This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


The South Asian daughter stereotype

Nashwa Khan

I frequent a lot of progressive feminist spaces. I also love pop-culture. If I were to make a Venn diagram the two would overlap easily, and in that overlap would also lay a stereotype—that of the “oppressed South Asian daughter”—which has affected me multiple times.

I used to laugh it off, or even make jokes to fit in, but now, at the age of 23, I take offense to it. I had a turning point over the last few years when “jokes” about brown families from white bodies began to gnaw at me. I recognized people weren’t laughing with my people, or me, they were laughing at us.

That’s when I realized I was also, in fact, on the margins, part of this homogenized “other” I attempted to distance myself from. From a young age, we are taught to perform whiteness and distance ourselves from brownness to assimilate and fit in, but it’s also as a tool of survival. Part of the uncomfortable laughing when a joke is made about immigrants, or brown people—whether it was one about couponing, the curry smell, hairy women or one that used the racial slur “paki”—was about survival. And, part of it, for me, at least when I was a kid, was buying into the notion that the West was superior.

A lot of what helped me unlearn this integrated and pervasive internalized Western supremacy was reading. As I grew older, reading helped me to unlearn and relearn, to hold myself accountable and to grow. It fostered a love of literature in me—reading as an act of self-care. I found a safe space in narratives and stories, explanations of my displaced feelings in diaspora.

I found myself and depictions of me that were desirable could be found in books, more easily than filmography. I could find authors who wrote dignified narratives of brown girls, and found security between pages and have since been optimistic that literature (well, independent or small press literature written by women of colour—the rest is, at times, jarringly white)—has carved spaces for people of colour to flourish.

This stemmed into a love of bookstores. At least twice a week, I wander aimlessly in one, coffee in hand. I look forward to these visits, but avoid sections with white savior covers. I know how to navigate the aisles of my favorite shops to stay safe. I look at beautiful gold embossed spines, vibrant covers, read multiple book jackets.

Recently, I decided to treat myself to a book or two. I wandered to the diaspora, race, culture and community section of the bookshop. To my disgust I found a magazine back cover turned outward, depicting a South Asian bride being embraced by her father, with bold white lettering that read, “proudly overprotective.”

I immediately felt all of my bookstore happiness evaporate I scanned the advertisement, trying to figure out which “well meaning” white feminist organization had yet again crossed the line between solidarity and orientalism. I’ve become well acquainted with white feminism in my early twenties. A few years ago, I first realized the nuances involved in feminist practice while volunteering at Hamilton City Hall. Another woman remarked, “Wow your people must be proud—it’s rare to see your people volunteer at something like this.”

I don’t have formal education on women and gender studies, but what I did understand at that moment was that a feminist had told me she didn’t authentically believe in someone like me also being feminist. This was someone with an embodiment more privileged than my own letting me know my volunteer work was an anomaly. I’ve had many of these conversations that ring in my ears—“you’re not like your people”—when, indeed, I am like many of my people. So I am now accustomed to this very limited white feminism. The magazine triggered a lot of unsettling feelings. Then, I realized it was a car advertisement.

Stereotypes hurt. Questions like, “When is your arranged marriage” are not cultural dialogue, they’re rude and insulting. I don’t care that someone’s token Indian friend “says it’s fine” to say such things, or that it was asked from curiosity.

People often let me know how whitewashed my father must be for letting me move away from home for college. Others will say patronizing things at supposedly progressive learning institutions, like that woman’s comment—ones that seem to say, “Wow you are an anomaly for your community.” It should go without saying that not all South Asians are the same. Never mind that such comments erase a long history of strong, vocal and independent South Asian women.

We live unique lives “back home” and in the diaspora. I am myself, Nashwa, not some caricature on an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

The notion that as a South Asian woman, my life journey is leaving my father’s house to enter my husband’s home is an erasure of my personhood. Within feminist circles, I often find that women with a white feminist savior complex feel an obligation to ask me about my father in a concerned manner. They interrogate me about my marital status not realizing how patronizing this is. In essence they are fortifying the dichotomy that “brown girls get married” but “white girls have choices.”

From a young age many non-South Asian people would concern troll myself and other South Asian women I know. They inquire deeply into our lives without realizing how offensive their casual fascination is. Many of my college friends have had their visiting fathers mistaken as their husbands, resulting in racially charged commentary.

As a South Asian woman, I have many choices and a lot of support, as do many other women I know or read about. Many women also do not have choices, but that is not isolated to any one culture or religion.

Within South Asian communities there are different sets of values and experiences, however in media we largely see a one-sided representation of all brown people in cookie-cutter storylines. We witness iterations of the “tiger-parent” who rarely displays affection, is strict and demands respect and excellent grades from his or her children. We witness brown children as spelling bee-champions, nerdy, awkward, * insert samosa joke here *, fulfilling a model minority role in school and society. When they deviate from these scripts, bodies like mine are viewed as “rebelling” instead of just living life, a privilege that white characters always have.

We often let media shape our perceptions of the “other” and I hope we can move to more critically thinking about how media can sensationalize and skew a few narratives to represent a whole people. I also hope we can move towards recognizing nuances in communities and that not everyone is the same. Sweeping stereotypes and generalizations are violent.

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