As Black Lives Matters protests continue in the US and around the world following the death of George Floyd, conversations about systemic racism beyond police and law enforcement have gained momentum.
In Australia, many have spoken up about the lack of ethnic diversity in local media, especially during protest coverage. The discussion has broadened to racial bias and representation in media coverage beyond Black Lives Matter protests.
In India, some Bollywood actresses have been criticised for speaking out against racism now, after previously promoting skin whitening creams. Perpetuated by colonialism, India has a history of condemning darker complexions and putting fair skin on a pedestal.
The problematic South Asian beauty standards are not restricted to modelling, TV or film. People’s livelihoods are unfairly at stake because they were born a darker shade of brown. The discrimination begins the moment they’re born.
I’ve been on leave over the past week and during that time I’ve self-reflected. I realised it’s taken me seven years to acknowledge the steps I took in the past to try and make myself look “less Indian” in order to get a job in Australian media.
In 2013 I began my Masters in Journalism after finishing an accounting degree. Entertainment reporting was my core passion at the time, and I had the success of my blog ‘I Am Starstruck’, and various red carpet adventures on behalf of it, to show for that.
Having finished an accounting degree, I felt I needed to make a bold change to truly prove to the cut-throat media industry that I was serious, ready and the right fit for it. I had already given myself the “Leeshie V” moniker, because no one could pronounce Vrajlal, though Stefanovic is apparently not too hard.
I decided to get my hair coloured, first a caramel brown, and then a burgundy. There’s nothing wrong with dying your hair, but it was my intention around it that concerns me all these years later. I consciously told my mum and the hairdresser, “I want to dye my hair so I look less Indian”.
At the time I didn’t even understand what I was saying was problematic. I genuinely believed (and thought it was okay) that I needed to look less like myself, and more “culturally ambiguous” to land a gig, hopefully in television.
What led to me buying into this? Was it the lack of South Asian or brown female reporters in Australian media? If barely anyone’s done it before me, who am I to think I’ll be successful? Was it the fair skin ideal I learnt at a young age when I witnessed relatives gossip and shake their heads at community members with darker complexions?
I believe it was a combination of both. It saddens me that I convinced myself to do this, when today I’m a huge advocate for cultural diversity and representation and a proud South Asian woman.
For the record, the dyed hair didn’t make me look any less Indian. Today, I couldn’t be more proud to embrace my Indian heritage and if I colour my hair in the future, it will have nothing to do with race. But as long as these racial biases remain in place, others too will question their worth at some point.
This is me a few weeks ago, on national television with my natural black hair: