The unwavering support through brown girl solidarity actively erases their caste and class positionality and allows them to garner more power and money.
By Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sharmin Hossain
From meme pages to Instagram influencers bombarding feeds on groundbreaking topics like bindis, reclaiming the saree, and hot takes on representation in pop culture, South Asian media is a world of its own. These posts are accompanied by feel-good hashtags like #browngirl, #brownskingirl, and #browngirlmagic.
But what these influencers really do through their content is mask the long-existing politics of narcissism that allow primarily upper caste voices to operate with a false sense of wokeness. Brown girl solidarity paved the way for stars like Priyanka Chopra, who had Narendra Modi as a guest at her wedding, and endorsed the Indian army, calling for an escalation of violence against Kashmir. The presumption of shared cultural relationships hides the violent cultural practices that cause harm to vulnerable South Asian minorities that these influencers claim to represent.
At a time when India hangs at the precipice of genocide post the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, and our homelands are experiencing a rise in fundamentalist power, brown girl influencers are overwhelmingly silent. While millions are fighting for their basic rights to survive, cisgender brown straight women are posting photos of themselves in sarees and sneakers claiming to be feminists. These actions are similar to the first wave of white feminism, where those who were the most privileged positioned themselves as the liberatory voices for a population they actively excluded and de-centered. The homogenization of brown people and unwavering support through brown girl solidarity actively erases their caste and class positionality and allows them to garner more power and money with influencer advertisements, amassing followers and support without any critical examination of their networks of privilege.
Brown vs South Asian
The overwhelming majority of brown girl influencers are upper caste, cisgender, Hindu and Indian by origin. In embracing brownness in their location, there is an erasure of their caste, class, immigration, and racial locations, one that would situate them not only in a position of oppression, but also of privilege, placing them in multiple hierarchies related to caste, cisgendership, and nationality.
This is one of the obvious challenges to brown politics; brownness itself became stigmatized because of anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness. What became an internal discourse amongst Black people and internalized violence was never intended to be an identity catchall for Desis. Deploying it as a catchall strips positionality and obscures where there might be complicit relationships.
Every day on our feed, numerous brown girls are reclaiming Bharatanatyam or posing with upper caste Hindu religious symbols like the vibuthi, kunkumam, or thali. These practices may feel like our equivalent for ballet and Western religious practices because upper caste first-generation Indian Americans implement them as methods to reclaim their heritage and host cultural diversity events across the country. But most of these people rarely think about the violence behind these cultural practices. Bharatnatyam was appropriated from Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi individuals and sanskritized temple practices reify the divides of cultural and knowledge production that historically Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities were excluded from.
The most recent example of this contradiction is the many brown girl artists and influencers who participated in the Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas. Over 50,000 Indian Americans filled the NRG Stadium to welcome the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister of India. It was curated by New York-based curator Heena Patel, who produced the show through her organization Mela Arts Connect. Her collaborators included hip hop artist Raja Kumari, filmmaker Juhi Sharma, and dancers like Brinda Guha and Ishita Milli. In total, Patel curated over 400 dancers, musicians, and artists to participate in this event. When questioned on her choices to collaborate with the Hindu fascist government of India, who had Donald Trump as their guest of honor, Heena justified her collaboration as brown solidarity.
Even Houston-based author Chitra Banerjee Diwakaruni crowed in complicity. “It’s the first time Indian-Americans in Houston have had an event of this size, this scale, this excitement,” she said. “It’s more than political—it’s political, cultural and social.” These collaborations are not isolated—brown girl solidarity has allowed for Indian upper caste networks of power to go unchecked, reifying Brahmin domination of the South Asian diaspora.
A conversation with greater nuance and clarity would go beyond colorism and self-victimhood, to discuss structural casteism and racism. That would require great self-reflection, removal of violent cultural artifacts, as well as joint development of new inclusive traditions, cultural liberality, and power.
The Issue of Anti-Blackness
The way brown girls, and many South Asians in general, use the term “brown” is an appropriation of and insertion into many Black cultural conversations (like #BlackGirlMagic), which simultaneously allows for a great deal of anti-Blackness. The consumption of Black cultural products has led to the rise of privileged brown personalities like Lilly Singh (who has been called out repeatedly for her anti-Blackness), reducing a culture of resistance and discourse to a consumable and palatable aesthetic.
It also ignores the very real histories of violence waged by South Asians against Black people—from apartheid divisions in South African, Caribbean, and African diaspora communities, to the ways South Asian police officers commit acts of white supremacist violence. South Asians were often placed in the aforementioned regions as indentured communities, above indigenous African communities, as part of settler colonial waves of immigration. This has made for uneasy alliance-building, where Desis can claim anger at indentureship, but then stay silent in the face of their own engagements with structural colonial racism.
This informs so many of the cultural logic of Desi and Black engagements, from Bollywood’s depiction of African people to the diaspora’s co-opting and exploitation of Black culture. The majority of Desi hip hop and reggae music today takes on the “urbanness” of the aesthetic, without understanding it as a practice of resistance. In 2018, Kumari (whose work consists primarily of offensive appropriation of the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi experience to justify her street cred) drew widespread criticism for her casteist line “untouchable with the Brahmin flow” in her song “Roots.”
The irony of upper caste brown girls appropriating Blackness is that the initial challenges in American restrictions to citizenship to white immigrants came from Desi communities and were firmly rooted in caste and anti-Blackness. The first cases were famously brought by upper caste immigrants like A.K. Mozumdar and Bhagat Singh Thind, who argued that they passed the whiteness test because they identified as “high caste Hindu, of full Indian blood.” They explained that because they were upper caste, they had pure Aryan blood and that those racial origins were something they historically shared with Caucasians.
The Need Of The Hour
Brown girl influencers: instead of posting about Hindu goddesses, colorism, bindis, cultural appropriation, and decolonizing yoga, the revolution requires you to confront your networks of privilege. Your Islamophobic families are killing Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasis at this very moment and supporting fundamentalist governments that are repressing social movements. Without the pipeline of support they receive from networks of upper caste Hindu networks in the diaspora, India’s right-wing militias, and the Modi government would lack the financial and diplomatic support they need to distribute their fascist ideologies. Their relationship lies at the nexus of wealth and caste inequality and nationalist fervor that are both typical of the South Asian diaspora, so it’s imperative for brown girl influencers to draw a line in the sand.
The politics of narcissism are being confused with the politics of liberation. This has to end. It is time for people to be accountable and use their platforms and their labor to stop genocide in India before it starts. Anything less than that means you are complicit.
Social media is a tool for culture shift, and South Asian culture needs to shift now. We need to stop forging relationships with harmful supporters of the fascist governments of our homeland, and fight the performative wokeness that decenters our liberation. Use your platforms to illuminate the violence, instead of taking up space with a self-absorbed, and, ultimately, anti-Dalit and anti-Black politic.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is Dalit transmedia artist and the Executive Director of Equality Labs. Sharmin Hossain is a Bangladeshi queer Muslim from Queens, New York and the Political Director of Equality Labs. Follow us @equalitylabs