ROJAK – Gaiatri Sasitharan
By: Gaiatri Sasitharan
Edited by: Jesie Randhawa
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Gaiatri is currently preparing herself for a career in the arts, whatever that means, (read: possible unemployment) studying English Literature and Theatre Studies at NUS. When she isn’t struggling to meet university deadlines, she tutors Literature and hustles for acting jobs on strange Facebook groups. And when she is truly free, she listens to Beyoncé on repeat, attempts to be a MasterChef [Baker’s edition] and reads voraciously. She thinks intersectional issues of class, race and gender are not paid enough attention to in Singapore and hopes to use her work in the arts to advocate for and support marginalised communities in every way she can in the future.
When Beyonce’s 'BROWN SKIN GIRL' music video was released together with her film 'BLACK IS KING', I was bursting with excitement. I knew that Beyonce meant business when it came to the topic of her community – African-Americans. BLACK IS KING, from the title alone, coupled with the knowledge it was filmed, designed, conceptualised and made in conjunction with The Lion King, was guaranteed to be her exploration of African-American culture and African culture in a uniquely Beyonce fashion. And boy, was that true…
BROWN SKIN GIRL spoke to me on a whole new level.
After all, I considered myself a brown-skinned girl! And for Beyonce to identify as one herself, vividly describing the ways in which brown girls were gorgeous because of their skin, not in spite of it, was extremely moving to me.
Your skin is not only dark, it shines and it tells your story.
Figures: BROWN SKIN GIRL music video screenshots
The entire music video is a sight unlike any other but I was moved to tears and for one reason only. Throughout the entire song, Beyonce shows different kinds of brown-skinned girls – light dark, with natural hair, with straight hair, curls, big-sized, tall, albino.
And then…I see a woman in full traditional Indian attire. This was a woman at the debutante ball she depicts in the music video. A tall, Indian woman wearing a lengha was one of the women in the procession and I broke out in a smile.
“That girl, Gaiatri! She’s wearing a lengha, no?”
My mum’s surprise was met by my barely contained smile as I nodded so vigorously, I felt my neck start to hurt. Tears started falling, completely involuntarily. I had noticed flashes of Indian women – the one wearing the lengha, another woman with distinctly Indian features and now I see this:
In picture: Sheerah Ravindren
Sheerah Ravindren was featured in the video! A full-fledged Indian woman – or as she calls herself “Hairy, Dark[skinned] Tamil” – representing the South Asian community in a Beyonce video. This followed through on Beyonce’s message that “it was so important to [her] in ‘Brown Skin Girl’ that [they] represented all different shades of brown…shot in a regal light”. Sheerah certainly was repping her community with her jasmine flowers adorning a low bun, beautiful, big tikka, jumki, nose ring and necklace jewellery set in all gold, with typical Indian cultural designs. Sheerah wrote on her Instagram page that she was overwhelmed with joy about being “able to rep [her] Tamil, South Asian, Darkskinned Folx…[Beyonce] has already done so much MORE for the representation and empowerment of South Asians than the South Asian film industries…especially considering Tamils are one of the South Asian groups [who] are massively underrepresented and marginalised”.
Melanin too dark to throw her shade.
For me, this moment was the epitome of positive dark-skinned Indian representation in the mainstream media and it was especially important because it was heralded in by a fellow brown-skin woman. Representation in the arts and media is extremely important in enabling minority and marginalised groups to feel seen, heard and recognised.
Therefore, positive representation is important for two key reasons – they elevate and illuminate the minority or marginalised community and they place such communities in the mainstream, exposing majority audiences to new perceptions of the people around them.
As a brown woman in Singapore, I rarely see myself represented on screen in local television and skin. When I was growing up, this adversely impacted me because I regularly shied away from typically Indian conceptions of beauty. I threw away my bindi when I reached school, I did not want to wear Punjabi suits for racial harmony day and I dreamed of having straight hair rather than my unruly curls. It was only as I grew older and exposed myself to Indian women across the globe and in Singapore who embraced their beauty and talent that I started to view myself in similar fashion.
Singaporean actress and singer Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and comedian-activist Preeti Nair (@preetipls on Instagram) became huge inspirations for me. As dark-skinned, plus-sized Indian women who worked in the arts and advocacy, they are best examples for positive representation I have here.
Additionally, positive representation in the media is also effective for audiences who consume this work but have little social contact with minority groups. The media becomes the primary definer of the construction of these groups for social consumption. Therefore, they hold a powerful position in conveying, explaining and disseminating knowledge that help represent minority groups and improve their mainstream perception.
In Bollywood and other major South Asian media platforms, dark-skinned Indian women have been pushed aside in favour of the elevation of the “fair and lovely” South Asian woman. This has significantly contributed to increasingly toxic racist and colourist sentiments in the South Asian community. The privilege-ing of fairness and light skin in the community affects every aspect of the South Asian woman’s existence – her eligibility for jobs as a model or actress is compromised, her marriageability is marked down, she is looked down upon by her community, she does not feel beautiful.
All of this only further proves how important it was that a celebrity as massive, powerful and far-reaching as Beyonce chose to include a dark-skinned, Tamil woman in her music video for a song elevating the beauty and importance of all brown-skinned women worldwide. By showcasing such beauty with a strategic deliberate emphasis on the exquisiteness of melanated skin, Beyonce places brown-skinned beauty in the mainstream – a refreshing and much-needed change as compared to the fair, Eurocentric model of beauty that inundates popular media. It is only through a flourishing, growing sphere of positive representation of dark-skinned beauty that every single woman will start to embrace her own beauty no matter her skin colour.
Positive representation of minority groups or non-Eurocentric people then becomes absolutely necessary in the mainstream media as it sends a clear message that everyone has a place in the world.
It allows people to feel heard and seen and this translates to a better, healthier sense of self as well. Trends in the mainstream media are essential in forming the foundation of one’s identity and sense of self. If I had grown up with more representation of Indian women in local media, I know I would have viewed myself more positively. I would have embraced my beauty and uniqueness at a younger age rather than struggling with my “other-ness” in comparison to the people I grew up with.
For so many, it’s radical to feel comfortable
in your own skin – and to know
that you are more than enough, just as you are.
- Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Feeling seen, heard and represented in the media matters. Feeling like you belong no matter how you look, or what colour your skin is matters. And when big, strong figures lift up minority communities who have been systematically marginalised and diminished (such as in Beyonce’s work in BROWN SKIN GIRL), a mother and daughter watching will finally start to feel comfortable in their own, beautiful, brown skin.