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An Indian mother living abroad on why her kids deserve to see Indian faces represented in media

by Nirupama Kumar Hecker 

I was looking forward to seeing the new Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team for so long. Ever since I learned it was coming out years ago, I couldn’t wait to see how artist Sanjay Patel would portray Hinduism for Disney, a topic never explored by the company before.

How Pixar got it right with Sanjay’s Super Team

When it finally came out on YouTube, I sat all of our kids down to watch it together. Less than halfway through, I had tears streaming down my face. It’s not a sad story like your typical Pixar tearjerker. There was no dramatic portrayal of a miscarriage and then the loss of a spouse. (Oh, Up, you get me every time.)

I was crying because it was so long overdue to see characters on screen who look like my family and me.

I was crying because instead of having a brownish little boy with a “mainstream” name, they gave him his actual Indian name — unlike Cece on New Girl or Alex onQuantico.

I was crying because they didn’t just make fun of Hinduism or pretend it didn’t exist — like the NASA director in The Martian who was changed into a half-Baptist for the movie, apparently to make him more palatable for mainstream Americans. Instead, they actually let Hinduism be a part of the story. It was celebrated.

I was crying because I know how much this would have meant to me when I was younger.

What it’s like to grow up without media representation

My parents worked very hard to instill a sense of religion and culture in my brother and me, but they couldn’t keep the outside world away. My real friends did more than tolerate me — they tried to understand me. It still didn’t erase the shame of being mocked by my peers for being a heathen and somehow gross.

You would think 30 years later my son would not have to go through the same thing. He tells me daily about comments from his classmates about how Hindu gods aren’t real or that Ganesha is “creepy.” Watching a Disney short isn’t going to erase that hurt, but it does give him the kind of validation that I cannot. To him, it means his favorite cartoon company thinks he is not creepy and that his Gods are real, too.

In Sanjay’s Super Team, it felt so fantastic to see an Indian father and son together, learning to relate to each other in new ways even if neither speaks a word. It even gave me hope that kids might someday tease my son a little bit less for being Hindu.

Most media couldn’t even pass a two-point Bechdel test about South Asians. First of all, how often do you see two Asian characters together — with names? Then they have to speak? That one is even harder (ahem, Big Bang Theory). The topic of conversation they’d have would be irrelevant at this point.

Media representation matters to me

Seeing an Indian woman onscreen matters. Exposure to media results in a lower self-esteem for minorities and women, both of whom have fewer roles and fewer lines than white males.

Media representation matters to my children

We need more than a short from Disney — an Indian princess would be great, or some characters with speaking parts. My daughter spent a long time questioning her beauty because Elsa has yellow hair. I finally thought to show her a video of Idina Menzel as the “real Elsa” — #parentinghack.

Media representation matters to all of us

Media representation also changes how others view you.

When people question if you speak English or they give up on pronouncing your name without even trying, it becomes obvious how foreign I am to them. I’m different and therefore not worth taking the time to relate to, and this impacts everything from friendships to school admissions, jobs, salaries and housing — even car loans.

It matters when schools are forced to stop saying “namaste” or putting up pictures of mandalas because a few parents are worried that portraying Hinduism in yoga class will be a corrupting influence. Stripping yoga of all its cultural context sounds a lot like appropriation to me. I cannot even begin to imagine how degrading it must feel to the Indian students in those schools.

As media representation of South Asians continues to grow, I expect stories like this will become fewer and farther between. Bollywood is awesome, but it doesn’t reflect the real-life experiences of the Indian diaspora in America, and it does little to impact inclusion and tolerance in America.

It gives me so much hope to see artists like Sanjay Patel making books and cartoons and shorts that are so relatable to kids of all backgrounds. I love seeing more and more South Asians in media as well, such as Lilly Singh, Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling (née Vera Chokalingam). Things are slowly changing, and maybe they’ll portray their culture without apologizing or hiding it.

(The article was originally published in sheknows.com)

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