We're Washing Our Faces With Coconut Water

Fair enough, when you look at the title, you’re probably thinking many things. I imagine your main thought is ‘Is this a beauty article?’ You could simply be thinking that I’m crazy - what a wonderful first impression to give. But give me a chance: you’ll soon understand.
Turn on your TV. Observe what’s being shown. How many times do you see a brown person? If you look at the general image presented - not just on TV but also in the wider media (modelling, music & print) - how many South Asians do you see? I’m not saying that we aren’t there - we have excellent broadcasters like Krishnan Guru-Murthy (Channel 4), Mehdi Hasan (Al Jazeera English), the entire BBC Asian Network team (obviously), Romesh Ranganathan, extremely successful models like Neelam Gill, and so many more. But relative to how much of the country we make up, you don’t really see many of us in mainstream media. The 2011 UK Census recorded South Asians as comprising 4.9% of the total population, excluding people of mixed ethnicity. This means that the figure must stand much higher - I consider myself British Asian and I’m of mixed heritage, and I’m not alone. South Asians are the largest ethnic minority in the UK, yet we’re woefully underrepresented in the wider media.

So this needs to change, right? Of course! But how? The answer seems simple - get more British Asians into the media. But here’s the hitch: aside from the horrors of contending with the older generation (’Beta, it’s pronounced: doctor’), another issue is revealed. How do we become successful in an industry primarily aimed at a white audience, despite the UK demographic’s multiethnic nature? VV Brown summarised it eloquently in an interview with Channel 4 News, in which she said that ‘we live in a society where the media caters predominantly to a white audience, so when you grow up in [such] a society… you tend to identify more positive associations with that audience. In order to cope, there’s a psychological displacement to put on a cultural mask… to try and fit in’.

Illustration by  Jocelyn Xavier

Illustration by Jocelyn Xavier

In the video for her song Sacrifice, VV makes a point of this by significantly whitening her skin and changing her hairstyle from her natural Afro style to long, blonde and straight - the Western (and sometimes Eastern) beauty ideal. It’s no secret that the South Asian community in general has had problems with darker complexions, with products such as Fair & Lovely being so successful both ‘back home’ as well as around the diaspora. This is especially transparent in Bollywood: actresses with dark skin are few and far between, and even those who seem to begin their careers with dark skin seem to get fairer as their careers progress. This mindset has perhaps subconsciously filtered into our thinking, and is constantly reinforced by society both ‘back home’ and over here: the whiter you are, the more successful you’ll be. I could continue with examples of how this is enforced (some MUAs lightening their clients’ naturally darker complexions to fit with this homogeneous idea of ‘fair beauty’ - another article for another day), but we know that the cultural mask exists, and is becoming stronger. We have to weaken it ourselves.

Look back at my title, and tell me it doesn’t make sense. While I have no doubt that many of us accept and proudly bear the flag for our various heritages, the “coconut” might be making its comeback, but as opposed to a rejection of our heritage, this time purely to fit in as a means of self-preservation.