Note: This is the second in a series of four short posts in which the author explores the experience of being a Person of Colour in America from her perspective as someone new to the country. Read Part 1 here. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for the next installments in the series!
One of the hardest things I’ve had to get used to is reconciling my newfound inescapable visibility – this undeniable, external Otherness – with the pervasive sense of invisibility that often comes with being a Person of Color in America.
When I was in my early teens, for a lot of young, urban kids in India, watching the sitcom Friends was a rite of passage of sorts – a first taste of the glossy world of American popular media, and by extension, of America. I remember being both slightly confused and utterly fascinated by the show: the setting, the characters and the humour were all so distant from my own lived experiences, yet I laughed along with the laugh track and lapped up what I thought was a glimpse into the everyday concerns and lives of urban Americans. It was not until I had spent some time in America that I noticed the show’s much-talked-about oddity: the near absence of characters of colour on the show. I realized soon enough that what Friends had given me wasn’t a glimpse into the concerns and lives of urban Americans, but a glimpse into the concerns and lives of a very specific set of urban, white Americans.
Monochrome media was a problem of which I had been aware, but whose effects I had never truly felt before, having always been surrounded by a media landscape in which I was exceedingly well-represented (which is not to say that the Indian media is necessarily egalitarian, either; I was just fortunate enough to be on the better represented side). Shifting from that landscape to one which doesn’t just lack figures who look and talk like me, or reflect my life experiences, but which lacks room for Otherness of any kind – which is especially troubling given the hegemonic influence of American media worldwide – I have become familiar with the ways in which the media tells you, insidiously, what you can and cannot be, irrespective of how good you are at something. I have become aware of how that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a student of media, reading and consuming and studying everyday a body of knowledge that elides PoCs from the perspectives it deems authoritative, I have come to know what it’s like to be able to imagine my future only in the narrow terms set for me by the media and academia, and for any success beyond those terms be cheapened by the fear of tokenism: a director I worked with telling me he really wanted me on his all-white crew so that he could have diversity, making me rethink what I had assumed to be validation for my talent. I have begun to understand what Indian-American Jazz musician Vijay Iyer meant when he said: “In the face of a culture that would deny them, it becomes necessary for an artist of colour in the west to defiantly announce to the world: I am a fact.”