The South Asian Women Reclaiming Their Culture and Battling Colorism

How Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr became awash with "bindi-adorned brown girls demanding change."

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2016 06 10, 8:10am


Illustration by Maria Qamar, aka @HateCopy

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a Bangladeshi friend asked me if I was a terrorist too. Eight year-old me gave him a WTF kind of look. He motioned to a group of white teenagers down the road: "They all say I am, so I guess you are too."

This wasn't a momentous epiphany where I suddenly became aware of the world's injustices. It was, however, the first time I noticed that race was a thing—an early introduction to the stigma attached to brown skin and browner names.

Over the past few years, the South Asian presence on social media has massively increased. Most of the activists are the children of first generation migrants, who—unlike their parents—can fight racial bias without the fear of having their visas revoked. They came of age with social media, so they took to the internet to vocalize their experiences. Now, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr are awash with bindi-adorned brown girls demanding change.

"The campaign confirmed the sanity of countless desi girls who felt a bubbling resentment every time Becky with the bindi took to the gram feelin' ethnic. Its tagline is simple: 'Dark is lovely and the bindi isn't indie.'"

#ReclaimTheBindi was an early pioneer of the movement. It surfaced on Tumblr in late 2014, shouting down the appropriation of Hindu culture by Coachella-loving white girls. The campaign confirmed the sanity of countless desi girls who felt a bubbling resentment every time girls named Becky put on a bindi and took to the gram feelin' ethnic. Its tagline is simple: "Dark is lovely and the bindi isn't indie."

The founder of the campaign—who chooses to remain anonymous to keep the focus on the issues, rather than on her—says she was tired of the whitewashed mainstream media and the lack of online spaces exploring "desi specific" issues. So she created one herself. "[I realized that] if I couldn't find it then somebody else probably couldn't either," she says. "People need a space where they know their voice is being heard."


Illustration by Maria Qamar.

Maria Qamar, the Pakistani-Canadian artist behind @HateCopy, takes a more satirical look at desi life in the West, depicting it through pop art. One of her pieces captures the Coachella bindi debacle perfectly; three embittered, saree-clad women side-eyeing that "Gori wearing a bindi again."

Like #ReclaimTheBindi's founder, Maria wanted to create an online space to share her experiences. She was the victim of racially-motivated bullying at school and had very few desi friends to share her experiences with. "I went through so many things that I couldn't express because there was no open platform," she says. "Sharing my work online has let me know that I'm not alone."

But in airing the experiences of the South Asian diaspora, problems internal to desi culture were also dragged out of the shadows and forced into the social media spotlight. The erasure of some perspectives, and colorism (discrimination against darker skin tones, typically within ethnic groups), remained as problematic online as they had been in real life.

Shruti Mishra founded the @DesiBeautyy Twitter account as a direct challenge to the underrepresentation of brown skin in fashion editorials and advertising campaigns. Her account popularized the #EmbraceDesiBeauty hashtag, which in April of 2015 drowned my timeline in painfully attractive South Asian girls to mark Desi Beauty Day.

"South Asian spaces are still plagued with anti-blackness and superiority complexes," she says. In particular, the 1971 Bangladesh genocide is often the target of insensitive jokes. "Online South Asian presence is dominated by Pakistanis and North Indians," she says. "When those two groups aren't being represented, you see the most abuse take place. The Bangladeshi presence is not respected nearly as much."

One Bangladeshi Twitter user told me that this has put her off "desi Twitter" altogether. She remains a relatively prominent voice online, with over 3,000 Twitter followers, but now regards South Asian online spaces with guarded cynicism. "I've seen a lot of ignorance towards the genocide, and even denial from so-called activists," she says.

Competing estimates claim that between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis were killed by Pakistani armed forces (and minority Bangladeshi support groups). Hundreds of thousands more women were also victims of genocidal rape. "There's a lot of erasure, even though it was only 40 years ago," she says. "I get a lot of social media hate when I talk about the genocide."

Intersectional feminism makes a point of addressing the additional sexism suffered by women of color. However, the nuances of experience within non-white ethnic groups, like the erasure of Bangladeshi voices by other South Asians, are equally significant. Colorism in particular manifests itself in a damaging way—fair skin is still commonly seen as being more desirable in South Asian communities.

One of Maria Qamar's older pieces shows a woman trapped inside a bubblegum pink tube of Fair and Lovely skin lightening cream. The image is a pop art parody of what many South Asian girls experience—being told to avoid the sun and smother yourself in bleaching products. It's a problem rooted in anti-blackness. After all, as so many girls are told: no one will marry you if you're dark.


An #unfairandlovely campaign image featuring Mirusha Yogarajah (left) and Yanusha Yogarajah. Photo by Pax Jones

Most prominent desi activists today are those with the lightest skin. The #UnfairAndLovely campaign aims to increase the visibility of dark skinned people across ethnic groups.

It was founded by two activists of different ethnic origins—Eelam-Tamil Mirusha Yogarajah and African-American Pax Jones. They point to the Instagram profiles of Sanam Sindhi and Minahil Mahmood as evidence. They are two of South Asian activism's shiniest stars, with cameos in Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" video and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Boy Problems". Both, Mirusha says, are "objectively light skinned".

The prevalence of exotic-but-not-too-ethnic faces is problematic. It says that if we have to have racial activism, we'd better make sure its champions don't stray too far from European beauty standards. I'm a mixed heritage, relatively light skinned South Asian. Exposure to online racial activism like #UnfairAndLovely has made me acutely aware of the benefits I enjoy compared to people who can't hide behind racial ambiguity. No one's throwing bleach bombs at me—an experience Mirusha faced when she was protesting against colorism on her university campus in Texas.

Through #UnfairAndLovely, women have been able to share their experiences of colorism; "I was 11 years old when my uncle told me I should bleach my skin," one testimony reads.

"It's beautiful how our campaign has unfolded," Mirusha says, trailing off.

"But it's tragic how quickly it blew up," continues Pax. "It shows how much we needed it."

Through social media, a previously silenced minority is biting back. But how can online activism achieve longevity? The very nature of trending topics is just that—a transitory trend. Mishra has some ideas. "I envision desi activism turning into something physical," she says. "There's still a lot of learning to do in our own communities before we expand outwards, though."

Every community has its problems, but luckily the dominating voice here is one demanding acknowledgement and change.