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  • Writer's pictureArka Raina

What Do You Mean I "Don't Look Indian?"

A girl looking away facing words and phrases assuming her identity. Phrases include, "You look Exotic. Where are you really from?" and "You're so pretty for an Indian girl."
Graphic by Priya Pankhania

The world has only recently begun to realise how intrinsic racism is.

‘Unconscious bias’ and ‘white privilege’ are at the forefront of digital and political discourse. It's an attempt to start the much-needed and, frankly, long overdue work of overhauling the institutional and systemic racism that hinder a truly equitable, inclusive and just society for all.

The South Asian community, in particular, sits in between the white and black communities, simultaneously receiving prejudice and privilege. Across the pond in the US, the Asian community is known as the ‘model minority’ because of our cultural focus on education as a key enabler of social mobility. It's a way to ‘beat the system’ which is rigged against us. This misnomer serves to pit Asian demographics against other communities, holding them to a proverbial “higher” standard. The common argument dictates that if Asian immigrants and diaspora can be successful in a majority-white country, then there is a path to success that other marginalised communities have. This flawed logic also flows within the South Asian community, perpetuating anti-blackness.

Indeed, 200 years of white supremacy causing intergenerational trauma, internalised racism, and religiopolitical turbulence is bound to leave a mark. One has to only look at the Bollywood industry to see lighter-skinned Indians - and in some cases, Eurasians - rampantly championing the same colourist message: whiter is better.

As we are leaning into our prejudices in an effort to acknowledge and unlearn them, and champion our darker-skinned brothers and sisters, we are taking back our power dampened by conditioned self-hate from internalised racism.

I never questioned being Indian; it was something already known and obvious to me, especially as I was visibly not white. As a lighter-skinned, but not white-passing, South Asian woman myself, I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and encountered my first experiences of racism in school. This was undoubtedly distressing and made me feel like I could never be fully British because of the colour of my skin; however, I still took pride in knowing that I still had a place to call home. I belonged in my Indian community, however small it was.

Fast-forward to university, I suddenly encountered many people from another South Asian diaspora in my student halls, who zealously took their South Asian identities to new heights.

Surprised to learn that I was also part of the same diaspora, I was given nicknames such as ‘coconut’ and statements such as, “You’re my favourite white girl.” Whilst I was indifferent to these comments at first, and do not think that there was intentional malice behind these statements, I soon grew tired. I started to feel the unwanted yet familiar dull ache of not belonging: not British enough and not Indian enough.

At a time where I wanted to make friends in first-year, my expectations were high. I knew that I wouldn’t meet many fellow South Asians or BAME students in my course as I was studying for a Bachelors in French and Spanish. My intake was virtually 90% white and female.

But I thought, at the very least, that I would not encounter prejudice from people whom I considered to be my own.

Truth be told, it’s still frustrating to me when people assume I’m a European or Eurasian woman when in reality, I’m a light-skinned South Asian woman with naturally straight hair.

I eventually dismissed these occurrences as a series of one-off events with a group of misplaced souls. It was not until my experiences when I studied abroad in Montreal and Valencia where I was mistaken for South European, Middle Eastern and Arab.

In Montreal, I was at dinner and by chance sat next to a young white Cuban man with whom I had mutual friends. He racistly called me “you people” and it confused me. It became clear what his train of thought was after I ordered pork instead of beef.

He asked me twice, “Isn’t that against your religion?” even after I had explained to him once that Hindus don’t eat beef whereas Muslims don’t eat pork, and I was Hindu.

He apologised for his behaviour, but I don’t think he realised the extent of his harmful racist and islamophobic behaviour. If I actually happened to be Muslim, then that would have reaffirmed his prejudices that all brown-skinned people are Muslims to be treated disdainfully. And he would not have apologised.

Another time, in Valencia, I was told by a Spanish university student, “I thought you were Portuguese, not English.”

Even when I entered the workforce a few years later, I encountered the same instances, even from fellow British South Asians. The bias was less overt, yet still the same assumptions. Now that I’ve been working for a few years, I’ve unfortunately come to expect these microaggressions that are laced with dehumanising curiosity. Yet they still catch me off guard each time.

“You look Turkish, where are you from?”
“I thought you were European until I heard your surname.”
“What are you?”

Truth be told, it’s still frustrating to me when people assume I’m a European or Eurasian woman when in reality, I’m a light-skinned South Asian woman with naturally straight hair. It is a reminder that I am sometimes seen as ‘other’ in both the Caucasian and Asian communities, not fully accepted in either. Genetically, I probably am mixed, given the historical melting pot migratory populations from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands that make up India today.

Regardless, I identify as British Indian and do not appreciate being told otherwise, nor being met with disbelief when I reveal my ethnic identity. In the past, I struggled to find the vocabulary to call out this behaviour. Now I take comfort in the fact that social justice has become more commonplace, starting with having conversations with ourselves and each other to be anti-racist. I’ve heard and seen great strides in respectfully calling people out and educating them on their biases, such as, “Are you aware of what you're implying?” and “That comment impacts me/isn’t ok to say, and this is why.”

So to my fellow South Asians and People of Colour community members: here is a gentle reminder. As you do the work to love yourself undoubtedly and unashamedly as you are, and as you take up space and take pride in your heritage, your background and your environment that make you unique - please do remember. Remember to show the same love and respect to those who, whilst holding relative privilege, are still oppressed. Do not fight ‘otherisation’ with more ‘otherisation’. Treat others how you wish to be treated.

As society moves the needle towards equitable treatment and diverse representation, we need to see just that - diverse representation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ appearance or background for being a South Asian diaspora, and if we want to stop being labelled or put into categories by white supremacy then we must stop doing the same to one another. Let’s support each other by respecting our differences.

I look forward to the day when unconscious bias becomes conscious inclusion and, eventually, unconscious inclusion.

I’m sure you do too.


A Modern Languages graduate from UCL, Arka Raina is driven to create social impact by combining her love of culture, design, and tech to lift up others for a truly just society. She currently works as a Product Design Consultant, designing and delivering inclusive products/services through Agile and human-centred design methodologies for clients from multiple industries. Outside of work, she contributes to ‘Tech for Good’ hackathons and other volunteer projects to equitably improve underrepresented communities. She has an interest in psychology, intersectional inequalities, holistic health/wellbeing, art and communication. You can connect with her on LinkedIn!


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