C: Colour (Post 3: A-Z of Feminism)

Posted on April 20, 2015

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I am a few days late with this post, simply because I was not sure which perspective I should be writing from – personal or political! (wink, wink!) I had never really paid attention to the colour of my skin consciously. I guess in India I always blended in. People always commented about the beautiful (read fair-skinned) and the ‘unfortunate’ (dark-skinned) people, especially women/girls. And the comment was always about how hard it would be to get her married. I’m not talking about the 1920s, rather the 90s and 2000s. It sounds archaic, which it is, but hard to believe that it happens even now.

When I moved to the West, I was struck by the conspicuous absence of women of colour in the popular media. I am talking about characters that are not playing their ethnicity – so Raj from Big Bang Theory does not count. His character is as infuriating as it is endearing. Gloria from Modern Family does not count either. She plays a sexy vixen of Colombian heritage. There’s a glaring absence of South-East Asian, South Asian or even Latina women even though we make up quite a large population. The shows which did have women like Margaret Cho (Drop Dead Diva) and Sarayu Rao (Monday Mornings) were not on popular networks and were canceled quickly. Devious Maids mostly portrays Latina women as maids! Needless to say there are barely any women of colour in the popular media that young girls can relate to or aspire to be.

I work with young girls in the 11-14 age group. As part of a workshop, they were asked to come up with characteristics of the “Most admirable girl” as portrayed by the media and they came up with: Tall, skinny, light-skinned, skimpily dressed, high cheek bones, blue eyes. I have repeated this exercise with several groups and each time it is much the same image that emerges. In my groups, regularly girls of colour tell me that they wish their parents would just be like “real Canadian” families. When asked to describe what “real Canadian” means to them, they talk of eating out at a pizza place instead of going to a restaurant that has food from their own culture.

This struggle to be “real American” or “real Canadian” is reflected in Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt where Jane Krakowski plays a Native American woman who has spent her youth trying to escape her Lakota identity. Her parents are played by, hold you breath, actual Native American people! However, Krakowski herself is not Native. But this dearth of being able to see people of varying heritages makes us applaud even small steps like Fey’s Kimmy Schmidt character!

A while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about “Orange is the New Black”. I said to her, “I wish the central character was a woman of colour. Why couldn’t the main character be black, if not anything else!” And she said, “Because then it wouldn’t be as popular!” I do think she is right. It almost cannot be fathomed that a Black woman would actually give herself up and spend time in prison just because she wants to be a conscientious citizen of America. And there’s no novelty in African American women going to prison now, is there?! (This is sarcasm.)

Even daily living in the West for women of different colours is varied. For e.g. in Toronto, I can buy a lot of Indian groceries at Walmart, but I can’t find a single magazine that is not talking about white celebrities at the same store! Why is that? You can’t even get Suay and Ebony which are popular “Black” magazines at a Walmart!

Some realizations that I have had about being a woman of colour in the West:

1. Colour is further complicated by class, nationality and immigration status.

2. The experience of being  a woman of colour who is a citizen of US or Canada is very different from being a woman of colour with a heavy ethnic accent.

3. Women of colour apparently represent their entire community, whereas white women represent themselves or may be their families (because of course, they HAVE to have families!) For e.g. Whenever I talk to people about a lack of women of color portrayed as women having depth, they will talk about Mindy Kaling or Kalinda Sharma. And of course these two women represent almost half a billion Indian women or women of Indian descent. And where’s the representation of South-East Asian women?! Who is actually considered as being a “woman of colour” really?

To leave you with an anecdote…I was speaking with a Ghanian Canadian woman in her 20s recently and she said, “My mamma always said that you’re black. You’re always gonna have to work harder than others to get the same opportunities. It will take time and it will be hard, but your time will come!” I was happy that she is a positive person, but is it really okay that people of colour have these experiences on a daily basis?

Disclaimer: This is the first time I have tried to articulate personal thoughts on the issue of colour and my experiences of being a woman of colour and an immigrant in the West. If I have made any errors, please forgive me and leave me a polite comment that will help me improve. Thanks.

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