Baig: Represent Desis right, or don’t represent us at all

Ayesha Baig, Op-Ed Contributor

Surprisingly, I didn’t crave diversity growing up in the United States. I guess that’s what happens when there’s absolutely nothing around you to remind yourself of, well, yourself. 

There were no Desi (a term used to describe people of South Asian descent) restaurants in my town, no Indian American classmates until I hit high school and the television shows I watched barely had Muslim representation. Never seeing diversity and never seeing yourself represented somewhere doesn’t make you miss it, because you can’t miss something you never had. There were flutterings here and there, like the smile that would erupt when a brown girl showed up in cartoons (racially ambiguous but my color nonetheless). “She looks like me,” I would think. Or, when in primary school, when we would be talking about the Great Wonders and the Taj Mahal would be mentioned. “The Taj Mahal is in India,” I would proudly exclaim to my class, “That is where I am from.”

Representation started to appear in middle school and beyond. I learned of Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb.” Now, that was an experience. Voiced by a white person, this accented, stereotypical little brown boy used as the butt of jokes — yeah, that wasn’t it for me. There was an Indian dude in “Parks and Recreation,” again playing the funny, stereotypical brown side character. Netflix started to have some “representation” as well. In a poor attempt to appeal to my Muslim identity, “Elite” catered representation in the form of Muslim women taking off their hijabs. It was pretty disgusting. 

Indian restaurants began to open up, owned by white people who only knew naan, butter chicken and samosas. Increasingly I would hear, “Omg, Ayesha, you’re Indian? I love curry!” What the hell “curry” was I didn’t figure out until recently — it is a term Westerners have adopted to generalize the diverse variety of Indian dishes into one simple easy-for-white-people-to-understand word. 

When I was little, I didn’t crave diversity. Later, when parts of my identity began emerging in popular media, I began to crave it a little. I began to think it would be cool if we could have a Desi superhero, an Indian American main character, or a Muslim person on screen I could connect too. But the Desi representation I got was anything but what I wanted. They were Indian, they were American and they were Muslim, but I barely saw myself in them. I couldn’t see my brown friends and family in them. They were just stereotypical 2D characters, all for the laughs and all written wrong. Clearly, their writers didn’t research beneath the surface. Popular culture and social media just doesn’t show Desis as normal people. 

There came a point, and I still hold this opinion now, that I would rather have no representation at all than the crap characters on television. I would be completely fine with it. But I would miss the small moments when representation happened right, and the rush they gave me. Recently, I got the chance to see Hasan Minhaj live. I stood in line with my best friend, who is also Desi, and we both looked at the huge, bright and sparkling Chicago Theatre sign. A brown name glowed up there. It was an amazing feeling and we were proud. Minhaj was authentic, with original jokes and none of the “I’ll be the butt of the joke to make the white person laugh” bullcrap. It was amazing to see a brown man make it, changing the narrative of how society predominately views Indian and Muslim people. It was an awesome night, and we laughed our asses off. It was a night that truly made you feel good to be brown.

Ayesha Baig is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.