Home Jobs ‘Genetic distinctions exist’: Diversity educator in the UAE discusses bias against South Asians

‘Genetic distinctions exist’: Diversity educator in the UAE discusses bias against South Asians

The individual who established the South Asian Community for Representation, Engagement, and Development at NYUAD and hosts the podcast 'What's Brown Got To Do With It' discusses the process of breaking down stereotypes surrounding the brown identity.

by Minhaj

In an ideal world, the South Asian experience should be on par with any other. However, historical circumstances have dictated otherwise. Fortunately, we now inhabit a world where histories are being questioned, and stereotypes associated with specific regions and people are being challenged. For years, South Asians have been perceived as a homogeneous identity, burdened with predefined expectations. The South Asian diaspora has made significant progress in finding its place in the world, prompting a closer examination of the distinctive qualities of this identity. Shadia Siddiqui, an educator based in Abu Dhabi, established the South Asian Community for Representation, Engagement, and Development (SACRED) at NYUAD to impart a nuanced understanding of the South Asian identity to young minds. In an interview with City Times, the host of the podcast “What’s Brown Got To Do With It” discusses the importance of debunking stereotypes. The following are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: Can you share insights into your early years, your upbringing, and when you became conscious of your brown identity?

A: I am a second-generation immigrant, born and raised in London, UK, to an Indian father and Pakistani mother, both Muslims. My awareness of my brown identity developed through various life experiences. Attending a Catholic school exposed me to diverse religious practices, contrasting with teachings at home, heightening my awareness of cultural differences. From a young age, I recognized distinctions between Indians and Pakistanis. The Pakistani community perceived me as too progressive, leading to a struggle for acceptance. Lack of awareness about other Indian Muslims further isolated me. Despite challenges, friendships with individuals of diverse backgrounds provided a supportive network, shaping my interest in diversity. Joining the UK government workforce exposed me to unconscious bias towards South Asians, observing disparities in progression opportunities. Many older South Asians remained silent about discrimination, discussing challenges behind closed doors without actively seeking improvement.

Q: You founded SACRED at NYUAD, a first-of-its-kind initiative discussing the South Asian identity in a local university. Why is this important in academia?

A: SACRED addresses the underrepresentation of South Asian voices and challenges stereotypes, fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are valued. NYUAD, with its talented South Asian faculty and staff, provides a unique platform to showcase their achievements. SACRED celebrates successes, emphasizing the rich contributions from individuals of varied backgrounds. The initiative encourages open discussions, dismantles stereotypes, and contributes to a more inclusive discourse on cultural identity within the academic setting.

Q: South Asians raised outside South Asia may experience an identity crisis. What challenges do they typically face?

A: South Asians outside of South Asia often grapple with a multifaceted identity crisis. Engaging in labor-intensive roles in the UAE leads to a desire to differentiate themselves, creating challenges in defining their identity beyond stereotypes. The constant inquiry, ‘but where are you really from,’ complicates matters. Comparisons to societal expectations and the struggle for acceptance within South Asian communities and broader society contribute to a sense of displacement and questioning of identity.

Q: Body dysmorphia is prevalent among young South Asians due to early encounters with racism. How do you address this issue, and what is needed to decolonize the mind?

A: The podcast I recorded with Professor Reena Kukreja delves into colorism and its effects. Darker skin tones, historically linked to laborers, face discrimination exacerbated by the marketing of skin-whitening products in South Asia. Media perpetuates biases, impacting beauty standards and leading to body dysmorphia among young South Asians. Open dialogue on racism, mental health, and inclusive education are crucial in challenging ingrained biases and stereotypes. Acknowledging and addressing these issues will foster cultural sensitivity, understanding, and a more positive narrative.

Q: Your podcast, ‘What’s Brown Got To Do With It?,’ explores the brown identity. Why was this examination important to you, and how does it differ from black or Asian identity?

A: The podcast aims to normalize conversations about the South Asian experience, share experiences, discuss challenges, and highlight successes. As South Asians, we are conditioned to compare ourselves negatively, but the podcast seeks to inspire a shift toward positive aspirations. The South Asian experience is unique, being the majority demographic yet underrepresented in many spaces. The lack of senior leaders who look like us creates a unique set of challenges. The podcast provides a platform to uplift and connect the South Asian community.

Q: Spaces where different communities come together often face challenges in intermingling. How can this be rectified?

A: Creating awareness through events, such as film screenings and networking sessions, facilitates open conversations about societal expectations and norms from diverse perspectives. Initiatives led by individuals, like the South Asian networking event, demonstrate a hunger for inclusive gatherings. Engaging in conversations that acknowledge and celebrate differences fosters understanding and connection.

Q: Corporates have embraced Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. How do you view the balance between diversity and merit in such initiatives?

A: DEI initiatives are necessary to address underrepresentation. Corporations must focus on diversity hiring, retention, and internal growth before emphasizing merit-based hiring. Affirmative hiring is essential to rectify existing imbalances. Corporations should commit to fostering growth and progression internally to create a more diverse and inclusive environment.

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