls all asked if I had to look like that, was it an Indian-religious-thingy? Or would I actually get highlights like everyone else? I begged my mom to give me highlights. She did. I hated them. I wore my hair in a bun until they faded out. After the holidays I sported my new, favorite Indian clothes that my aunties gave me. I can’t count how many laughs and points I got that day. The joke of the day was all the kids coming up to me talking to me in a “terrorist” accent.

I tried to look as white as possible after that.

Sporting a sari circa 2000

In high school and then college, I fell in love with the arts. It was the most liberal, accepting, freeing place. People were doing accents, but not AT me. I could wear what I wanted, have my hair how I wanted, and it was “cool” and “original”. Students even wore, said, and ate things MUCH weirder than I.

It was a group of misfits and I just loved it.

In college I majored in drama, performing was my first love. I just loved all the storytelling and jumping into another perspective. I also loved the validation, feeling special and talented and not different or weird. I was always so excited to audition.

Very quickly I found I was often cast as tree#3 or nurse #2. Most performers start in the chorus, and I was just so excited to be cast. But I quickly got frustrated when I found I could sing and dance circles around the girls being cast in larger roles. My teachers would gently remind me I wasn’t very “leading lady”. The Indian in me goes after honesty fiercely, and I would ask them point-blank what they meant.

“Well honey, you’re… darker. Those big, brown eyes and dark hair… you could dye your hair, but still those girls are very slim. You have quite the behind!!”

The girls eventually cast were off key but a size 2 with long, beautiful, blonde hair. I loved my hair. I really didn’t want to be blonde. So I worked relentlessly to lose the weight. Maybe if I was thin, even with dark features and big eyes, I could be taken seriously. At a size 4 with a 22” waist, I was told I was still too curvy to be considered for larger roles. I didn’t have boobs (still don’t). Point blank they were referring to my ass.

So I went after the character roles, thinking I’d use my shape for the funny roles. In some small productions I got to be the character role, but usually someone much bigger (and funnier) than me got the character roles. I wasn’t curvy enough to be the character roles, but wasn’t thin enough to be the lead. I was too dark, but even at my thinnest not vanilla enough for the larger roles. For such a liberal community, I was dismayed to find such strict physical expectations when it came to casting. I accepted that as the industry though and put my all into every Tree/Nurse/Student/Woman #2.

I voraciously looked up all auditions within a 3-hour radius of campus and booked a couple of shows at smaller theatres 2.5 hours away. I’d be in school 8am-5pm and then drive the 5-hour round trip to get to rehearse and perform in these shows (unpaid). I was just so excited to actually have a gig, and for the first time I even got to perform in a couple of dream shows/roles! I was ELATED, but quite literally didn’t have time to sleep, eat well, or invest in my school work.

It was fine! I was sacrificing for my art and pursuing my dream!

My health and voice started to deteriorate, which led to a 3-month forced pause where I couldn’t sing or speak and had to do vocal therapy. I knew I needed to find a closer, more sustainable way of performing.

Pakeeza in “Suburbia”- the one Indian role I’ve been cast in! — 2012

I really felt like my casting was the bubbly ingenue. But only super caucasian, blondes were cast in those roles. So I asked my professors what else they wanted from me, where and how I could fit in. They had no idea. They told me to go more character, more serious, more comical, more edgy. I tried everything, but still wasn’t getting cast. I was training vigorously, hoping my talent was not the glaring problem. They all agreed I was great, the right role just hadn’t come along.

FINALLY a push for diversity got very popular at schools. I was THRILLED. Move aside skinny, white, blondes! I wondered if my half Indian, half curvy, sort of dark/sort of light, big-eyed, bubbly self would finally be cast.

Turns out I wasn’t the type of “diverse” they were going for.

They wanted dark. Dark, dark. My hair and eyes weren’t enough. I was too caucasian. I looked mixed, but not mixed enough- I didn’t represent a minority enough. But for the other roles they wanted people who were very light in contrast.

Even in a “diverse” effort, I wasn’t dark enough and I was too dark. It was baffling.

This is where I became a producer, my senior year of college. I put up my favorite play, “Proof”, and cast myself as the lead. I got my roommate to direct, cast my friends, we reserved our favorite theatre on campus, and put on an incredible show. It was a dream. Several professors asked me to stay for a 5th year, asking me, “Where was I all this time?!”, and how they wanted to “Seriously consider me for the Honors in Acting and BFA Musical Theatre”.

I laughed and moved to India.

“Proof” with the lovely Chris Renfro- 2014

After graduating, I lived in India for the summer teaching English and music. I just needed a break. I was so proud of my work up to this point, but this career was also breaking my heart. I desperately needed an adventure, to find who I was without casting types dictating that for me.

I lived with family I hadn’t seen since I was 4. It was too wonderful. Being in India was tremendous, devastating, beautiful, confounding, everything. I was as comfortable as a cat in water, but I learned so much.

Yet I was still “the other”. I wore traditional Indian garb, because I was teaching at schools and wanted to fit in. I also just felt in touch with it all. Almost everyone at those schools looked at me and laughed. I felt like Anna in The King and I, feeling both connected with these people and completely separate.

In one of my Patti’s (grandma’s) favorite saris at my cousins wedding circa 2015

When I asked at restaurants if items were gluten free (I’m allergic), I was told, “No nothing gluten free here”. When my very Indian looking cousins asked them in Hindi and explained I was allergic, they smiled warmly and said, “Oh family! Absolutely!” I went from being the annoying, particular white girl to their fellow Indian who had trouble finding food whom they wanted to take care of. While I found most Indians wildly generous and had countless warm experiences there, a pervasive question kept coming up:

Why did I have to look more Indian to be taken seriously?

My amazing students and I in Mumbai, India- 2014

After living in India, doing my postgraduate studies abroad that year, moving home, and working for 6 months to save up, I moved to LA to pursue my dreams! I was refreshed and ELATED.

I had friends telling me that I was coming at the perfect time because being “ethnically ambiguous” was IN. I got right to work and hoped that was the case. I started to get called in for Indian accent voice over/animation gigs. I would send a sample and the client was thrilled. When I came in to officially audition and casting saw me, they were horrified.

I never booked.

Years later I finally booked one where they signed me based on my audio audition-before they saw me. When I came into the studio, the producers didn’t even try to hide their perturbed confusion about why this white girl was recording an Indian story.

I did a lot of “industry business” classes, trying to understand my casting. I was told I look white, to forget the Indian side of me in terms of casting- it was irrelevant because I was fair. I accepted that and focused my casting into my essence and looks outside of just being light or dark- things like my big eyes, curly hair, and bubbly, determined energy. I found my casting in roles like the spunky intern, the excited baby sitter, the ditzy waitress who accidentally solves the case. Understanding my essence was HUGE, and I also found the film/tv world a bit more open to different types of characters, vs the typical theatre character tropes. I continued to do lots of self-producing for both film & theatre, and after 5 years in LA I am finally been getting called in to larger casting offices. Yet I’m still finding that in the final callbacks, it’s me and those size 2 gals with long blonde hair (sometimes they have short hair).

Guess which one of us books it?

I’m told being “ethnically ambiguous” is very IN in the industry. But when it comes down to it, it seems like I’m either too light or too dark.

Too light to be considered ethnic/Indian, but too dark to be the fair face casting wants. I was told I look “very classic”, to straighten my hair and go with period stuff. I’ve been down to final producer calls for numerous period style shows, but again it’s always the super caucasian looking women who book these roles, women who somehow look more “classic” (white). That, or someone clearly BIPOC. Someone super dark, an obvious minority. Which is awesome and I’m genuinely ecstatic that more representation is happening. But I wonder where it leaves me.

I’m too ambiguous.

I know in my soul I’m truly a mix. I believe cows are seraphic animals and also I love me a nice, bougie brunch. Target is my favorite store and also I speak to my cats in Tamil. I have weird, Indian quirks like not letting my dog lick my face, requiring shoes off in the house, and needing a separate face towel, but as every American-raised kid I fiercely need my independence and a Christmas cookie in hand on December 25th.

I am a true mix and my casting will probably land in that mixed place too.

On the bright side, being biracial has made me work a lot harder. Early on it became clear that I wouldn’t book based on looks- I wasn’t light/dark/curvy/thin enough. I knew I had to be a GREAT actor and singer. I knew I couldn’t afford to mess up my lines or not know what I was doing in a scene. I couldn’t let them regret hiring me.

Sometimes being cast feels like winning the lottery, but it makes me never take an opportunity or audition for granted. I work very hard to see this industry and world as abundant for me. I know what we think we attract, but I also know I was thinking I’d be cast many times and that wasn’t the case. It’s a crazy, rollercoaster industry. That’s true for all performers of all colors, shapes, sizes, and gender/sexual identity. And I love that. I love that it’s tough, I love that we get to tell all kinds of stories for a living, and I love that not a single day is boring or can be expected.

I know the industry is changing in the wake of this BIPOC revolution. I’m SO happy that it is, it’s wildly overdue. I know that since I’m white-passing and have white privilege, producers probably see a brunette white girl, not the thing they need.

My skin color is not how people think of diverse casting. Which is completely understandable, but I wonder where that put me. Likely my experiences are invalid to casting because I am white passing. I’m not the typical face of someone who has experienced lack of opportunity.

In India with my cousin-sister at another cousin’s wedding. We Indians like our weddings.

My dad is amazing and tells me never to get caught up in racial identity confusion. He tells me that if he let himself get caught up in that he would have never made it as far as he did. He tells me to only see my mixed identity and experiences as a positive, because it is. And as soon as I know that, others will. I love my dad, and I cling to this wisdom in every audition, headshot session, callback, and call to set.

I’m not as dark as others. I’m not as light as others. But maybe I’m just dark enough, and just light enough. Because I’m mixed! I’m me. And there are so many like me- performers who don’t fit into a perfect niche, split into 2 two worlds. And in the wake of diversity, I think that is so worth celebrating.

My wedding day! Image by the incredible Lindsey Gomes

Special thanks to Myrona DeLaney- my beloved voice teacher, mentor, and friend through college and beyond. You’ve always been in my corner and I will forever be in yours.

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Asha Noel Iyer

Asha Noel Iyer

Writer, Coffee Lover, Cat Mom. Writer for Society19 & @thriveglobal. Sign up for my mailing list: https://tinyletter.com/ashanoeliyer