South Asian: The Ethno-Fetish

by Nadya AgrawalUCLA

Not gonna lie, I have been told, on more than one occasion, that I am beautiful.  This is always instantly backed up with a “You’re so exotic!”

Uh, mood-ruiner much?

Why is it that South Asians, and South Asian girls in particular, are complimented through a telescope like this?  Are we only attractive because we have browner skin, bigger eyes, and darker hair than our Caucasian peers?  That does not seem quite right. For a country boasting a series of global pageant winners and Anchal Josephs from cycle 7 of ANTM, I must say we got it going on.  I do not think for a second that the Miss Universe judging panel gave Sushmita Sen or Lara Dutta their respective crowns just because they have gorgeous coffee-colored skin.  It has to be that our collective beauty transcends our immediate “exotic” looks.  Otherwise, these awards and recognitions are worth nothing – they would be like a handout or a pat on the back for existing.  South Asian beauty should not be seen as simply exotic; that reduces it.  Every country has gorgeous women with ethnic looks, but that does not mean that is where their physical beauty ends.

I am not necessarily talking about typecasting our favorite South Asian actresses, because that’s a double-edged sword.  I mean, it is both commendable for a South Asian actress to be part of mostly white cast, and yet it is strangely ignorant for a character of obvious South Asian descent to have a highly Westernized name and back-story, think Rebecca Logan from Greek, played by Dilshad Vadsaria.  In this case she was not cast the role based on her skin color, but rather her unquestionable good looks.  At the same time, it does get tiring to see gorgeous girls like Freida Pinto constantly sequestered into purely “brown” roles (apparently she is set to play an Arabian princess in her next movie… seriously, Hollywood?).  I think, in the long run, it hampers progress to limit attractive brown actresses to either only attractive, yet color-blind, roles or to simply typecasted roles.  It is a difficult line to toe, and I am fully aware that qualms about color will rarely be fully alleviated in the movie industry, but it would be nice if they would at least try to do us brown girls justice.

And to bring it back to the awkward elephant in the room, “brown fetish” bothers me so much.  For those who say they love brown girls, or, rather, for those who say we are “exotic,” I have to wonder where they picked up that word.  I feel like I should have heard it more on the Discovery Channel than I should have when describing a person.  It is a silly word used to put rain forests, bright colors, dark skin, and toucans all in a neat, pretty box tied with a neat, pretty ribbon.  It does nothing to get at the inner beauty that Western society loves to place on a pedestal.  And it almost sounds demeaning as though we of the almond eyes and golden skin are something out of an encyclopedia rather than present in every nook and cranny of American life.  So, to say you love brown girls, and you love how exotic they are, is to dismiss all of it – the history, the culture, the sizzling good looks – with a dumb phrase.

South Asians are gorgeous.  It is a fact.  But that does not mean the simple label of  “exotic” is gonna fly.  South Asia is not a fetish for our paler-skinned peers.  This is a culture extending back thousands of years and a culture that encompasses the world with its diasporas.  It is over a billion strong, so take back that “You’re so exotic!”  This is pure, all-natural, coffee-colored, tragically progressive beauty.  There ain’t nothing type-castable about it.

This lady knows what I’m talking about: