“I’m never brown enough,” says Farah Bala, facing a roomful of mostly brown South Asian students. “I just speak English so well.” Her voice might hold a hint of bitterness, but mostly it’s just frank, open. This is the tone that establishes itself from the very start of the “Too Brown for Hollywood” panel at the South Asian Millennials Conference.
Bala, a woman of many titles—producer, artist, actress, and mentor are just a few—is one of three South Asian women in media speaking at the South Asian Millennials Conference. The rest of the panel comprises Jyoti Thottham (South Asian Bureau Chief at TIME, previously a senior writer and editor for Al Jazeera, and Yale alum) and Shunori Ramanathan (Yale ’13 and an actress whose credits include Master of None, Law and Order, and upcoming Netflix series Gypsy.)
Ramanathan recounts going into an audition and being asked, “Can you make [your accent] a little more Indian?” She might be young, but the actress already has a good idea of Hollywood’s attitudes towards South Asians. Though the panel is called “Too Brown for Hollywood,” Bala and Ramanathan discuss not being brown enough.
Having been in the entertainment industry longer than Ramanathan, Bala has distilled what Hollywood seems to want from a South Asian actress: “They look for the very Indian-Bombay accent—I just give it to them now. They want sophistication and a touch of Indian.”
It is not just the accents that place South Asian actors into a box. Roles, too, are stifling. The industry is on the right path; diversity is not only accepted but also encouraged, celebrated, and movements like #OscarsSoWhite make it clear that underrepresentation is being recognized on all levels, from occasional moviegoers to Hollywood’s A-list themselves. But misrepresentation persists. While diverse roles are becoming increasingly available, the authenticity of these roles is often lamentable.
Ramanathan auditions for two types of roles: ones specifically for Indian characters, and ones that claim to be for any ethnicity. She’s usually only called in for the Indian-specific roles. And when she is called in, these Indian characters rely on stereotypes: “I am Anjali, who also happens to be a PhD student studying microbiology,” says Ramanathan, to a roomful of knowing chuckles.
Ramanathan, still at the beginning of her career, has no choice but to accept roles like a “really intense 17-year-old with glasses and braids, oh, also studying AP Bio,” a character that fails to represent South Asians in a genuine and nuanced way, instead playing into preconceived stereotypes. But her and Bala share a common desire: having a seat at the table. Their words are reminiscent of Sheryl Sandberg’s “sit at the table” adage, which tells women to own their rightful place at the decision-making table.
Bala vehemently expresses her desire to be one of a decision maker in the industry, because systematic change must come from where the system’s rules are being established in the first place.
This desire marked Bala’s career shift from acting into production and education. Despite a love for the craft, she felt powerless as an actress. Now, she has shifted gears. She wants to be on the other side, making funding and budget decisions. She wants her voice to be heard in a more powerful way than just on screen.
Jyoti Thottham is on the same page. She is at that table Bala speaks of, with a prominent position at TIME. But she has not lost sight of the startlingly apparent lack of diversity in journalism. Minorities make up only 22% of TV journalists and 13% of daily newspaper journalists. By being in the newsroom, deciding where resources are allocated and which writers are hired, she has been able to take her seat through “passion and utter conviction”—the markers of a true leader, she says.
Much work remains. The University of Southern California constructed a 2016 report on diversity in the entertainment industry. Their findings were in line with the three women’s calls to action; while non-white groups make up almost 40% of the U.S. population, non-white actors made up under 30% of speaking and just about 25% of characters in 2014’s top-grossing films. Even worse, only 12.7% of film directors in 2016 were non-white. These numbers are not new, but they nevertheless paint a grim picture of a shocking lack of progress in the industry, even as shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat showcase a new wave of people of color-centric entertainment.
The conclusions from the panel are mostly things we’ve heard before. From Jyoti Thottham, we see that enthusiasm and self-assurance make people listen to you. From Farah Bala, we recognize the need to make ourselves known from the top down, from seats of power, in order to make change at a larger level. And from Shunori Ramanathan, who is in the midst of pitching her own show about South Asian girls in NYC, we learn to take matters into our own hands.
These are not novel mantras. But uttered in the atmosphere of solidarity the Law School early on a Saturday morning, when many Yale students are sleeping in after a night out or just making their way to brunch, they were comforting. In front of us were three strong women, dedicating themselves towards making the industry a place that South Asians belong. And they were motivating; we belong right next to Bala, Ramanthan, and Thottham, making the fight for South Asians in media our own.