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On token ethnic friends in pop culture

This is a transcript of the talk I gave at the 2019 Sydney Writers Festival.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future.

We’re talking today about the tokenisation of people of colour, and it’s important to remember that no conversation about race and identity can be truly productive while we continue to ignore the violence that was committed through colonisation, and until we have meaningful reconciliation.

So, token ethnic friends in pop culture is my topic today. And to start with, I want to take you back to what I expect is a familiar moment from 90’s film.

Remember that seminal scene from 10 Things I Hate About You, when Cameron first sees Bianca? She’s walking through the school quadrangle, ruminating on whether one can simple be ‘whelmed’, and the camera angle is constructed to make her the focal point of our attention, trying to recreate the awe and wonder that Cameron is feeling in the audience.

Now, look to the right of Bianca. Who do you see? That’s right, her best friend Chastity (played by Gabrielle Union who later shot to fame as the backdrop for Kirsten Dunst’s cheerleading journey in Bring It On).

Chastity is engaged in playing that all important role – the token ethnic/black friend. Her job is to lay the groundwork for Bianca to deliver her best lines. She’s there to add texture to the otherwise totally vanilla reality of Bianca’s character – a vapid, conventionally attractive young woman who’s primary role is to be the object of male fantasy.

Chastity isn’t allowed to have much of a personality, other than when the plot requires tension, so she’s swiftly turned into an evil character (she accepts a ride to another party from Bianca’s douchebag boyfriend) in order to better display Bianca’s pure spirit as the nice girl.

As soon as the plot escalates, and Bianca’s personality has been sufficiently bolstered by her friendship with Chastity – who’s blackness proves a) that Bianca is ‘cool’ and b) that there is some diversity/representation in the film so the director has ticked that box – she is no longer a major part of the film, relegated to supporting imagery only.

When I was a teenager, watching 10 Things, and identifying way too hard with Kat’s sarcastic feminist rage, I couldn’t avoid the niggling sensation that I was projecting in a direction that I wasn’t really meant to. While my white friends could lean into the resonance they felt with Kat as a fellow misfit and edgy alternative to Bianca’s bland popularity, I was aware that, if this movie was real life, I’d be the Chastity. Except I wasn’t hot and cool, so I’d actually be Extra number 23, the ethnic girl who sits in the library behind Cameron and Bianca while they study French, purely there to keep up the myth that the film is aware of America’s multiculturalism.

Again and again, this same construct was thrown at me by pop culture – token ethnic friends in movies and television shows that I loved served to remind me that real life happened to white people. As a brown girl, I was support, not the leading role.

At some point, I started to actually live my life like this was the case.

Some context:

I grew up Muslim. I was born in Fiji, and we moved to Australia when I was three. Growing up, there were plenty of stark differences between what I could do and what my friends could do.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • I wasn’t allowed to date

  • I wasn’t allowed to drink

  • I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers as a teenager

  • I wasn’t allowed to go to school socials or parties

  • I had to wear more modest clothes – i.e. no short skirts, sleevless tops, or shorts

  • I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup

  • I had to be home by 9pm, and generally had to be dropped and picked up by my parents

  • It was assumed I would have an arranged marriage, and that I would live at home until I was married.

I don’t want to paint a picture of complete restriction, because I had a great adolescence. But my life was markedly different to that of the heroines I saw on TV.

My friends could imagine living out Kat’s life – learning guitar and winning the attention of a bad boy like Patrick.

My dreams had to also include an elaborate plan for how I would keep my dates entirely secret from my parents, including costume changes, avoiding curfew, figuring out how to get my parents to drop me off at rock concerts without realising what they were, etc etc.

In a way, I internalised the notion of a token ethnic friend, because I realised that my life just genuinely wouldn’t be like that of my friends, or the lead characters in teen movies. My life wouldn’t even be as awesome as Chastity’s, because I wasn’t counter culture and cool like African-Americans are portrayed to be by liberal film directors who don’t want to engage with the economic and social disadvantages experienced by large swathes of the black community in America. I was Indian. That really wasn’t cool.

I started inhabiting the role of the token ethnic friend without realising I was doing it. I lived vicariously through the drama of my friend’s first kisses and romantic entanglements at the school socials I wasn’t allowed to attend.

I stayed quiet when we dreamed about living in sharehouses after school, because I knew that was hugely unlikely.

I quietly bowed out of the pool parties, and the barbeques, and the sleep overs. And I accepted that no one showed any interest when I had a day off school to celebrate Eid, or when I travelled overseas for big Indian weddings, or when I wore a cute Indian outfit to a mufti day.

I accepted that I wasn’t the lead, even in my own life. I got excited about my friend’s experiences, and downplayed my own, because as the token ethnic friend, that was my job.

Did my friends reinforce this? To some degree, and unconsciously, yes.

It was generally accepted that my life was going to be less exciting than theirs, when using the metrics that apply for teenagers – without drinking and dating, there wasn’t much scandal that was likely to arise.

In Year 9, one of my friends who was an awesome writer, wrote a little collection of short stories, with one for each of us, that projected our futures. Other friends were artists and hotshots. My story was all about my arranged marriage being successful. I reckon she did this because she knew how anxious I was about being married to someone I had nothing in common with. My imaginary husband in her story was funny and intelligent and also loved dogs like I did.

But the story reminded me that my future was constrained to inevitably look a certain way because of my culture, and the way it didn’t align with Australian expectations of adulthood. If I had been growing up in India, where arranged marriages are the norm and everyone’s parents are overprotective like mine, those restrictions would have just felt ordinary, and the next natural steps in life, such as having the arranged marriage, were designed to fit with them.

Here, I just always felt like I was off to the side, watching from the side of stage while my friends marched into the spotlight.

It wasn’t their fault of course. It was the message we were being told again and again, reinforced by the magazines we read, the books we devoured, and the movies we consumed. Lead characters have a mainstream, western way of life. Whiteness is the majority, and therefore whiteness is the only subject position that is interesting. The audience is assumed to also be white, and if not, well then whiteness can be seen as aspirational for all the migrants and first nations people watching.

Even Harry Potter managed to make an entire plotline about discrimination revolve around whiteness. For a series based in Europe, where there is a pretty significant history of slavery of black people, discrimination against the Irish, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc, it’s bizarre that the wizarding world doesn’t address these prejudices and instead an imaginary racism of mudbloods versus purebloods is used as a gigantic metaphor, which ultimately only affects white people. This is an aside, but I mean, come on!

Maybe JK Rowling felt freer to explore the issues of racism within a fantasy construct if she steered clear of real world issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is only one black character in the book who has any real power (Kingsley Shacklebolt) and he’s very much the stereotype of the strong, sometimes violent black man.

Despite these messages though, there was a small, stubborn part of me that resisted being put in the corner as a result of my ethnicity. I still stubbornly tried to identify with the white lead over the token ethnic friend.

Case in point. Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls is THE token ethnic friend. She belongs to the token ethnic family in Stars Hollow, and her life is entirely and unequicovally there to make Rory look more interesting.

Quick summary for any of you who haven’t seen Gilmore Girls:

Rory Gilmore is the child of Lorelai Gilmore, who got pregnant when she was 16. Abortion is never mentioned in the show, and instead Lorelai raises her child as a single mother in the sleepy Connecticut town of Stars Hollow.

Rory is a book worm, very smart, destined for greatness blah blah blah. She’s played by the Sleeping Beauty-esque Alexis Bledel.

Lane Kim is her best (and possibly only) friend. Lane, played by Keiko Agena, is a smart-talking, incredibly cool Korean American girl. At one point, there is a Mr Kim, but he is swiftly written out to give all the attention to Mrs Kim, a highly imposing woman who is built in the stereotype of the crazy strict Asian Tiger mum.

Lane wants to play rock music, date boys, go out at night and not spend all of her time handing out flyers for her mother’s seventh day Adventist church. Mrs Kim – because, remember, she’s crazy – is constantly barking instructions in broken English to her daughter, reminding her that good Korean girls are quiet, pious, and certainly don’t listen to Joy Division.

Lane hides her CDs and edgy clothes in an elaborate floorboard storage system, takes her drumming lessons in secret, hides her boyfriends, and generally tries to straddle these two different worlds until it all comes crashing down and her mother kicks her out of home.

This is already a fascinating story. There’s adversity, secrecy, intrigue, romance, a passion for music – it’s like a freaking goldmine of adolescent angst and drama.

And yet, the actual show revolves around white-bread Rory Gilmore. Rory is … well, boring. She does well at school, she has rich grandparents who pay for everything. The only adversity in her life is that her dad is a bit of a deadbeat, but that doesn’t stop her from attending an elitist private school, and then attending Yale University – fully paid for of course – and dating a string of boring white guys who each display their own version of toxic masculinity (though Jess Mariano is redeemed, and is also my future husband, as soon as I find the irl version of him).

Rory’s plotlines revolve around her forgetting to do enough extracurriculars to look good on her Yale application. Meanwhile Lane is genuinely concerned her mum is going to ship her back to the homeland permanently.

While Rory plays two guys off each other and still manages to come out looking like the victim, Lane is trying to negotiate with her mother to be allowed to take someone other than her cousin to the high school prom.

And when the worst happens and Lane is kicked out of her home, that plot still becomes about how Rory is such a good friend for letting Lane crash in her college dorm, even though it causes her some minor inconvenience and takes her time away from her first world problems.

I.e. when Lane’s entire life is crumbling around her, including her sense of self, her place in the world, her relationship to the most significant person in her life AND she’s homeless – her best friend gives her a few days of crashing on her floor, and then kicks her out because her other privileged white roommates are annoyed at having the extra body in their dorm.

In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty pissed off about this whole Lane situation now. But back in the day, I didn’t really give a shit about Lane. I mean, I saw the parallels between our situations of course (though my hiding system for contraband was still restricted to down the side of my bed), but I fell for the overarching mission of the show and aligned myself with Rory.

Rory read books! She wanted to be a writer! She- nope, that’s basically the only interesting stuff about her.

And yet, I almost aggressively held Rory up as my role model. I was convinced our lives mirrored each others – in fact, I was just actively constructing my life in the image of hers. I too became a caffeine addict. I too wrote for my university newspaper. I too interned at a newspaper office.

But unlike Rory, I didn’t shoot from one success to another.

When I ran for editor of the student newspaper, my team (which featured two women of colour) lost to a team made up of all white, very wealthy kids from Sydney’s north shore. When I tried to move out of home, I had to navigate two years of fighting with my parents before finally making the leap.

When I turned 18, I didn’t fight with my mum about breaking up my ex-boyfriend’s marriage (that’s right, Rory’s a homewrecker) – instead I was trying to explain to my family why I didn’t want an arranged marriage of my own.

Like Lane, my hopes and dreams for my life didn’t line up with those of my parents. Like Lane, I spent almost a year not speaking to my parents because of my white boyfriend and atheist ways. Like Lane, I have to constantly navigate the awkwardness at gatherings with my extended family, where I stick out like a sore thumb as the most westernised member of the tribe.

But I didn’t want to be like Lane. I wanted to be Rory. And when you see what happens to Lane, it’s no wonder why.

Here’s the short version.

Lane keeps working at Luke’s diner, marries a deadbeat, truly idiotic guy from her band, gets pregnant with twins the first time she has sex (which, of course, she doesn’t enjoy), and ends up becoming a full-time mum while her husband goes off to music fame and glory.

Rory is unencumbered, equipped with her ivy league degree, white privilege and completely vanilla personality, and embarks on the campaign trail of Barack Obama as a journalist.

Which one would YOU choose?

It all felt a bit familiar, watching the final season of Gilmore Girls in 2007, not long after my friend had presented me with her imagined future for me, that saw me in domestic bliss with an arranged marriage husband, while she and our peers went off to high powered careers and adventures.

The token ethnic friend doesn’t get an ending filled with optimism and potential. Their usefulness is expired by the time you get to the end of the story – their job is to fade quietly into the background.

My job, it seemed, was to fade quietly into the background too. You don’t know me, but it might seem apparent to you after hearing me speak for 10 minutes that both quiet and the background are not concepts I’m that familiar with.

But this trope of whiteness taking the centre stage on our screens, as it has done in our global history, just would not die.

I can’t talk about ethnicity and pop culture as an Indian woman without referencing Bend It Like Beckham.

When I first saw Bend it Like Beckham, I was a teenager and I was in complete awe. This was a movie about an Indian girl, growing up in the UK, who had to hide her love of soccer from her protective parents who wanted her to marry a good Indian boy. Swap ‘soccer’ for ‘harry potter fanfiction’ and change our accents, and Jess is me.

I identified with her so hard – I even pasted a photo of Johnathan Rhys Meyer, her white soccer coach who falls in love with her over a pretty white girl, to my journal because it was the first time I’d seen evidence of a hot white guy who was interested in a woman of colour. (Also, I just thought he was sexy).

But despite the rousing plot and the fantastic acting from Parminder Nagra, who was touted as the star of the movie? That’s right. Keira Knightly.

This chick is so white, both physically and figuratively, it is blinding. Keira goes on to have many leading roles in many films, while Parminder has to play that smart Indian doctor on ER forever. Talk about cultural stereotyping.

And no, I do not accept the argument that Kiera Knightly was just a better actor. Her acting in Bend it Like Beckham is mediocre at best. But she’s white, so she’s basically incapable of being the token friend, because whiteness still dominates. And when you remember that the media gatekeepers who get to decide what cultural artefacts are cool and what aren’t are majority white as well, you realise that it doesn’t matter how many brown girls like me identified with Jess, Keira was always going to be the star – she’s blonde, she’s white, she’s thin. She even has a posh accent. It was inevitable.

Why is the tokenisation of people of colour in pop culture so pervasive? How is it that even when we’re the starring role, we end up on the sidelines? And what is the outcome of this tokenisation? Is there a real world impact, and if so, what does that look like?

It’s no secret that, despite the rapid gloablisation of our world, and the huge numbers of immigrants in Australia, our cultural narrative and assumed shared identity is steeped in whiteness.

As of the 2016 census, 49% of Australians were either born overseas themselves, or have one parent who was born overseas. Yet the culture we consume is still centred around white characters and white stories.

Yes, a lot of this content is produced in America and the UK, but that is also telling – mainstream content will always be in English, developed for a presumed white audience. There is no shortage of amazing content being produced overseas – Korean soap operas, Pakistani dramas, Turkish romance – but these avenues of content are not presented to a mainstream audience as equally valid to what we import from America. They are assumed to be relevant only to a niche audience because the stories they tell are ‘niche’ – translation, they feature brown people, so white people couldn’t possibly relate to them.

Yet brown people are expected to relate to whiteness constantly – whether it’s television series or the voices we hear on the radio, or the actors in our advertising.

This lack of representation reflects our own marginalisation back at us, and worse, continues to entrench that marginalisation by not challenging it.

And when you grow up seeing the only people who vaguely resemble you as the sub-plots to the more exciting white lead character’s tale, it doesn’t take long for that message to become the norm. We accept our marginalisation because we can’t see a way out.

Most importantly, even if we contest that tokenisation, we are not the ones who hold the power to actually change the situation. For the underrepresentation of people of colour in pop culture to change, we would need white people – i.e. the target audience of all culture, those who have the most buying power – to call out the inequality and demand better.

Imagine if, when Gilmore Girls was first being produced, the camera panned away from Rory and zoomed in on Lane Kim.

Imagine if, instead of watching Rory go from slight misfit in public school to slight misfit in private school, we instead got to understand the relationship between Mrs Kim and her daughter – a relationship complicated by the cultural gap that so often exists between second generation migrants and their parents.

Imagine if Lane’s struggles with hiding her love of music were more than just a punchline to a joke nobody bothers to tell – and instead, we saw the slow unfurling of her creative indentity, and her attempts to unveil this to her protective mother.

Imagine if Lane was given the freedom to attend college herself, maybe go to music school, and maybe even meet other migrants struggling with similar issues. Imagine if we watched her grow and change, and eventually find a way to balance her Korean heritage with her American identity.

Imagine if little Zoya, avidly watching Gilmore Girls at age 15, saw a fellow migrant embark on this journey of self-discovery, one that led to a new understanding between Lane and her mother, and received the message that migrant identities are complex, and constantly changing, and most importantly, just as valid and interesting and real as white identities?

It would be a revolution of sorts.

So what do we do? How do we make the Lane Kims and the Jess Bhanra’s and the Chastity … I don’t actually know her surname … the stars of the culture we consume?

Well, this is a writers festival. A good first step would be to see white writers – the ones statistically the most likely to be bestsellers, prize winners, and commanders of cultural capital, take this cause up as their own and write diversity into their work.

And an even better step would be for readers to choose work by Australians of color, and most importantly first nations writers, to show that there is appetite for diversity.

Maybe, together, we could make that revolution a sort of reality.

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