They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. But when it comes to representation, you don’t know how important it is until you finally get it.
Growing up as a South Asian Muslim woman in America, I never saw any of my identities reflected on screen. Or in politics. Or in media. So being represented appropriately never occurred to me. It’s not something you realize consciously. Growing up, all I saw in American media were white people, specifically white men. Women existed, but they weren’t the leads of movies or the people you elected to advocate on your behalf in Congress. And largely, the few women I did see growing up were white, presumably Christian, women. It didn’t bother me to see these kinds of people reflected in important roles or in positions of power. I grew up in a predominantly white, Christian area and I just assumed that’s how it was supposed to be, because I had never known anything different.
It wasn’t until I saw The Mindy Project that I realized Indian-American women could exist on screen too. I had never seen someone who identifies the way I do in a major American sitcom. And not only was she Indian-American, her racial identity didn’t define come across as a stereotype. Many millennial women, regardless of race, can identify with Mindy Lahiri because we’ve all cried our hearts out over an ex-boyfriend. Everyone has had days where they just want to lie on the floor and be fed Sour Punch Straws. And quite frankly, if you don’t believe you have the right to life, liberty and chicken wings, are you really living your best life? (Hint: no, you’re not.) It was just more special for me because I finally got to experience what it was like to be reflected in a major American TV show.
Kamala Harris and Pramila Jayapal shattered some glass ceilings on November 8th when they each became the first Indian-American women in their respective offices. Kamala Harris is the first Indian-American senator in the history of the United States (and she’s a total badass!) Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman in the United States House of Representatives. Like me, Representative Jayapal was born in India. And again, it goes without saying, she’s doing a great job as a freshman congresswoman. Representative Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American Muslim to be elected to the Minnesota State House of Representatives. And while I’m not Somali-American, it was beautiful to see a Muslim woman get elected the same night as the man who promised to ban Muslims from this country. Seeing these amazing women get elected is what gave me the push to want to run for office myself. But prior to that, politics was something I had never considered-because why would I have? Indian-American women, Muslim women were invisible in American politics prior to this.
Seeing yourself reflected in positions of power opens up possibilities that one may have never considered. It tells people that your identity, your story, your experience is valid. And more importantly, that you are not alone. Accurate and appropriate representation that celebrates diversity is what establishes the foundation of equality because it helps foster a more inclusive society. A society where we are all affirmed allows each and every one of us to dream of a future that isn’t dictated by our past.
And that, is the power of representation.