The Misadventures of a Third Culture Kid: Representation
The First Time I Saw Myself
Growing up, I secretly wanted to be white, because all I saw were fun lighthearted girls with solid relationships with their parents and no deep dark familial closeted skeletons. Carefree, few rules, no guilt. What.A.Life. Never having to explain any part of themselves because we all inherently knew who and what they were because it was everywhere — movies, tv, magazines, PTA, government, art, advertising. Imbedding into our deepest subconscious. The beauty standards, the romantic plot lines. For a third culture kid, my only options were white Hollywood or Bollywood, the latter resonating with my “self” in the home, but not outside, where my third culture was born and resided, but whom no one understood. Hell, I didn’t even understand growing up.
But then, this thing happened. Persons of Color (POC) stories started popping up everywhere. Seemingly overnight. It was only after consuming so much POC media in the last few years, did I realize where those white girls got their self-assuredness from. How grounding and validating it is to see yourself, or familiar stories, in the mainstream.
I first felt the initial inklings of this white girl power when I watched the Big Sick. The story of a Pakistani-American Millennial man who has a secret white girlfriend while his parents are trying to arrange his marriage. I wept. I wept and I didn’t even realize I was weeping. I wept because I felt the anguish of guilt pulling you in two directions between your family and old-world culture, and your love and national culture. Yet, at the time, I couldn’t quite articulate why I wept. All I was able to say at the time was, “that the movie was good, and it resonated”. Honestly, the only thing missing to make it truly representative would have been more yelling and more guilt. The movie struck something, I just wasn’t exactly sure what it was.
It wasn’t until I watched Blinded by the Light, when something more profound hit me. A movie about a young Pakistan British teen in 1980’s England trying to see eye to eye with his traditionalist father, while balancing his pursuit of his art, writing. Watching this movie, I didn’t realize HOW unseen I had always been made to feel, until I felt seen all at once and with tremendous force through a series of scenes in which the protagonist attempts to express himself, navigate his identity, and wade through guilt — fights with his father, begging to be heard, to be seen. I cried and cried during those scenes. I didn’t even realize I was crying. Not exactly knowing why in that moment, but having something triggered inside me, because it captured something real, raw, human, and never before represented on the big screen. It was a new feeling — It was my story. It was our story. A far departure from the white girl stories we were force fed growing up.
Then, it occurred to me. There is a vulnerability in being represented. It drudges up emotions and parts of your experience and history that you’ve pushed away deep down in order to assimilate, code switch, or just plain survive, exactly how we were trained to, both by our parents, and by the ruling classes, aka the whites and their privilege.
I cried during those two movies because they portrayed very painful elements of my experience. Experiences that brought me to my knees, made me feel helpless, resentful. The constant identity balance thrust upon us just by virtue of being children of immigrants. My tears were those of relief for feeling like I wasn’t alone, but also of heartache for being reminded that my reality wasn’t fair and carried heavy baggage. Growing representation of brown minorities induces deep confliction within me because it is both thrilling and pride-inducing, but also scary as hell. It’s happening for the first time. It’s the first time people are really talking about us. Seeing real stories, not just sidebar or stereotyped characters. And sometimes it feels like our secrets are being told. Secrets I have spent the majority of my life hiding because I was made to believe my dynamism wasn’t welcome anywhere but inside the privacy of my own home, and sometimes, not even there.
But despite that fear, these stories are NECESSARY. Representation is NECESSARY. Say it with me now: Representation is NECESSARY. Put it on a shirt. Shout it from a rooftop. Stories and insights for us by us. We don’t need Robin DiAngelo, Erin Meyer, Kim Barker, Disney, or Netflix observing us from afar and then telling us and everyone else who we are. Content like Ramy, Man Like Mobeen, Big Sick, Blinded By The Light is so necessary, to set the record straight, while entertaining, inspiring, and informing through authenticity. Especially during this era of growing global nationalism. Our countries were made great by our parents who were brave enough to seek futures in the unknown, and combat xenophobia. Then furthered by my generation’s unbeknownst creation of third culture. That’s the beauty in this world. And only we can tell those stories.
And yet, we have so far to go, because the gaping hole still blatant in this arena is… the female perspective. The girls are missing! Where my girls at??
There was one episode of Ramy during which I nearly screamed from excitement — it was about his sister’s experience. Ramy is an emmy-winning TV show on Hulu about a Egyptian American young man from New Jersey navigating his intersectionality, friendships, and love. In a scene with Ramy and his sister, they’re sitting at the kitchen table and she’s lamenting about the maddening double standard in their home. How their parents treat her far different than they treat him. Their parents are more lenient and soft with him. They don’t question him, or hold him to any academic, professional, or beauty standard. Holy shit…THAT WAS ME. I texted my brother immediately, because obviously this middle child needed instant life validation. But more importantly, because my brother and I have, on more than one occasion, had this exact conversation, almost verbatim. Much like Ramy, my brother, while fully aware of the double standard, is ill-equipped, to actually do anything about it. Our boys are seldom emotionally conditioned to reconcile these cultural complications. But we’ll get to that later (see GENERATIONAL TRAUMA). But that’s all we got. One episode. We got one episode to highlight the dynamism of being brown, female, and Muslim. The world is woefully missing out.
What Hollywood gets right and what Hollywood gets wrong.
Now, I know, moves are being made. Hollywood is starting to see us. Girls are showing up. But, our representation is still reductive.
The representation of brown men is poignant and powerful. Constantly unpacking the desire to follow one’s professional or creative passions. Highlighting the struggle of identity and purpose. Kal Penn, Ramy Youssef, Guz Khan, Kumail Nanjiani — the depth is visible and real.
Brown female representation, on the other hand, has been problematic, to say the least. Take Never Have I Ever. Now, before you cancel me, I love that this show features an ensemble cast of mostly POC newcomers, including a lovely young woman I went to high school with, not to mention the fact that it was written and produced by Mindy Kaling, brown female queen taking Hollywood by storm. HOWEVER, the entire story is premised around a young brown girl’s pursuit of being deflowered. Of course, there are deeper themes beautifully woven in throughout the show, but this is an example of how the go-to way to humanize and make a brown character “relatable” to the masses aka white people, is to over dramatize the sexual aspects of her identity. Let me remind you, these are 14 year old characters. And yes yes don’t @ me, I know teens are having sex, and brown teens are just as virile as any other ethnic group, but to jump straight to sex when “representing” brown females is to overlook a couple different things.
First, yes we are red-blooded human beings who want and need sex, but we are so much more than that! We are aspiring writers (publish my book!), and doctors, and business leaders, and artists, and economists. We are everything white people are (with better eyebrows and flavor palettes). We ooze with multi-dimensionality. So don’t forget that. And for Allah’s sake, stop considering minority stories and dynamic brown characters as “not-relatable” because it’s 2020 and the world is increasingly various shades of BROWN!
Second, hyper sexualizing brown female characters as a means to make them relatable completely overlooks/ignores the fact that we have been hyper sexualized all throughout history — hello paging Lawrence of Arabia and Aladdin. The haremization (yes just made that up) of brown women is not new. Seen as “exotic” and therefore other, and therefore dehumanized has led to our victimization and devaluation. Stereotypes of submissive domesticated wife material or sexual creatures in need of conquest by white men, and worst of all, enemy of white women, has led to problematic dynamics in present day dating and working — more on this to come [See WORK; DATING].
These trope traps need not apply. We don’t need ‘em! Tropes are built on stereotypes, and stereotypes are rooted in white supremacy and colonization. To continue to portray us through our sex lives is to further exotisize and haremize us, and tell our stories through colonizer lenses, perpetuating the notion that our humanness is solely linked to our Americanness, which has been assigned as overt sexual desire. Thus, reducing us to the age old one-dimensional white suprematist trope. And leading to troubling implications for real-life interactions with society.
Desire for sex doesn’t make us relatable. What makes us relatable is the dynamic nature of our spirit. To be human doesn’t mean requiring liberation and western constructs of norms. It means being our authentic selves and living in our power. Sex is the most human thing out there, yes. But imposing it on everyone as a means to humanize them into characteristics of what the white and the privileged can comprehend is as disempowering as forced burkas in Taliban enclaves. No thanks. What needs to be liberated are the perspectives of the masses, not our bodies.