Mirror, Mirror: A Search for Indian American Representation
Written by Tanvi Oswal
Graphic by Anonymous
During my freshman year at UT, I attended a lecture about representation in children’s literature. Towards the end of the event, the woman leading our discussion asked us, “When was the last time you saw yourself in a literary character?”
A pause, then hands went up. Names of characters were thrown out, from Jo March to Hermione Granger. I sorted through the pages I’ve read throughout my life, considered the characters I loved and the stories that stuck with me. And as people continued to list characters, I realized that, although I recognized aspects of myself in so many characters, there were none that I could say were truly representative of me.
I noticed that most of the people who remained silent were people of color, like me. I knew, of course, that American media in the early 2000s was whitewashed and exclusionary, but until that moment, I had never really thought about how that lack of diversity affected me.
Until last year, I don’t think I had ever read a book with an Indian American character. Growing up, all of the books I read featured predominantly white protagonists in predominantly Western settings. Even outside of literature, it seemed like every Indian American television or movie character fit one stereotype: the scrawny, nerdy, picked-on boy.
There was Ravi from Jessie; Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb; Chirag from Diary of a Wimpy Kid; even Raj from The Big Bang Theory. I remember laughing at these characters for years—until one day they stopped being funny. It’s easy to laugh at the Indian kid for being socially awkward or nerdy or having a strong Indian accent (we should really talk about why they all had those accents, but that’s a topic for another time), but it’s not so easy to actually live with those stereotypes. I wouldn’t go so far to say I stopped finding them funny because I began to identify with them, but I did start to see the commonalities between myself and them and realize the hurtful, prejudiced, racist associations those stereotypes brought forth.
I’ve been told by my peers that I “act really white for an Indian!”, as if whiteness is a paragon I should strive to achieve. I didn’t have the words to articulate it back then, but what they really meant was: I don’t act like any Indian character they’ve ever read about or seen on TV. That’s just the problem—Indian Americans are not a monolith, though we are often seen as one. We each have our own identities and cultures and languages, and we each deserve to be represented. Show me female Indian Americans. Show me queer Indian Americans. Show me neurodivergent Indian Americans. Show me Indian Americans with roots in northern India and western India and everywhere in between.
Here’s what I have to say: we exist outside of Bollywood. We exist outside of IT companies and after-school tutoring. We are one billion strong and counting. We are vibrant and individual and have stories to be told. And we will tell them.