#77 - diwali's glow-up
And the conflicts of mainstream representation.
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It has been fairly visible times for some South Asian folk. Between Sephora, Lexus and Lego Diwali ads flooding my stories experience, diyas at Homesense and saris at Holt Renfrew, peacock jerseys on the ice, influencer pictures from parties at the White House, Bharti Kher’s captivating public sculpture in Central Park, New York declaring Diwali a public holiday, and the new and former faces of the UK conservative class, it feels like my bubble is browner than ever.
I wonder if when #representationmatters was recited in reports, off rooftops, and in panel discussions, this is what we imagined. I suppose so? If representation is the pursuit of being seen and included in the western canons of power, money and platforming, then I think it’s safe to say, the strategy has been effective.
Last year, The Juggernaut, a savvy publication telling South Asian stories from a western perspective, identified that Diwali marketing had hit a tipping point. Diwali is one of the largest festivals celebrated in India - often wrongly attributed as a primarily Hindu holiday, though it is observed by Sikhs and Jains for different, but equally sacred reasons. For some who are less religiously connected, Diwali is simply a cultural celebration.
While on one hand, Diwali’s rise in the mainstream is a fairly obvious outgrowth given the increasing purchasing power of South Asians in the west (~$400B in the US), it would be remiss to not acknowledge the decades of effort that brings us here. Immigrant cultures of forced grit and resilience combined with a dogmatic value for education, an entrepreneurial and creative flair born out of necessity and the sometimes privileges of the model-minority myth - depending on your skin tone, facial hair and headdress - have cultivated a class of influential and talented South Asians across tech, art and politics that have made incredible contributions to an emerging culture. Even more, the growth of South Asian representation over the years has meant fewer single stories and more range in the complexity of identity across gender, sexuality, religion, region and skin shade being showcased. I know Tamil folks were reeling to see Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on the cover of Vogue.
It feels fairly probable that when we look back on this moment, this proverbial tipping point, we’ll reference everything from 9/11, college cultural organizations, storytellers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Mindy Kaling, Alok Vaid-Menon, Hassan Minaj, Riz Ahmed and Lilly Singh, artists like Raveena and Hangama Amiri, and politicians and media personalities like Kamala Harris, Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta, as well as the more inconspicuous impact of Hindu-nationalist interest groups and Punjabi diasporic youth, amongst hundreds of other seen and unseen figures and organizations, to understand the ways in which the South Asian narrative was shaped and ultimately how it impacted the experience of communities living in western worlds.
Representation can be a really odd and beautiful experience. Visibility certainly makes your world feel smaller and available within a narrative of meritocracy, which can be perceived as true for the few (I worked hard, therefore I deserve…). For children, it is a profound and formative experience to be seen in your wholeness; compared to the compartmentalized existence of many first-generation folks. And sharing cultural festivities with friends is truly an intimate and enriching experience. All of this is important, and matters.
However politically, there is an imagination that assumes that if someone looks like me, and shares a top-line similar story, then our possibilities and opportunities are the same. It is dreamy to look to folks who may be only a few degrees separated for inspiration, but it does not always advance structural change for the many. Maybe the expectation that representation should be more than what it is, is the trouble?
For decades, the South Asian diasporic story was flattened through representation told through a mainly Hindu and Brahmin perspective, and consistently written as an experience purely made of struggle, sacrifice and displacement. That story was then sold back to us, to retell in the form of gratitude for the opportunity offered by the state, ultimately suppressing dissent. The decentralization of story has truly allowed for more complexity, critique and diversity of experience to emerge and I recognize that even writing South Asian is a gross misrepresentation of highly heterogenous communities in itself.
Yet, part of the reality of representation (to date) is that to make it in the west has often required some willingness to participate, and eventually collude with the colonial and capitalist state. This is complex and often feels distasteful and disappointing, but at the same time, the stakes of the system make it fairly difficult to negotiate status, survival, achievement and dissent. Of course, there are tons of South Asians on the frontlines of struggle but I question how many of them are being invited to the White House for Diwali. This history of cooperation with the state makes Diwali a fairly low-stakes way to be politically relevant in a DEI world. It might be somewhat genuine in a celebratory nature, but it also seems to risk pacifying space for real shit; not dissimilar to the glow-up of Juneteenth.
This is the fundamental gap between representation and liberation, and it’s why being absorbed by the state in such a flamboyant way always feels a little gross. Capitalism simply can not exist without a low-wage, unprotected and oppressed working class, no matter how much wealth a few folks in your community acquire. The real mark of representation is the ways in which it offers those in power to truly and safely dissent and advocate on behalf of a communities needs, to lift all tides through protective policy measures, like living wages, affordable housing and protections for the undocumented. For all the success of South Asians, our communities have the largest income inequality within any ethnic or racial group in the west with massive unprotected working-class communities in food service, taxi service and factories that the market relies on. Further, Islamophobia and caste supremacy are rampant as fascism grows in India and the Hindu-right aligns with white supremacist groups locally. There is critical work to do.
The post-modernist view would likely question the default perspective of Diwali’s glow-up as progress, in support of the idea of no singular truth, and the acknowledgement that what looks like progress can often be gaslighting because of our blindness to the impact of cognitive biases and social constructs around what is ‘good’ for humanity. In contrast, Alexander Forst Olshonsky writes about an emerging philosophy, called metamoderism which holds space for the paradox and existential threats of the moment. According to Olshonsky, metamodernism displays an extreme sense of self-awareness within an absurd paradox, while still believing in and desiring change. I find myself stuck between these two philosophies. I question if representation by the state and market will encourage or prevent dissent by those in increasing positions of power, but I also want and am willing to be wrong and surprised.
Perhaps it is all a process. Despite Diwali’s glow-up in the ‘mainstream,’ in Brampton, Ontario, where a large South Asian population exists, there were over 1,000 complaints about fireworks, followed by a petition to ban them completely. Fireworks are certainly a broader environmental issue - but would this complaint and display of NIMBY-ism apply to Canada Day? Victoria Day? Can representation cut through micro-aggressions and overt racism without structural changes that support mutual thriving? Do we need representation as an emergent step toward structural change? We’ll see. It’s easy to say it’s a process depending on your level of struggle.
I will say, what has been encouraging is the conversation around Rishi Sunak’s appointment to Prime Minister in the UK and the awareness of identity politics and representation as not entirely useful metrics of urgent change. While it is true Sunak is the first South Asian Prime Minister in the UK, and he did celebrate Diwali at 10 Downing Street, and that will likely inspire some young folk down the line, working and middle-class communities have been vocal in recognizing that between his class allegiance and conservative politics, he likely will not be representing their escalating need for support and change.
‘All skin folk are not kin folk.’
And that is okay and reasonable - let’s just be sure to enjoy the glow-up but not be completely blinded by it.