'Our genetics are different': UAE-based diversity educator on discrimination against South Asians

The founder of the South Asian Community for Representation, Engagement and Development at NYUAD and host of the podcast 'What's Brown Got To Do With It', talks about dismantling stereotypes about the brown identity


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Tue 2 Jan 2024, 7:39 PM

Last updated: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 10:25 AM

In an ideal world, the South Asian experience of the world should have been same as anyone else’s. But history has ensured otherwise. The silver lining is today, we live in a world where histories are being questioned, as are the stereotypes associated with certain people from certain regions. For years, South Asians have been seen as a homogenous identity with defined expectations from the world and life. Attempting to find its own place in the world, the South Asian diaspora has truly come far, and it’s time for the distinctive quality of this identity to be examined closely. Abu Dhabi-based educator Shadia Siddiqui created South Asian Community for Representation, Engagement and Development at NYUAD to teach young minds the finer nuances of the South Asian identity. In an interview with City Times, the host of the podcast What’s Brown Got To Do With It talks about debunking stereotypes. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your formative years. Where did you grow up and at what point did you become conscious of your brown identity?

Hailing from an Indian father and Pakistani mother, both Muslim, I am a second-generation immigrant born and raised in London, UK. My awareness of my brown identity developed through various experiences throughout my life. Attending a Catholic school exposed me to different religious practices, contrasting with the teachings at home. This initial exposure heightened my awareness of cultural differences. I was conscious of the differences between Indians and Pakistanis from a very young age. The Pakistani community found me too progressive for its norms and I struggled to be accepted as a 'Pakistani'. The lack of awareness about other Indian Muslims further isolated me.

Despite these challenges, my friendships with individuals of diverse backgrounds, including whites, blacks, and other Indians, provided a supportive network which helped to shape my own interest in diversity. Joining the UK government workforce brought me face-to-face with unconscious bias towards South Asians. I observed disparities in progression opportunities, leading me to work twice as hard to prove my worth compared to white colleagues. Many older South Asians, aware of discrimination, remained silent in professional settings, discussing challenges only behind closed doors and not willing to do anything to improve the situation for themselves or others.

While there were exceptions of South Asians progressing, some individuals, upon reaching higher positions, overcompensated to avoid bias accusations, inadvertently overlooked other South Asians.

You created South Asian Community for Representation, Engagement and Development (SACRED) at the NYUAD. It's first-of-its-kind initiative in a local university where the South Asian identity is being spoken of, dissected and deconstructed. Why is it important to do this in academia?

I co-founded SACRED due to the recognition of underrepresentation of South Asian voices in various spheres. This initiative aims to bring attention to the diversity within the South Asian community. There is often an unconscious bias towards South Asians as conformists, unlikely to question authority thus making them reliable workers. SACRED seeks to challenge and dispel these stereotypes, fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and acknowledged.

NYUAD, being a hub of talented South Asian faculty and staff engaged in filmmaking, research, writing and more, provides a unique opportunity to showcase their accomplishments. SACRED celebrates these successes, highlighting the richness of contributions from individuals of varied backgrounds.

SACRED encourages open discussions about South Asian identity, dismantling stereotypes, and promoting a more nuanced understanding. This academic exploration contributes to a richer, more inclusive discourse on cultural identity within the university setting.

To many South Asians who grow up in countries like UAE, identity feels distorted. They may embrace their roots but refuse to be defined only by them. What sort of identity crisis do South Asians brought up outside South Asia ordinarily experience in your opinion?

South Asians raised outside of South Asia often grapple with a multifaceted identity crisis. Primarily, a substantial portion of the South Asian population in the UAE engages in labour-intensive roles, leading to a desire to differentiate themselves through various means, such as jobs and accents, as a need to set ourselves apart from the stereotype.

The persistent inquiry, 'but where are you really from,' adds complexity to our identity. For example, I always get asked this question and when I say I am from England, this answer isn’t always accepted and often with scepticism I have been told things like, ‘but your face doesn't look like its from England’ or the more common one being ‘No, but where are you really from?!’ Society's inclination to categorise individuals into familiar boxes like Indian or Pakistani further compounds this struggle.

I was recently at a dinner with an Indian delegation and they were speaking in Hindi. At one point, someone said to me, you’re probably getting bored because you don’t understand Hindi and I laughed and told them I understood Hindi perfectly. What this showed was that I wasn’t accepted as Indian or Pakistani by them and here I wasn't accepted as British. An Indian from India can say s/he is Indian or someone from Nepal can say they're a Nepali, which leaves South Asians from countries outside of South Asia questioning their sense of belonging and identity.

A lot of young people from South Asian communities also develop a body dysmorphia owing to an early encounter with racism. Have you seen such examples? What does it take to truly decolonise the mind?

I have recorded an interesting podcast with Professor Reena Kukreja from Queens University in Canada about colourism in transnational spaces. Although the podcast is yet to be released, we actually discuss the effects of colourism and how it still exists today.

Darker skin tones, linked to labourers, face discrimination accentuated by skin-whitening product marketing in South Asia. Songs and media historically perpetuated a preference for fairer skin, a bias which became the domino effect of colonisation. In the history of colourism, darker skin women were highly sexualised and were seen as somewhat exotic.

Social media has a big influence on young people and informs the beauty standards we see today. Comparing themselves to models, movie stars and influencers creates a narrative on what they believe society needs them to look like.

As South Asians we still face ‘fat shaming’, ‘colour shaming,’ etc. A recent Indian movie called Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani actually touched upon these biases. People are quick to judge others based on their appearances and as South Asians we seem to be constantly fighting to change the stereotype and show we can look as western as a western! People forget we can’t be as ‘skinny’; our genetics are different so things like these transfer the insecurities onto the younger generations.

We need to start having conversations around acknowledging and challenging ingrained biases and stereotypes. We need to engage in inclusive education that promotes diverse perspectives. We don’t talk about mental health enough and how body dysmorphia affects our state of mind. We don’t talk about body dysmorphia within the South Asian community in general. We need to foster open dialogue on racism and its impact on mental health.

We need to encourage cultural sensitivity and understanding. We need to create our own narrative.

You also started a podcast 'What's Brown Got To Do With It?'. Why was an examination of brown identity important to you? In what ways is this experience different from that of black or Asian identity?

I was having a conversation with a friend about a struggle at their workplace. They were comparing themselves to a South Asian colleague and said ‘it could be worse’. This was probably the catalyst to the many conversations I wanted to have around this. My response was, ‘Why can’t it be better?’ As South Asians we are conditioned to always compare ourselves to the ‘worst’ but there are so many examples of ‘better’ out there for us too, so why can’t we aspire to have better? Again, this is where the unconscious bias falls into place, we are conditioned to not ‘rock the boat’ and to be grateful for what we have that we don’t always fight for what we deserve. I wanted to start a podcast whereby as a South Asian, we can normalise some of these conversations, share experiences, talk about the challenges we have faced and highlight our successes. If we don’t uplift one another, no one else will do that for us.

This experience is different because we are the majority demographic yet we are the most underrepresented in many spaces. Growing up, I did not have people in senior leadership positions that looked like me.

There are spaces where even if people from different communities come together, the intermingling is just not possible because conversations remain confined to those who belong to the same community. How can this be rectified?

This is dependent on what the spaces are. People naturally gravitate towards people that look like them and have shared experiences. It is much easier to focus on commonalities than differences, but part of creating awareness is through the differences. We recently held a film screening for a Pakistani art film and had a panel and audience of South Asians from India, Nepal, Pakistan etc. The conversation around societal expectations and norms from different perspectives really highlighted some of the differences. What an event like this helps to do is open a space for conversation but has to often be led for example by myself to ensure the conversation is inclusive to everyone.

I recently also held a South Asian networking event, bringing together the South Asian diaspora from the UAE. It was encouraging to see South Asians from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, UK, US, Kenya, Sri Lanka all from different fields, professors, lawyers, artists, authors, business professionals, media professionals under one roof intermingling and getting to know each other. The idea was to help connect people with each other and find ways to help each other collaborate. It was a huge success and demonstrated a hunger for these type of events, so much so I keep getting asked when the next one is!

I was recently invited to speak at an event predominantly for Arabs and I was the only South Asian speaker. I spoke to this audience about navigating my life as a South Asian in different spaces and some of the challenges I faced.. The amazing thing about this was not only did it help educate non-South Asians about some of their own inherent biases towards South Asians, but it started a conversation on the commonalities we culturally shared too.

Many corporates have embraced Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as a policy. While it's a welcome move, but there is also a fear that merit can take a backseat in such cases. What's your take on it?

My take on this is, if people were awarded on merit alone, there wouldn’t be a need for DEI in the first place! When we look around us, there is clearly an underrepresentation in a lot of spaces, given we are the majority as a demographic. Corporations need to work on diversity hiring practices, retention and growth before we can talk about merit-based hiring. There is nothing wrong with affirmative hiring. However, if you are hiring just to upscale the diversity numbers then that does not resolve the issue. Corporations need to look at talent within their teams and commit to fostering growth and progression internally first.

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