By Gary Paramanathan
My best friend and I have this running joke, I’ll say “I’m half Spanish” and she’ll ask “which half?” usually this rapport is met with slight amusement or dismay by the rest of our friends. I am not half Spanish, I’m entirely Sri Lankan (whatever that means?) So why this joke? It is our special little jab, we pull it out when we sense someone is in denial of his or her South Asianess. By in denial, I mean trying to fabricate an identity that is a bit more mainstream, more appealing, and more special than the average South Asian. This kind of identity transition seems important especially in the dating world, where “mixed” is in and single origin is out. You only have to browse through any of the top dating apps to see South Asians, readily selecting “mixed” heritage.
The dating world, especially the gay dating world is wrought with ugly identity politics, there is literally nothing liberating about it. The gays have what I can only describe as the most rigid sexual hierarchy in the world, it’s worse than the caste system. At the top is (drum rolls!) the white man, Anglo Saxons, say the Brahmins of the gay world, they are the gods of the gays, well the ones with six packs and perfect torsos, followed by (in the Australian context) Europeans (same same), Middle Eastern (aggressive/hyper masculine), Africans (big d#@k cliches) and finally Asians (effeminate, subordinate). I have of course left out a number of groups, Aboriginal Australians for one, they are not represented enough in the Australian context to have a noticeable stereotype, which is sad in itself. Back to us, we the South Asians walk a fine line, we are neither East Asian nor Middle Eastern, we are the space in between, so naturally many of us project our way towards the Middle Eastern front, and sometimes even the European front, in an effort to rescue ourselves from the Dalits of the gay world, Asian men.
I know a Persian, A ‘mixed race’ Indian and of course the half Spaniard, and to my knowledge none of them are in real life any of the above. Our ridicule of those who adopt these identities is merely the tip of the tandoor, and we are very mindful not to overdo it, because we both know there is a reason they do it, often out of exhaustion at being pigeonholed, stereotyped and ultimately rejected. Sadly, some of these men, try as they might, even exclusively seek partners who adhere to the hierarchy, from White all the way down to Middle Eastern, excluding their own community in the process.
I don’t believe it is anyone’s business to police other people’s desires, nor to determine someone’s identity, facts aside if someone chooses to identify as Middle Eastern so what, till they are called on it by a fellow Middle Easterner intent on protecting the borders of his identity, it really doesn’t matter. After all, the term Middle Eastern is a European invention. It is however important to question the place such identities and desires come from. Before we decide to challenge these projections, let’s try and understand their roots.
We South Asians are culprits in our visions of beauty. We love fair skin, when most of us are definitely not. We love coloured eyes, we love ‘sharp features’, we love what the Europeans love and have. We are a long way off from loving ourselves the way we are. When was the last time you saw a dark skinned lead in mainstream Indian cinema? Growing up I remember every villain in the occasional Tamil film I’d watch was dark and ‘Dravidian’ and every hero was fair and “Aryan’. I also have a distinct memory, set in Ludhiana, in Punjab, attending a friend’s wedding, his mother held my hand and said, “You are not Sri Lankan, Sri Lankans are black, black, black, you are Indian”. Yes she repeated black three times, my response was a mumbled “well I am relatively black”. When I returned to India and Sri Lanka again this year, I noticed the pervasiveness of the desire for fair skin and European beauty. Now this isn’t an exclusive sickness to us South Asians, I know the Arabs (modern slavery anyone?), the East Asian (double eye lid surgery anyone?) and much of the world is in on it.
Where else to start than with your own community though, and some work has been done over the years. There are some great initiatives like Dark is Beautiful, who campaign for acceptance of dark skin as beautiful. Even the Indian Advertising standards are changing to reflect this but they seem a few drops of coffee in a sea of milk. When Nina Davuluri won Miss America in 2013, some Americans were outraged, but arguably most South Asians were confused, we knew that she would never even make top 10 in our own national pageants. We are a long way off from what Marco Polo exclaimed he discovered upon visiting the South Indian Pandayan Kingdom: “The darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow…That is why they portray them as I have described”
So is this fair skinned obsession an European import, a North Indian/Central Asian import or the result of homogenisation of Indian culture? And once we figure out the root cause, how do we challenge and dismantle these misconstrued notions of identity and beauty?
Any help is appreciated.