In a world where the far right are seeing a resurgence, Brexit is going full steam ahead, and Trump hasn’t been impeached yet, it can be hard to keep your head up – even more so when you’re a minority. There’s only so many think pieces you can read, jokes you can make, daydreams about going back in time and stopping all of these shenanigans you can have. Pop culture has long been touted as a source of soft power – a more persuasive means of change and diplomacy. But let’s be realistic here: even with all of the changes and improvements in diversity and representation, there are still mistakes being made (looking at you, Ghost in the Shell), and these things take time. Seeing a non-white character on TV won’t stop racists overnight and that’s just how things are. The struggle will go on, in one way or another.
Speaking for myself as a British-Asian, Muslim woman, I’m used to taking what I can get. I grew up and still live in a majority white area, where the only other brown people were my relatives or family friends. Pop culture reflected that. Seeing another brown person on TV was, and still is at times, a novelty. Even the ones that do appear are subject to scrutiny and rightly so. Discussing the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan often sparks debate, from those who think it is brilliant and accurate, to those who don’t have time for it. Four Lions is one of my favourite films, but it’s still about terrorists, even if the film itself takes a different approach to Homeland. A recent ‘Real Housewives of ISIS’ sketch from a BBC show left a bad taste in my mouth, as it felt more like a punch down than satire. What is the point of more representation if people like me are characterized negatively, if the only roles that people from my background can get are unnamed taxi drivers or terrorists or brainwashed brides? It increasingly feels like the golden age of British Asian representation is far behind us, both Muslim and non-Muslim. It’s something that is being called out, yet nothing seems to be changing, and the same discussions are being held. It’s not like we’re asking for anything radical – just for the chance to be represented as nuanced, ordinary human beings.
That brings me onto Aziz Ansari and the ‘Religion’ episode from Season 2 of Master of None. Like his character Dev, Aziz comes from a Muslim background but consumes pork, drinks, and otherwise doesn’t fit the mould of what a “good Muslim” is. Without spoiling the episode, I can tell you that he nailed it – from judgmental relatives to self doubt and not wanting to disappoint your parents. With regards to religion, I’d say that myself and Aziz are pretty different. I fast, I pray when I can, and I’d categorize myself as relatively religious. I don’t speak that often on it, due to my belief that my relationship with my creator is no one else’s business and my unwillingness to get into it with trolls who think they can tell me more about my faith. But to see my religion depicted without the usual doom and gloom and demonisation was refreshing.
It probably says a lot about how extreme things have become that having Dev reflect on his background without trashing it was a welcome change. We’ve all been there, when someone says “oh you’re a cool _____, not like those other ones,” and it’s easy to internalise that. I’ve gone through times where I’ve resented things about myself – the colour of my skin, my funny name, and the stereotypes I’ve been lumped in with. Through growing older and widening my world view, I’ve slowly learned to accept those things. The girl who wanted the ground to swallow her up whole when the teacher butchered her name is now an adult who is more confident about correcting people’s pronunciation. Colourism is a major issue in the Asian community, and I’m still unpacking the different forms it can come in and how I react to that. And with regards to the portrayal of people like me, I’m still figuring that out through amplifying opportunities for people of colour and trying to get back into writing. I was nervous when I saw the episode title, but any fears I had were quickly put to rest as the episode went on. I cannot even explain the impact that seeing a more positive portrayal of my faith than I’m used to has had. It even gives me hope that one day we can reach the mythical Stage Three that Riz Ahmed describes in his essay for The Good Immigrant.
The first season of Master of None was brilliant in itself. The second season is shaping up to be a whole new level, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was this episode that was the personal turning point for me. ‘Parents’ and ‘Indians on TV’ from Season 1 resonated with me for different reasons, though ‘Religion’ really brought it home. The episode itself is only 21 minutes long, but I was enthralled the entire way and needed a moment to process it afterwards. The story’s progression, the appearances from Aziz’s real life parents (give Shoukath Ansari an award already!), and powerful final 5 minutes are all elements that will stay with me as I watch the rest of Season 2.
So this is what I say: here’s to different perspectives. To writing characters without burdening them with stereotypes and expectations. To becoming comfortable with who you are. To representation doing its job.