Let’s Retire the Indian Stereotype

By Shyama Parui

It started innocently enough. I was checking out at a local department store, where the cashier offered me the opportunity to open a store credit card. Fed up of such cards, I politely declined. “Why do you want to pay full price? This will give you a 20% discount..." The efficient lady continued doing her job and asked to see an ID to match with my credit card. She looked up at me and asked, “You are Indian?" That being my heritage, I proudly answered “Yes." Much to my surprise, I witnessed a look of disbelief. “But you don't look Indian."

The real question on my mind was, what are we all supposed to look alike? Should I always be dressed in a saree, sporting a big bindi or resemble a doe-eyed actress, who has just stepped out of the sets of the latest Hindi soap opera? My jaw dropped in true melodramatic fashion! Imagine how individuals from the North Eastern states of India must feel when they are routinely mistaken for tourists in their own country. Coincidently, Ms. Cashier looked Indian to me and her name tag had a common Indian name. It took a great deal of effort to stay calm and with a deep breath, I reminded her that there are millions of Indians and we cannot possibly look alike. Unconvinced, she continued to insist that I don't look Indian.

What does that even mean? Desis (Indians) pay full price too, even though we take pride in thriftiness as Raajeev Aggerwhil pointed out in his article titled, “Lessons in Frugality." And why not, saving money is a wise quality. I shrugged and left the store hoping that my fellow Indian-American cashier has the opportunity to meet (sigh!) more Indians. And I suspect, she would approve of my “typical desi" Honda Civic that I drove off in.

Due to my stubborn refusal to be typecast, the conversation at the store haunted me and I wondered what people expect of an Indian in terms of appearance, attire, demeanor, or attitude? Last weekend when I was catching up on the latest season of “Quantico," it emerged that Priyanka Chopra's character Alex Parrish was the exact opposite of the existing stereotype – portrayed as a strong, female FBI agent of Indian descent. In one episode, she even reminds the others, “I'm Indian, and I am not a nerd." However, the character of her colleague, Deep (played by Vandit Bhatt) sheepishly admits to being the “Indian Nerd." The demise of the show after merely three seasons makes me wonder if it was because viewers are not yet ready to accept the new image of the Indian woman. Or was it just a weak production? On my recent trip to India, I was both astonished and disappointed by the “white-washed" selection of lead actors and actresses on prime-time TV. Not the best representation of a land where skin color has myriad shades. Regretfully, products like Fair & Lovely still dominate the market.

The absence of Indian role models for young Indian-Americans is conspicuous. My kids have pointed out how hard it is to find a character that they can easily relate to. The rare Indian-American on popular channels is unappealing with either an exaggerated accent, or in the role of a sidekick. In an interesting science project, Jahnvi, a middle schooler explored if such portrayals affected an Asian child's self-esteem. Her initial study showed that after watching clips from popular movies and TV shows, Asian girls reported the lowest self-esteem compared to Asian boys, White boys and White girls. While we can't make media the whipping boy for pigeonholing us, they have to take some accountability. It's time for creators of fiction to catch up with reality.

The immediate association of individuals of Indian origin in the IT industry has some substance. The immigration of software engineers spiked in the late 1990s and has increased steadily. With the rise of technology and consequently the techie geeks, the image of the mostly male, highly introverted, socially inept engineer is woefully outdated. Knowing numerous and highly esteemed members of the engineer community, I can personally attest to that. If you are hesitant to wear your nerd or geek badge of honor, just look at the Forbes List of the Top 10 wealthiest individuals. I doubt that those guys (yeah, no gals yet) were the most popular kids in high school. The fashion tycoon from France maybe a possible exception, but the rest of them elucidate the maxim, “nerd today, boss tomorrow."

The corporate world, despite its best efforts, may not always be successful in making hiring and promotion decisions that are unaffected by a decision maker's biases. Years ago, one of my former co-workers was conducting peer interviews with candidates for a position on our team. After interviewing one of the candidates, she seemed particularly impressed and remarked, “He looks like a VP." For a brief moment, my aspirations for a VP role came crumbling down, because there was no way I could resemble a blond haired, blue eyed male. The comment was completely irrelevant to the hiring decision because there is no ideal “look" for any job. But secretly we all know that appearances influence selection, often inadvertently. Experimental psychologists have confirmed this annoying occurrence in multiple studies over the years. In fact, researchers Dion, Berschied & Walster found evidence for the “what is beautiful is good" stereotype way back in 1972. Sadly, things haven't changed much.

We are not off the hook either, as it's hard for 99.9 percent people to claim that they are free of prejudices. The difference may be in extent and type and, yes, there are some things we can do about it as Dr. Jaya Save-Mundra, a practicing psychologist explains. If we find that we are prone to making assumptions about certain ethnicities, we can take the effort to read more and gather more information by immersing ourselves in their culture. Being open to new experiences and learning can reduce our preconceived notions that come from unfamiliarity. It is also our responsibility to share our culture with others creating a welcoming environment.

Valuable advice, indeed. In that vein, I'd like to add that it is also our duty as parents to dig deep and find outstanding individuals, who share our heritage and can become exemplary role-models for our young girls and boys.


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com