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My Revelation of Representation

By Amisha Kambath, Harvard College '22

Who has been your biggest South Asian female role model? 

 

The spoonful of cheesecake from my second round of dessert hovered in front of my mouth as I paused mid-bite.

 

Who has been your biggest South Asian female role model? 

 

The question wasn’t even directed at me, yet I suddenly felt placed on the spot. 

 

Who has been your biggest South Asian female role model? 

 

I turned my attention eagerly to the panel in front of me, curious to see if the question had stumped the panelists as it had done so for me. 

 

I suppose my surprise at the question was a bit unfounded, given that we were at a gala hosted by Harvard’s South Asian Women’s and Men’s Collectives on Celebrating South Asian Women and the panel consisted of South Asian women in positions such as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and Director of Saheli, a Boston-based organization that supports South Asian survivors of domestic violence. Still, I couldn’t help but feel shocked at the audacity of such a question, at the implication that South Asian American women such as myself had grown up with easy access to South Asian female role models. 

 

Especially in spaces where South Asian Americans rarely ventured, such as the top ranks of economics, politics, and public service, and spaces that I desired to enter, there was an obvious gap between the roles in which I envisioned myself and the reality of who made up those spaces as I grew up. Individuals such as Professor Gita Gopinath, the 2019 South Asian Women of the Year and the current chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, are groundbreaking in my eyes because of the novelty of simply seeing a South Asian woman in a role of such prominence. 

 

I have always believed in the importance of diversity and representation, but I now realize I viewed it as a desire separate from one tied inherently to my own personal growth. As if when a specific metric was met, society’s pendulum of righteousness would swing just a little farther in the right direction. But that doesn’t mean that my support for representation was inauthentic, just that I had little exposure to the transformative experience of seeing authentic representation of the intersecting identities I, as a South Asian American woman, held in spaces in which I wanted to exist in. 

 

I had coveted representation for people of color and women, yet never went so far as to demand – or even feel the need to demand – the representation of my own identity. I often think of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special Homecoming King, in the scene in which he describes the “American Dream tax” that first-generation immigrants such as his father willingly paid. But for second-generation Americans such as himself, the attitude is a little different: “But for me, I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality.” 

 

Stirring words, but now I find myself questioning how far that audacity of equality extends. Does it simply mean demanding equal access to education and resources, being able to go through your childhood without the frequent acts of casual racism? Or is it something more, such as seeing yourself represented in top positions across fields in America, not just in medicine or technology, but in fields less common for South Asians such as politics or public service? Is that a request I, a second generation South Asian American, am even allowed to make? Or is it too audacious of a desire? Something only my brother’s children or grandchildren can aspire to have.                                      

 

But that should not be too much to ask for. Maybe it was when my parents first immigrated to the United States in 1996, when the South Asian population in America was really starting to grow alongside the tech boom. But now, when the South Asian community in the US has grown by over 40 percent between 2010 and 2017, I think that’s a wish I can have the audacity to make. 

 

But I did not realize that was a wish I desired until I came to Harvard, and reimagined the way I viewed the South Asian community. Because though I hailed from the Bay Area, where there is no dearth of South Asian people, and although my parents raised my brother and I as proud Indian Americans, I did not necessarily grow up as one. Motivated by the silent judgement or wayward stares that I noticed my community receive in non-brown spaces but did not entirely understand, I subconsciously created a dichotomy between a part of me that celebrated South Asian culture and a part of me that repudiated it for its limitations (as I perceived them to be) in predominantly white spaces. I knew where I wanted to go academically and professionally, and in my mind, as was reinforced in the media and spaces I coveted, those dreams would have to occur at the expense of my South Asian heritage. Although that thought process was not as explicit growing up, I now recognize it in my reluctance to talk about South Asian culture, to eat South Asian food, and speak my parents’ languages in non-white spaces. 

 

In interviews with individuals across Harvard, that self-initiated dichotomy seemed to be a common theme, with many describing the partition that occurred mentally between one’s cultural identity and one’s professional and even public persona. Describing the manner in which cultural identity is either coveted or rejected, Sharmila Sen, author of Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America and the first non-white editorial director of the Harvard University Press, notes, “When society around you is mocking you or your culture in some way, there’s often a temptation to either shun it or to reject those claims and declare your cultural identity to be superior but I don’t necessarily see it that way. Instead, my background is just a neutral, indelible part of me. But I did send that part of me to another room and shut the door.” In Ms. Sen’s mind growing up, as seems the case for many minorities, the cost of success and entry into these spaces of power and privilege was assimilation, hiding pieces of your cultural background to fit into the dominant culture. 

 

Rameen Rana, junior at Harvard College, former Vice President of Harvard Student Agencies, and former president of the Harvard South Asian Association echoed those sentiments when she explains how she always felt the need to keep her South Asian identity separate from her professional goals. Surrounded by students gearing up for finals period in the Smith Campus Center, she described to me how that was exemplified during the financial career recruiting and interview process this past year. Given that she was interviewing for positions within venture capital firms and hedge funds, with the majority of her interviewers being white males, Rameen found herself focusing exclusively on her professional experiences within the Harvard Student Agencies (HSA). Despite simultaneously being co-president of the South Asian Association (SAA), a role with just as many learning moments, she describes in a slightly surprised tone never talking about those experiences:

 

“What I decided to focus on in interviews is really interesting because it would all be HSA, or my finance background or nitty gritty details like operations logistics.”

 

Except for one interview. She smiles fondly as she recounts the only interview she had with a South Asian man and the incredible feeling of being able to talk about experiences that related to SAA as well, including issues that the Board and the South Asian community face as a whole. Being able to finally bridge that forced separation between her cultural and professional experiences was, put simply, liberating.

 

“This is the one time I’ve never had to ignore or objectively choose between HSA or SAA in describing my Harvard experience,” she told me. “I’ve never felt better or prouder than walking out of that interview.”  

 

Sruthi Palaniappan, the current president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council – Harvard College’s student government –, shares a similar feeling of feeling the need to balance these two seemingly exclusive parts of herself. Hailing from Iowa, whose claim to fame is not racial and ethnic diversity, Sruthi explained how that impacted the way she carried herself in different spaces.

 

“Back home, I was probably trying to police myself in certain ways to hold myself to a standard and appear part of that inner circle,” she told me as we sat in Peet’s Capital One cafe one afternoon in late April. “But after coming to Harvard, I found I could let much of that tension go, partly due to the fact that now I was sharing the space with more people that looked like me.” 

 

My biggest takeaway from those conversations was that representation matters. More specifically, representation in spaces like Harvard, spaces of power and privilege, matters. Because representation begets more representation. Sruthi explains that her identity is often a motivator in her actions to proactively uplift marginalized voices and build coalitions with cultural organizations within the UC. Meanwhile, Rameen describes the powerful feeling of being able to “be the mentor a lot of us didn’t have to look up to” both in SAA and HSA. And Ms. Sen urges the Harvard University Press leadership to not only improve intern hiring policies for underrepresented groups, but to have discussions on the structural issues that breed this underrepresentation in the first place. 

 

Ask me the question one more time. 

 

Who has been your biggest South Asian female role model?

 

I may not have been able to answer this question five years ago, or even one year ago, but it is a question that is becoming easier for me to answer now. Individuals such as Gita Gopinath, Sharmila Sen, Rameen Rana, Sruthi Palaniappan come to mind to answer it. Incredible, powerful, South Asian women that teach me that where I come from and where I want to go are not two separate paths I must choose between. Rather, they point me to an alternative path, one that allows me to rediscover a love for South Asian cuisine, to no longer feel a sense of unease or isolation when I am in spaces with little representation, and to finally have conversations with my family that critically analyze South Asian culture rather than simply demonize or glorify it. And though I still do not know what this new path will look like, at the very least, I know it exists. 

 

But just because I have recently realized the existence of such a path does not mean that such knowledge is universal. Authentic representation does not happen overnight, but the pace can be accelerated as long as there are individuals in these spaces that are willing to share their experiences, either as mentors, friends, or family. And just as it took conversations with South Asian women such as Rameen and Ms. Sen to open my eyes to this new path, it will take even more to make that path more accessible and clear to South Asian women across America. And events such as the Celebration of South Asian Women gala do exactly that. The gala was not just an opportunity to get together and enjoy great food in the fancy ballroom at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge, but was also a pivotal breeding ground for the type of representation we want and deserve to see in the future, a convening of minds that is empowering in the simple fact that it exists. These instances do not have to be rare occurrences, and questions about South Asian female role models should not be so dumbfounding. And I’m ready – as I know my South Asian female role models are as well – to make that a reality.  

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