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Opinion: Paint a picture of me with all the colours — except white

Do you see me through a white lens? I'm here to ask you not to.
It is often a struggle for members of racial and ethnic minority communities to make their voices heard in mainstream media.

The year was 2019, I’d landed in Canada, fresh out of university, all ready to soak in the new culture.

One beautiful summer evening at the park, an older Caucasian man walked up to me.

“Hello, beautiful.”

People are nice, I thought.

“Your skin is a beautiful caramel colour,” he said. Before I could respond, he continued, “I love curry,” and walked away.

Although I couldn’t say exactly why, I felt unnerved by the comments. It wouldn’t be until later, after many encounters (most less creepy) that I discovered my identity had somehow come to be defined by caramel skin, curry, spices, Bollywood — my race.

This girl is South Asian. She came from India, so let's give her a set of boxes to check off.

Brown, check. Short, check. Vegetarian, check. Watches Bollywood films, check. Fluent in English, check.

Oh no, wait, how's that possible? I have a strong grasp of English? Something must be wrong. 

Did it matter that I majored in journalism and spent my whole life where English was my first language? Probably not to the ignorant person who said, almost with a gasp of disbelief, "Oh, you speak English well!"

There were no boxes of my personality traits — kind, honest, considerate, empathetic — to check off. 

As if it didn’t matter that I was a writer, a friend or anything resembling a human being.

I sometimes wondered how my favourite authors would introduce me in a story. When I considered that almost every time a character of colour would be introduced, it would be with heavy shades of stereotype as an Asian or an Indian or an Arab with an accent — I lost the desire to know how I might be portrayed in a story. 

Even I, as a person of colour, failed.

I started simplifying cultural details, wondering, “Will people understand what I’m trying to say if I don’t explain it with those stereotypical references?”

While I didn't write my character as a person of colour with an accent, I was guilty of referring to Dosa, a traditional South Indian dish, as a "savoury pancake."

I called Lehenga, a traditional Indian traditional attire, a "skirt and top," and worse, while writing scripts, I named my characters “Nick” and “Leah,” making them white characters to appeal to the mainstream audience.

Which is why, when I sat through the Simon Fraser University Onstage Conversations series “Fitting into Citizenship,” with SFU scholar Amyn B. Sajoo and author-journalist Kamal al-Solaylee in October, their words resonated with me, loudly.

“What it means to be Canadian?," al-Solaylee asked. "The public — who is that public? How's that almost always defined as white?”

I wondered if the media played a role in painting a picture of me and other people of colour with a shade of white.

With mainstream media, from novels to news to films, glossing over or cutting out essential cultural details to resonate with the mainstream public, voices of the visible minorities are stripped away. Yet without that cultural information, the stories are not authentic, not lived experiences.

And as immigration continues to diversify our society, it is becoming increasingly important for media to ditch the shallow stereotypes in its portrayal of diverse non-European cultures.

The problem looking at culture through a white lens

White gaze is a concept that I have become familiar with — either through my first-hand experience or hearing second-hand accounts from others. The concept, coined by writer Toni Morrison, is that it's taken for granted that a reader will be white, and that assumption dominates the way writers craft stories, how society operates and, more importantly, how visible minorities are viewed.

The author decides what story to write, whose viewpoint to see the story from, which quotes make it into the story and which ones get cut out. But do we see the cultural nuances in the story? It all boils down to gatekeeping.

I spoke to Sajoo, who echoed my thoughts. He said, “The [writer] will include the cultural details, but by the time the story is published, it is watered down, because it seems to me that the editor assumes that this is still difficult for the public or they won't understand it,” Sajoo said.

It isn’t until an extreme incident, for instance a hate crime motivated by racial or religious animus, that the mass audience is exposed to the nitty-gritty cultural information, he said, adding that this should not be the case.

“It should not require an extreme killing to tell people about culture,” he said.

"I think the editors are too strong,” Sajoo continued. “They are filtering out the fine cultural details either because they think the public will not be interested or because they're afraid that the public is not prepared to accept that as part of the human profile, which the reporter is giving out."

Publishers worry they won't sell enough books, he said, "because you're telling too much of an inside story.”

Adel Iskander, associate professor of global communications at SFU, agreed there are “layers of filtering” in the mainstream media.

He said the watering down of cultural authenticity is essentially motivated by the hunger for readership.

In a world determined by views, clicks, and shares, he said, the media constructs an image of what a generic reader might be, based on preconceived notions. That generic image, he said, determines the nature and tone of stories that journalists will typically pursue.

Losing identity

Yes, it is the nature of mainstream media that stories will go through some form of gatekeeping in which elements of personal voice and cultural authenticity may be lost. But this is where it gets tricky.

My culture, my roots, are a part of my identity. They have shaped me into who I am today, and if you look at me and my experience through the white lens, you are stripping away my identity. The whitewashing of people of colour not only silences important voices, it sends an indirect message: "You don't deserve to be seen. You don't deserve to be heard. You don't deserve to be understood." 

Imagine this: you are an average white person, and you just got out of tanning. Someone walks up to you and says your skin is a beautiful caramel colour, how would you feel?

Maybe you will blush, maybe you will be cheered by the "compliment."

But for someone like me, calling me caramel is racism.

Many opportunities have been lost due to that colour.

I have been deemed "not beautiful" due to a "dull appearance" of my skin because my shade was a little darker.

I remember going out in the sun to play with my friends during our summer break; I would be running around, and neighbours would walk up to me and say, “Why have you tanned so much?”

After that, I began to spend hours trying to use various products to whiten my skin. I hate to admit it but I still sometimes do.

This is the effect of colourism and colonization.

Doors remain closed to many models and actors because of their colour — even in the Indian film industry. Actors like Radhika Apte, Nawazzudin Siddiqui and Vijay Sethupathi have opened up about the issue of colourism in the industry, where roles are typically given to the lighter-skinned actors.

There is a common saying in my mother tongue, Tamil, that reflects this bias: “Karuppa irundhalum kalai ah irukan…” which translates to “Even though he is dark-skinned, he is graceful/handsome.” It's a backhanded compliment that has been passed on from generation to generation, through years of colonization.

So far, maybe I've been lucky that it's only opportunities that I've lost. For some, colour might be the factor that decides whether they return home safe every night.

Iskander, like Sajoo, noted that cultural details usually don't see the light of the day unless it's a special edition of a newspaper or a day to mark a specific occasion — whether it is the Syrian refugee crisis or National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. 

“The articles are produced and then it's almost like there's a hotline or there's like a highway that takes the coverage all the way to the finished product,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis. that's rarely the case. And I think what we do need is that sort of sustained effort to continue covering these communities, these minority communities with intent, rather than, the occasional. It's almost like Thanksgiving with Thanksgiving coverage or Halloween with Halloween coverage.”

“Minority communities shouldn't be treated like they are an event or a day in the calendar.”

Dialogue for change

As our society becomes more diverse, how can we best represent the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities? And who is the torchbearer for the change? The answer is the BIPOC writer and the BIPOC reader. 

As a young BIPOC journalist, I asked Iskander the same question, and he said this is where local newspapers come in — unlike bigger mainstream media, local news organizations' tight community focus makes it part of their mandate to listen to those voices.

It begins with bringing those Black, Indigenous, and persons-of-colour voices into the newsroom, to bring the representation to the discussion table where conversations involving what stories are going to be covered and how happen. 

Mainstream media assumes that minority communities are not going to consume "Canadian content." Yet that assumption itself implies that someone from a BIPOC community is somehow not Canadian.  

Is there enough content representing me and my community? If there isn’t, will I consume that media? Chances are, probably not.

Iskander suggested that the media should ask itself whether it is doing enough to cater to these communities. If not, why not? Or why these minorities weren't consuming its content. Is mainstream media going on an assumption that they are not going to be interested and therefore, there's no point trying?

One of the ways for media to start sharing stories pertaining to these communities is to listen to the local folks, he said — hold town-hall meetings, and say, “'Burnaby come talk to us, tell us how we're doing ... and really make this a concerted effort so that people bring their concerns to you about how stories are covered.'"

I hope that I, too, as a BIPOC journalist, can lend my own voice, and help other under-represented people make their voices heard. There is a steep learning — and unlearning — curve ahead of us. In the meantime, if you ever want to paint of a picture of me, feel free to use all the colours — except white. And tell me how to paint yours.