Let me begin by saying I am in Chicago. There is where I have been for the last two years, this is where I graduated and saw most of the pandemic through. Being in the US has always been complicated for an international student: you are a privileged, mixed-caste, slightly fair woman in India, and once you reach here, you are a brown woman, struggling to find a job and pay rent.
I graduated mid-pandemic and was hit with the misfortune of applying for jobs in this economy. With all the complications that being an international student comes with, this was just peak time for the depression to hit. Being home alone, struggling, and away from my family, I did that thing we all do. I binge-watched all the shows from my childhood that gave me hope. All the aspirational dramas with families and friendships that bring you up. Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, The OC. I grew up with these stories and people. As I am sure a lot of you did. If you were a child in the 90s, watching American dramas over Indian ones gave you an edge. They shaped you, they taught you all the local lingo, they taught you what to eat, how to order coffee, and how to keep your friendships intact.
Watching them now I realized they also taught me how to protect the ones I loved. And this is where my intersectionality switch started sounding an alarm. It started with One Tree Hill. A show I so ardently loved, I made everyone around me watch it. But now when I began watching it, what was glaringly obvious was the colour blindness. That is not to say that there were no black or brown characters. But their race was never a subject of conversation. Moreover, most lead characters were white and the people harming them, or the people in their way to reach their goals and dreams, were mostly people of color. I thought it might be a fluke. It couldn't be. But I binged all 9 seasons to confirm my suspicion. My alarms were now shiny red and ringing.
The more I saw, the stronger this thought became. The shows that made it to India before there were streaming platforms were the ones that could afford to. When we in India watch an American show, we don't understand racial nuance. What we do however end up consuming are white narratives where the people we root for are doing their best to defeat a person of colour to achieve their hopes and dreams. Noble as it may be, we never understand how a white person always has more privilege than a person of colour. And while we watch, we subconsciously start rooting for the person of colour to lose too. These conversations don't happen in India as much, because our demon is caste, not race. But many of us end up in countries like the US where Indians are deemed extremely racist.
India is riddled with colourism. And the TV we gravitate towards, due to our colonial trauma and history, are white narratives. Where the villain, the opposition, the rival, or just competition is a person of color. Things might have changed a bit in regards to what shows are being made in the US today, but in the 90s – not so much. A good reminder to us, while watching from back home, might be to keep giving ourselves regular checks. Whose stories are we watching, whose narratives do we give importance to? While accessing another country, whom are we ignoring? Indians get exposed to the intersecting discriminatory gaze of colourism and casteism. What we aspire to be is white, and that is how we are looked at in the global conversation.
What we consume starts making us who we are. We all know that, agree with that. It took me so much work to learn to decolonize my mind. I am still unlearning. The racial hierarchy in the process of reckoning. We are all fighting really hard over here in this part of the world. So if you are like me, Indian, watching something American to bring you to hope, I urge you to question what it is you are really hoping for. Because if you are like me, brown and rooting for someone white, you are betting against yourself. You are the immigrant coming to take away a white character's job. You are the person they call immigration on. You are the person they can report to the police, or to your strict immigrant parents. You are the person who will work so hard and still find it harder to find a job if a white person wants it.
In this pandemic, I devised a tool to decolonize our bookshelves. Maybe it is also time to decolonize our entertainment. It might begin with something very small, like asking yourself who made this show? Is a black or brown person telling this story? If yes, that is what will look more like your reality in the US. A brown or black person will never be the next Blair Waldorf or Lorelai Gilmore or Brooke Davis. All women I looked up to and once aspired to. But Blair's mortal enemy was Nelly Yuki, an Asian woman who did everything right and yet lost to Blair. These shows never educated me on how white characters had a racial leg up.
I also saw Little Fires Everywhere, Blackish, and Insecure. Issa Rae is quite like me. Mindy Kaling, not so much. Find your people when you consume culture. This year I discovered excellence and resonance in shows like I May Destroy You, which was such a reality check! In contrast, Killing Eve was just the right amount of lighthearted killing I could digest. Ava DuVernay has directed and produced some of my favorite content. So has Jordan Peele. Did you know The Good Place was so racially aware because there were writers of color on the team? And you were never rooting for Chidi or Tahani or Jason to die.
Check yourself: are you rooting for anyone non-white? If not, why not? We are all subconsciously educated to be racists – and this is where unlearning begins. Listening to and watching more stories of and by people of color.