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The Spectrum: Looking for myself in the media

Madhuri Sathish, Contributor

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I still remember how happy I was when I picked up “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and realized that the Patil twins would finally have slightly more significant roles as Harry and Ron’s dates to the Yule Ball. Even at 10 years old, it did not escape my literature-obsessed mind that I rarely encountered characters that resembled me. I am a diehard fan of the Harry Potter series. But when it comes to media representation, J.K. Rowling disappointed me. Why did people of color never get to be the frontrunners? Why is it that so many facts about “minority characters” came long after the series was over, in the form of interviews?

I want to see people who look like or live like me in the media, especially when we put so much weight on that media. In an era where media and popular culture are charged with providing us with validation, it is frustrating to feel like a “minority.” When I travel to India, where I was born, I see millions of people who look like me. I’m not a “minority” on a global scale. Yet Western media is still adamant about denying us representation. According to a 2013 study by the University of Southern California’s Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative, only 5 percent of speaking characters across 100 top-grossing movies in 2012 were Asian. There is a significant discrepancy between the percentage of moviegoers who are people of color (44 percent) and the percentage of speaking PoC characters across the 100 top-grossing films (less than 25 percent).

I find it problematic when someone tells me, “It doesn’t matter what someone’s skin color is; it’s all about talent!” In 2010, actress Gabourey Sidibe, who starred in the movie “Precious” said, “If I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.” In a white-normative media sphere, people of color are frequently told that they are deviations from the norm and do not naturally “belong.” As a result, one privilege that goes hand in hand with whiteness is being able to look at the world through the lens of the media and feeling like you are a part of it.

When you tell me that you don’t see skin color, you are telling me that you don’t see racism as still being an issue, and you are taking away my agency as a woman of color to say, “I’m still subject to institutional discrimination.” When you say, “but there’s an Indian woman in that show!” when it’s really a token “foreigner” who provides comic relief, I realize that you don’t see value in the fight for media representation. And when I read the comments on articles about Nina Davuluri, who was crowned Miss America 2014, I still feel like I am not “normal,” because after changing so many lives, she was called a “terrorist,” an “illegal alien” and “proof that America is going to hell.” This is how a large chunk of the U.S. still perceives people of color.

Representation is a struggle across the board, in all forms of media. Personally, it would have meant the world to me to be able to look up to a journalist of color who was successful. While there are currently many brown people in the American journalism industry, like Fareed Zakaria and Azmat Khan, I have to look for them through Twitter. Meanwhile, I just have to look at the front page of any major newspaper to find a white journalist.

Secondly, it would have been great to see movies about brown people that didn’t totally disrespect my culture (I’m looking at you, “Slumdog Millionaire” — way to blatantly peddle Western stereotypes about Indian poverty instead of championing the incredible capabilities of people in the region). A 2012 Slate article emphasizes how and why Hollywood mocks South Asian people, and it’s on point; I don’t understand why it would be so unlikely that a South Asian person could live a three-dimensional life that isn’t all about accents and stereotypes.

After being disappointed by both the film and journalism industries, it would have been great if my favorite author didn’t decide that playing sidekick roles was all the Patil twins were good for. But she did, and I was disappointed yet again.

If others could see the problem with how the media treats people like me, we could start changing it. We need people with privilege to learn about this, because unfortunately, people of color are very rarely able to radically transform an industry unless they have the backing of white allies. This isn’t just an issue faced by people of color; we are some of many marginalized people, and we all deserve to be treated like we actually exist.

I acknowledge that despite the dearth of South Asian personas in popular culture and media, there are some out there. When Marvel announced that its latest superhero would be a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, I was so excited; as a heavy consumer of pop culture, I have seen change unfolding before my eyes. A brown woman as a superhero? That is my idea of progress.

But I still can’t look at popular media and see my lived existence represented with even remote accuracy. I am not a token. I am not your fetish. I am not an after-thought. I want to look at the media and realize that I am not unusual, that whiteness is not a “norm,” that people like me do succeed. Don’t take away my agency. I want to be seen and heard, but on my own terms, not as a secondary character in a white narrative.

Madhuri Sathish is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

This essay is part of The Spectrum a weekly series in our Opinion section on topics of marginalization and privilege. To submit a piece for The Spectrum, please email [email protected] with your idea for a piece no longer than 700 words that you hope to have published as part of the conversation.

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