Learning To Celebrate My South Asian Queerness Instead of Someone Else’s White Beauty Standards

When my childhood peers were invested in Barbies and nail art, I was discovering my love for soccer. My friends assumed that my interest rose from my attraction to players, which was the only reason they ever watched the World Cup. I wanted to share common interests with my friends, so I turned my attention to David Beckham. He was a brilliant player for my favorite club, and I convinced myself I found him attractive. I started supporting England because of him, but my mother said Bangladeshis should not support England. She wanted me to watch the Bangladeshi cricket team. Eight-year-old-me couldn’t comprehend the rippling effects of a 300-year-old colonial rule that still haunted our people. And so I carried on with my feigned crush.

Whiteness -- as a standard of beauty further complicated by British influence -- continued to shape my admirations when I found myself falling in love with Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. At the time, I blamed the butterflies on her acting talent. Or maybe I wanted a friendship as strong as hers and Jess’s, who was played by South Asian actor, Parminder Nagra. Looking back, I realize that Keira Knightley-as-Jules was the first woman who made me consciously question my sexuality. What’s interesting is that internalized racism and homophobia contributed to my choosing Knightley over Nagra.

The latter was South Asian, and I hadn’t been exposed to queer-friendly environments at home. So despite being South Asian, I’d never imagined that another South Asian queer person could possibly exist.

Early on in college, the inherent pattern of elevating whiteness as a marker of beauty persisted, only confirming what had been instilled in me at a young age. My queerness was accepted significantly more in the U.S. than back at home, but still I wanted white crushes and white friends. Based on representations I had grown up watching in Nickelodeon and Disney TV shows, I assumed that average Americans were Christmas-celebrating white folks.

As I began to accept my queerness, I saw that those representations reflected a very particular and limited appearance of queer women: white, cisgender, strictly committed to either end of a femme-butch binary. I wanted to be visibly queer, to be socially coded as they were, so I changed parts of my appearance. I cut my hair, began wearing more flannel, and switched to thick-framed glasses. Yet, my (white) crushes still failed to notice me. One crush even told me they weren’t interested in relationships, but began dating a white person the following week. This would become an all too familiar pattern over time.

I had grown up in a homogeneous Bangladeshi environment all my life, where fairness creams were advertised to make one more appealing. It took me a second to realize that skin color mattered in America in a different way, because of the variety of races that exist in American spaces. Did my attraction and inherently toxic desire toward whiteness work both ways? It made sense, because these people had probably also consumed similar pieces of media that equated whiteness with beauty, especially in queerness. Even four years ago during my first year of college, there was little-to-no popular media representation of queer people of color.

In my second semester, a friend told me about the Women’s and Gender Studies major. I started taking classes and learned more about compulsory heterosexuality and queer theory. In those courses, I met other queer people of color. Shocked to find that they indeed exist, I actively sought out more of such communities, including moving into a co-op that celebrated diversity and cultural sustainability my junior year. Over my remaining time in college, I learned to differentiate between people who blatantly flaunted white supremacy and people who were willing to talk about privilege and work to be more attentive, open, and accommodating allies and accomplices.

As time came to think about what I wanted to do with my life, I realized all of my experiences with colorism and homophobia at home and in college led to my advocating for intersectional representation in the media. I love writing, and watching television and movies. But the more time I spent unpacking the toxicity of whiteness as representation, and the impact that it had on me, the more difficult it became to consume a lot of media. My career goals were thrust upon me by the way I was screaming at the television when a show lacked people of color, queer people, and queer people of color.

As an aspiring pop culture journalist and screenwriter, I want to be there for South Asian children whose families never discuss race, gender, sexuality, or mental health. I want other South Asian kids to grow up knowing that it’s possible for us to be represented in the media, and to know that queer people of color do exist. Whiteness may have once been a standard of beauty, but movements like #OscarsSoWhite, and the success of films such as Moonlight and Black Panther, show us that Western media is slowly changing. Slowly. My process of unlearning the importance previously placed on white beauty is a continual process. I am grateful to all the queer creator of color, who have contributed to making media a more welcome space, and I cannot wait to join them.

 

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