COMMENTARY: Representation of 'brown' characters in media often racist, discriminatory


Superficial stereotypes harm representation, public perception

Audrey Hepburn wore her little black dress in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Tom Cruise had his Ray-Ban in "Risky Business," Madonna brought the bullet bra to mainstream streetwear and the cast of "Euphoria" now has a generation of teenagers running around with tubs of craft glitter falling off their eyelids. 

But these pop culture icons are known for more than just one trend. Hepburn also brought us the camel trench coat, oversized blackout sunglasses and the ”poor boy” sweater, and Madonna made everyone wear neon from head to toe and stack bangles up to their elbows. 

Moreover, shows like "Friends" brought us a cornucopia of what we all refer to now as general ‘90s fashion: flannels, cropped sweaters, layering dresses over shirts, etc. Everyone wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw, AC Slater and Fran Fine.

Pop culture has always been pulling the strings of the mainstream fashion industry. It dictates what is "cool," thus driving the demand for what gets sold in stores, what you see in magazines and creates what consumers will define as trendy and "normal." This is all solidified with headlines using these characters as reference points in magazines then, as well as now, like, "How to Dress Like Rachel Green From Friends" on POPSUGAR and "10 Style Tips You Can Learn From ‘Saved by the Bell’" from Complex's style section. 

These references ring in our ears daily as its branding, and its influence is splashed across every billboard, newsstand and every corner of the internet influencing younger generations and their definition of cool.

Every show or movie inspires a subculture in the mainstream fashion industry, separating us to fit into the little boxes each fictional world sets for us: prep, grunge, goth, street, emo, skater, punk, etc. 

"Brown" characters do not get the choice to explore these categories, let alone have their own personalities. Everyone from Bangladesh to Morocco and every country in between, making up a vast cultural, religious, linguistic and socio-historical spectrum, has been condensed to a one-size-fits-all identity in pop culture, an identity now widely referred to as "brown."

This is where representation comes into play. With our culture stripped from us to make us easily digestible as token characters, so has our relationship with our traditional and modern fashion and art scenes. The children of the diaspora grow up with a whitewashed version of our identity made up of a mish-mash of broadly Middle Eastern, African and Southeast Asian cultural elements fed to us as if they are all interchangeable. 

Yes, brown characters have a choice when it comes to fashion and identity. They are either the oppressed hijabi risking it all for a white boy or the nerd in a turban with three lines.

This is our norm in the public eye. When a hijabi E-girl tweets a mirror selfie, it should not spark so much outrage that it goes viral and forces her to deactivate her accounts.

Brown culture includes the modern and the traditional. It covers everything from a mom's sari and a salwar kameez worn with jeans and Nikes, the vibrant red, indigo and green patterns on a jellabiya you wear around the house and on the keffiyeh stowed away in every Palestinian's car just in case. If you are fortunate enough to have such a rich cultural background, represent it, and represent it right. Hollywood will not do it for us.

The charity organization United Muslim Relief Rutgers—New Brunswick chapter is doing just that. This Thursday, it will host a charity fashion show showcasing the multi-faceted world of Desi, Arab, North African and Middle Eastern fashion in all its glory. 

With the rise of Arab pop-artists, North African hip-hop musicians and Southeast Asian fashion designers, it is vital for us to pay attention to all the different shades of "brown" and all they can offer us.

Salma HQ is a Mason Gross School of the Arts junior majoring in visual arts.


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