Love, Life Stories

I was afraid to be the only minority in a mostly-white media company – but the truth surprised me

The constant stream of misrepresented characters and stereotypes can lead to flawed generalizations of 'the other'.

I grew up surrounded by different cultures.

My primary interactions were mostly with people from similar background as mine. It wasn’t a conscious exclusion of other people, but was more of a circumstantial one.  I was naturally very curious about how ‘the West’ lived. I had talked to citizens from different cultures before, but unfortunately never really had a deep conversation about their culture.

[bctt tweet=”I spoke with an accent, but I never thought it was out of the ordinary. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Still, like most teens in Dubai, I was an avid consumer of Western media products like Disney and Nickelodeon. Series like High School Musical and Lizzie McGuire became part of my childhood obsessions. Even though I couldn’t find representations of myself on-screen, I was just happy that I was ‘in’ on the popular shows. Watching these shows, I got exposed to how ‘they’ perceived my culture.

For my nationality, I soon realized that I would be categorized in the Western media as an Arab. For some reason, media executives could not imagine an ‘Indian Muslim.’ There was a number of over-used Indian stereotypes in many of the shows and movies I watched.

[bctt tweet=”For my nationality, I soon realized that I would be categorized in the Western media as an Arab.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I could never relate to the ‘Raj’ or ‘Lathika’ with a heavy, thick accent and great mathematical skills. For some reason they always complained about food, and constantly talked about ‘paratha’ or ‘curry’ or ‘chai.’ It was as if the definitive Indian could only be portrayed with these elements.

I never understood why different cultures were collectively termed as Asian culture. The lead actor/actress would call Raj/Ram to help out with their homework or computer repair. The Asian characters were never fashionistas or among the popular kids. They weren’t associated with anything other than rules, family, and IT.

However, it was the accent that soon led to my inferiority complex. The ‘Indian’ accent that the characters spoke with was often incomprehensible to others.

I spoke with an accent, but I never thought it was out of the ordinary.

Not until I saw Indian stereotypes in movies.

No character in English movies acknowledged it as normal. Instead, it was mostly voiced for comic relief purposes and/or to show how conserved the family was. Slowly, this parody added to my insecurities. I believed that this was how the West perceived us as: conservative, strict, boring mathematicians with a funny accent. The irony was that no one had ever personally told me these things.

The media portrayal of Indians was more than enough to give me an inferiority complex.

[bctt tweet=”Would my different accent dictate how they see me?” username=”wearethetempest”]

In my second year at college, I interned for an English publication. As I sent out my applications, I wasn’t aware about the workplace environment. I had an interview before being selected, which the editor had conducted. She would later introduce me to all the other employees, all women – mostly English women.

Even though the editor was a kind person, I couldn’t do away with my fears. Would these women perceive me as those lead characters from the movies? Would they think that I was a conservative girl who wasn’t capable of succeeding? Would my different accent dictate how they see me?

With all these questions in mind, I stepped into the internship. To say that reality was far from what I thought would be an understatement.

[bctt tweet=”My internship became my first real lesson on how not to generalize. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

The women I worked with were some of the kindest people I ever met. I was mostly carrying out assignments given by the fashion section and that itself came as a surprise. I couldn’t believe that they thought I was capable of handling fashion. That meant they believed I could handle something that I thought I was weak in. Something that Western media and movies didn’t associate me with.

They encouraged me to write for the fashion section of the magazine by assigning specific articles, and asked me to come up with my own ideas. When I finished my internship, I was so sad to leave such an amazing work environment. I applied again at the same place and did a part-time internship. They graciously accepted me as an intern, despite my irregular time schedules.

My understanding of how they would perceive me was so flawed. I had made the mistake of assuming how they would think of me, based on my intense consumption of inconsistent media messages.

My internship became my first real lesson on how not to generalize. Exactly the way media had stereotyped my community.