‘Look, Mom. She Looks Like Me.’: A look into South Asian representation within the United States

Vice President Kamala Harris gestures to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, before receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Bethesda, Md. Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP Photo.

On Jan. 20, my family and I, like many Americans around the country, tuned into the inauguration. Since it was a Wednesday and many didn’t get Inauguration Day off, my family and I watched the inauguration in different ways: on the TV in the living room, on YouTube while in a lecture and so on. But the one thing we all got together to watch was the swearing in of Vice President Kamala Harris, an occasion that warranted enthusiastic applause from my mother and a strange sort of hope in my chest. A South Asian woman was sworn into one of the highest positions in the land, and honestly, there was a reason to get excited.  

Something important to note is the phrase “South Asian” itself. For a long time, South Asians — people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. — were put under Asian American. However, “South Asian” has become a way for these people to describe themselves truly. And as of 2019, with nearly 2.3 million South Asians, specifically Indian Americans, living within the country, they merit a “group name” of their own.  

South Asian individuals began immigrating to the United States during the early nineteenth century; however, it was not until after many immigration reforms in the late 1960s that the South Asian population in the United States truly began to grow. In the 21st century, immigration from South Asia has tremendously increased. And yet, as this growing population looks around them in the country they wish to make their home, they do not see their numbers well-represented in media and politics — a problem that many minority groups have and continue to face in the United States.  

Of course, filmmakers face problems when trying to create work with minority leads. Something Aditya Desai frames perfectly by stating the issues: “a compromise of nuance, a turn toward the white gaze and in essence co-opting into a propaganda of diversity rather than, well, actual diversity.” A great example is the show “Never Have I Ever on Netflix. Though the show followed a relatively likable character, excitingly played by a darker-skinned South Asian, and was subjectively funny, many were dismayed at its heavy use of stereotypes. South Asian Americans want to be represented more than “Slumdog Millionaire,” Priyanka Chopra Jonas and characters like Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb.” Yes, creating something that accurately depicts the bad and beautiful experience of being a South Asian American will not be an easy feat. But that does not mean filmmakers should not try. And in actuality, many South Asians will love to see someone resembling them on-screen even if the main subject diverges from the South Asian American experience. As for myself, despite the stereotypes, I enjoyed watching “Never Have I Ever because the girl looked like me, and she was doing “normal” teenage things. And though it shouldn’t have been as miraculous as it was, the thought that I could do the same was illuminating and encouraging. And now, with movies like “The Gray Man” being released, there is greater hope that more South Asian actors and actresses will be seen under the dazzling Hollywood lights.  

As we circle back to politics, we see a similar lack of representation. This year a record number of Asian Americans, South Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans are in Congress: 20 individuals. 20 individuals from nearly 20 million people. The number is alarming. But the fact that the number has been rising sparks hope, hope for a future with more South Asian representation, especially after a rising number of politically engaged youths begin to choose college majors and future career paths. Kamala Harris is not a perfect person. Indeed no person truly is, but she represents the South Asian community, and the fact that they can achieve a position as established as vice president.  

So now we hope that the South Asians in Biden’s Cabinet and Kamala Harris herself leave a legacy worth following and footprint worth filling. We hope for filmmakers to break boundaries and show an America that is not commonly shown. We hope for a future where we too are celebrated on-screen and in the government, and the inauguration on Jan. 20th was just the start.  

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