The Power of Representation
~ by Nazli Hardy, founder of Woman Empowered, as published in Lancaster Newspapers
In a 1983 interview with MTV, David Bowie asked: “I’m just floored that by the fact that there’s so few black artists featured on (MTV). Why is that?”
The interviewer, Mark Goodman, responded: “We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest — pick some town in the Midwest — that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces. ... We have to play the type of music that we think an entire country is going to like.”
Bowie countered: “I’ll tell you what maybe The Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17-year-old. And surely he’s part of America as well. ... Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated?”
Bowie identified why I watched the 2002 movie “Bend It Like Beckham” 20 times in my 20s: The leading role was a South Asian girl.
He identified why, when given the choice, I ask that my children see an Indian female pediatrician — so that my American kids see South Asians in roles other than the awkward kid in Disney shows.
He identified why I kept a biography of Indira Gandhi by my bedside; I felt if she could be a leader, so can I.
Bowie identified my irritation with the Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” movie: As superheroes streamed out of portals from other dimensions, there were not any visible South Asian superheroes, even though we make up almost 25 % of the human race.
South Asians are people from the Indian subcontinent, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We are often grouped simply as “Indians.” As such, we are here in America, integrating and contributing to every facet of American society. We are cab drivers; operators of gas stations, restaurants and laundromats; spelling bee winners; custodians; college professors, doctors and journalists; law enforcement officials, bankers, writers and representatives in Congress.
South Asians have been balancing the storied heritage we have inherited while embracing the country we have adopted. We are astonished by anyone who questions our patriotism. English is often our second or third language, so many of us have accents. And you should hear us roaring with self-effacing laughter at our own immigrant experiences! We are here, contributing to our communities and our country, but the perception of South Asians is limiting for some.
Consider the question someone recently asked me: “Why does LNP call on you for opinion pieces?” Before I could answer, the person answered his own question in a way that made sense to him: “I guess it’s because you are their token Indian-American immigrant.”
I recognized that this was a person whose limiting perception was blinding him to the millions of South Asian Americans who are a part of the American story. Limiting perception feeds tokenism, and tokenism feeds limiting perceptions. And that is why representation is important.
‘Dream with ambition’
The representation that Vice President Kamala Devi Harris brings to the national stage matters significantly to girls across the board, and to children from immigrant families, and to children of color, because they can see a core part of themselves reflected in Harris, whose first and middle names are distinctly Indian, and who attended a historically Black college, Howard University.
Representation matters because when you can see someone who looks like you or who has something in common with you being successful, you can imagine yourself in that person’s shoes — because you can imagine that she was once in your shoes, too.
My involvement in initiatives that promote science and technology to female students is driven by my firsthand knowledge of the power of representation — and the lack of it. Whereas tokenism allows and makes excuses for injustices and bias, representation allows and encourages inspiration, aspiration and hope.
On Nov. 7, Vice President-elect Harris took to the stage and acknowledged her unique position in American history as the first — but not last — woman to win national office. It was an inspiration to millions of girls and their parents.
“Dream with ambition,” she said. “Lead with conviction. And see yourself in a way that others may not.”
That is the power of representation: to see yourself empowered, even when others may not.
Listening to Harris, I imagined with great emotion the South Asian woman who had raised her. I do not need to have known the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who had come to the U.S. as a student before I was born, to know how tenacious, self-motivated, self-respecting, protective and determined she must have been to survive, thrive and to raise her two daughters to “dream with ambition and lead with conviction.” I know she was all those things because she represents a shared immigrant “brown” experiences in America that defies articulation.
I felt deeply proud of a woman I never knew. I felt proud of Kamala Harris on her behalf. And most personally, I felt inspired for my own daughter.
Our daughter sat between my husband and me as we watched Harris celebrate her victory with Joe Biden. Through my tear-brimmed eyes, I stole some glances at my girl, seeking her reaction. I don’t know exactly what my all-American softball-playing, math-loving, social butterfly of a fierce girl was thinking while she watched with rapt attention, but I was thinking, “Look here, our beautiful girl — just like you, the next vice president of the United States of America is also the daughter of an immigrant mother from South Asia!”
Representation can be life-changing and empowering, not only because it is inspirational and aspirational to the minority, but also because it helps to expand the perception of the majority — and that is a good connecting place to be for everyone.
Decision-makers should give themselves the advantage of seeing beyond their limiting perceptions of immigrant brown people. Media companies should rise to the challenge posed by David Bowie to continue to be more integrative. And, yes, I am looking forward to watching Marvel’s “Eternals” with my kids. It’s about time we have both Black Panther and Kingo — played by Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani — representing superheroes in movies, especially now that we have an American vice president who is both Black and of South Asian descent.
On Inauguration Day, I asked both my kids what they thought about Harris being vice president. Their combined answer was to the effect, “She is the person most Americans chose to be our vice president.”
The simplicity and truth of this answer from my all-American kids reminded me of my own ideals of America. The United States is a country where the majority of its citizens — people of all races, genders, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds — chose a female of mixed ethnicity as their vice president. That’s America!
The story of Kamala Harris and her rise to the positions she has earned is inspiring and relevant not only to Blacks or Asians or women but to all Americans, because it embodies the belief that anyone — even a second-generation American with no family connections or old money — can become vice president with determination and hard work.
Even more meaningful is the hopeful message of what America continues to become: a colorful cornucopia of stories and dreams of interconnected humans, interwoven into a flag that belongs to all of us. And I need to keep connected with other people to remember that.