Sheila Raghavendran


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‘black-ish’ characters search for relatable American Girl, and I do too

Moms and daughters buzzed around the doll store in search of the perfect mini-me. There were plenty of white options – the bonneted Cassandra, doctor Winnie, Wilma on Wheels and dozens of others. But for Bow and Diane, on a season three episode of “black-ish”, there were only two black choices: Sassy Sadie, a runaway slave, and Sassy Selma, a civil rights activist.

“With all the black history, you choose to focus on our oppression and struggle, when there are so many role models to choose from,” Bow says to a white employee at the fictional doll store GirlStory, and lists examples of those role models – such as TV producer Shonda Rhimes, ballet dancer Misty Copeland and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Frustrated that she couldn’t give Diane a doll of a black character she could aspire to be, Bow stages a protest outside the store with signs like “Black Toys Matter” and “Shonda Not Slaves”. See a clip from the episode here.

That frustration is a familiar sentiment in my family. When we were kids, my parents gave my sister and me a doll catalogue. It was for decorative dolls – not the kind you play with, but that you keep on display, and for us, to look up to. My sister found the Indian doll first: a beautiful woman in an orange sari with a red bindi on her forehead. There were no other South Asian options, so I went with a white doll. She was gorgeous, too, but it was harder for me to picture myself in her blue ball gown.

A year ago, my sister and I stopped by the American Girl store at the Easton Mall in Columbus, Ohio. We combed over the in-depth documentation of white history – Revolutionary-period Felicity Merriman, 1930’s era Kit Kittredge, the 70’s Julie Albright. We found some dolls of color, like Kaya, a Native American doll, but no one who represented our South Asian heritage. Though American Girl has made deliberate effort to increase its diversity, like with its introduction of Z Yang, a Korean-American doll in April, its choices are poor. The company also discontinued two dolls of color from its historical campaign in 2014.

American Girl released one South Asian doll, Sonali Matthews, in 2009. She was discontinued after one year because she was part of American Girl’s “Girl of the Year” limited edition series. Sonali was not the main character in 2009’s Girl of the Year – it was Chrissa Maxwell, a white doll, and Sonali was released as her “accompanying doll”. (Moreover, American Girl has had few Girls of the Year of color since beginning the campaign in 2001.)

The American Girl website boasts a “wide range of dolls—featuring light, medium, and dark skin tones, as well as a variety of face molds, eye colors, hair styles and textures, plus hundreds of accessories and stories”, but in the Chrissa book and movie, the only South Asian character doesn’t address any conflicts of being South Asian-American, and that’s a problem because it disregards our minority experience.

This is one of the pictures American Girl has on its Product Diversity page to prove its expansive choices. Sure, some of these dolls look like me (especially the second from the left on the third row) — but none of the dolls are intentionally South Asian. The doll that looks most like me is from the Truly Me campaign, which is designed to “make her unique to you”. It’s great that girls like me can find dolls that look like them, but since the Truly Me dolls are ethnically ambiguous and don’t have storylines in the American Girl brand, they don’t adequately represent South Asian girls.

As I stood in the American Girl store, unable to really connect with any of the dolls, I felt out of place. The company seemingly side-stepped South Asian-American history, skipping dolls inspired by author Jhumpa Lahiri, congresswoman Pramila Jayapal or actress Mindy Kaling.

The “black-ish” episode ends with Bow giving Diane a set of nunchucks, which she wanted, and apologizing for not being able to give her a doll that proves she can be anything she wants. Diane says she already has that proof from seeing Bow as a successful doctor.

My story is similar. I never got a South Asian doll, but that doesn’t mean I was ever short of South Asian role models. I saw my dad, an engineer; my mom, a fashion designer; my uncle, a university professor; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent; Aziz Ansari, an actor; Malala Yousafzai, an activist. Though I have yet to find a toy that tells my story, I can see myself in the real people around me, and that has always been enough.


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Double life: The realized purpose of my Indian-American heritage

On June 8, I was suspended in air and time between New Delhi, India and Bangkok, Thailand. I was traveling with IU2U, a program that holds pre-orientation workshops abroad for incoming IU international students. The plane became a transitional vessel, not only physically, but also figuratively. I sat with my seat in its upright position, too wired to sleep, as I acknowledged my confusing, often conflicting identities. The last two cities I had been in were New Delhi and Dubai, where Hindi is a primary language. My brown skin lets me pass on the street without stares, but my English words in an American accent give me away. It’s a discrepancy that locals often can’t help but point out: in Gurgaon, a family scrutinized me for not knowing Hindi, but did a double take when I smoothly said “aunty” instead of “misses”. I was tested on my Indian-ness, just as I’m tested on my American-ness in the States.

In Thailand, I didn’t look or sound like most people, and for the first time, I didn’t have to. As an unarguable foreigner, I had nothing to prove and was relieved to let my guard down. I talked to Ralph, Jan and Jean – some of the students from the Thai Student Association who came to the Bangkok workshop – about things as trivial as pumpkin pie and winter weather. The feeling of being so foreign that there is nothing to lose moved me.

I remember attending elementary school in my mostly-white Ohio suburb. At parent open houses at school, the other Indian mothers would gravitate toward my own, expressing relief that their child could be friends with me. I would be furious – offended that they would want to be my friend solely because the color of my skin matched. I look back at that haunting memory and cringe. I am embarrassed that I tried to reject my heritage, because now I understand what it’s like to be the only person of color in a room and the support that I long for in those situations. In the years since then, I’ve learned to develop a grit, a toughness, though sometimes thin, and feel a similar sense of camaraderie when I see other minorities.

During IU2U’s workshop check-ins, when parents saw me, I saw the same look in their eyes as of Indian parents’ in my elementary school: comfort and relief. This time I was able to redeem my 9-year-old self – I welcomed these families. I did what I could to calm their nerves, understand their concerns and offer my insight.

That’s my goal from now on – to be a champion of minorities in America. I was part of a team through the Asian American Journalists Association’s VOICES college program that produced a story about the lack of newsroom diversity. I have begun crafting a proposal to the Media School to improve its diversity and services. I want to write an investigative report about diversity at IU – a school that touts its legacy “of rich diversity and inclusivity”, but has a high non-minority population of 79%. There are changes I want to see, changes that need to happen, and I am excited to be around to help them to fruition.


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Uber CEO Resignation: Is Worldwide Taxi Culture Changing?

I spent the first two weeks in June traveling in South Asia with a group from my university. It was gorgeous, exciting and hot hot hot. While in Bangkok, I took special interest in taxi culture.

During the first part of our trip, we were in Dubai and Delhi, where many people speak Hindi. There were four Indian students on our trip who spoke Hindi, so navigating the area and communicating with taxi drivers wasn’t a problem. In Bangkok, where the official language is Thai, we didn’t have that advantage.

From the inside of a tour van in Bangkok.

Our hotel gave us wallet-sized cards with the hotel address in Thai and English, so that if we got lost we could communicate with locals across the language barrier. We had to trust our instincts when getting into taxis in Bangkok — at night and with unfamiliar destinations. It’s a risk getting into a car with a driver whom you have difficulty communicating, but it’s a risk getting into a taxi anywhere. Stories like that of a woman raped by her Uber driver in New Delhi are haunting.

That scandal and many more, including reports of sexism and workplace harassment within the company, led to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick taking an indefinite leave of absence. After leaving Bangkok and reaching the States last week, my phone lit up with notifications about Kalanick’s announcement. Around 1:30 am ET last night, my phone buzzed again with the news that Kalanick had resigned.

His resignation marks a movement to improve taxi culture around the world. A recognition of the problem. Now it’s a test to see if the steps to improve work.


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“Fences” and Radiolab on interpersonal relations

I recently viewed and listened to two works that have me thinking about how to live, interact and relate. I watched the Academy Award-nominated movie Fences directed by Denzel Washington and listened to Radiolab‘s “Lu vs. Soo”.

In Fences, Washington, nominated for Best Actor, played Troy Maxson. Troy was a troubled man who tried to shield his son Cory from a life like his, but in doing so he instilled Cory with fear and created an unreachable distance between them. Rose Maxson, played by Academy Award winner Viola Davis, was a fierce woman. She kept the family together, verifiable by the ending scene, even as it relentlessly pulled apart.

I was captivated by this family, this story. Troy misstepped in many ways, and they came back to him in the end.

In “Lu vs. Soo”, Lulu explains that she approaches everyone with kindness, while Soo challenges others. Soo urges people to do better, be better, while Lulu prefers not to throw any punches. Radiolab ended the episode with Lulu saying that she was proud to know Soo — someone who was unafraid to stand up when she sees something wrong — and Soo admitting that her assertiveness is an insecurity, something that sometimes pushes her away from people.

Both Fences and “Lu vs. Soo” asked about the balance between kindness and assertiveness. They suggested that assertiveness was the key to progressiveness. In both stories, however, exclusive assertiveness dealt a lonely and painful outcome. Perhaps it’s a given that the ideal lifestyle mixes inherent kindness with tasteful questioning, but perfecting that balance is difficult, as these characters (both real and fictional) have proven.


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“Love recognizes no barriers…”

I recently watched the movie Loving directed by Jeff Nichols. The plot surrounds Richard and Mildred Loving, plaintiffs in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriage. In the film, the white man and black woman marry in Washington, D.C. and face legal issues in Caroline County, Virginia, where they reside. They are snatched from their bed, thrown in jail and prohibited from entering the county as a couple for 25 years. As I mentioned, the Supreme Court ruled in the Loving’s favor, but much of the movie concerns the injustices they endured.

The day after I saw Loving, I watched the play The Duchess of Malfi at IU Theater directed by Katie Horwitz. The play told the story of the Duchess who secretly marries a man of lower social status. Their affair is considered wrong, and while this clashing of classes is characteristic of a comedy, The Duchess of Malfi quickly turns tragic. The Duchess and her husband Antonio face grave punishments for their union. The themes of the play, though much darker, resemble those of Loving — two people reprimanded for loving each other because of identity differences.

Seeing both of these productions, especially in succession, was unsettling but emboldening. I find it ironic that love is traditionally celebrated and encouraged, but has often been strictly regulated. The controversial marriages in these productions reminded me of stories in my family’s recent history. The Duchess of Malfi is set in the early 1500s, Loving in the mid-1960s — but the stories are still relevant today. Hearing these stories makes me wonder how and if marriage will be redefined in the years to come.


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Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival

My friend Vicki and I went to the Bloomington PRIDE Film Festival yesterday and watched three shorts and one feature-length film. The film festival is a yearly event that started in Bloomington in 2003 and explores LGBTQ+ issues and themes. Bloomington has a thriving LGBTQ community and we were excited to check out the films for the first time — and were not disappointed.

These films did an astounding job of sharing very personal, intimate stories without adhering to stereotypes or disrespecting the characters. We saw the short films “Nasser” directed by Melissa Martens, “100 Crushes: They” directed by Elisha Lim and “Veracity” directed by Seith Mann and the feature-length film “Real Boy” directed by Shaleece Haas. Vicki and I walked away from the theater realizing something profound: unlike many stories of LGBTQ characters in mainstream popular television and film, none of these queer characters died.

I think it’s unfortunate that queer characters are often portrayed stereotypically or negatively. The good parts of the story are missed, and therefore the depiction isn’t accurate. I am really glad that the directors of these films focused on the people, not the expectations, and think it made for exceptionally honest, real stories.


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“Fun Home”: a familiar allusion

“The end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.” (pg 117)

The cover of "Fun Home", a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

The cover of “Fun Home”, a bestselling graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home”, which is now a Tony-award winning musical of the same name, is a precise documentation of her family’s secrets. Whether thick, unanswered or forgotten, they shape the story to be reminiscent of more than just “In Remembrance of Things Past” or “The Odyssey”, two of the many pieces of literature to which Bechdel alludes. The story of the Bechdels, as specific and exclusive as it is made to seem, is an allusion to every family and its own secrets. Continue reading


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Jhumpa Lahiri

Click here to listen to a piece I produced for American Student Radio on Jhumpa Lahiri wannabes.

***

She was wearing a maroon, comfortable shirt, paired with brown pants that sloshed as she walked and an decadent, teal-stoned necklace. She appeared serious, almost disinterested and stoic.

Is she nervous? Bored?

I contemplated as author Jhumpa Lahiri sat poised on the stage of the Whittenberger Auditorium last Monday. She checked her fingernails, adjusted her ring. As Indiana Unviersity Hutton Honors College Dean Andrea Ciccarelli gave an introduction, Lahiri quietly coughed, the first audible breath of her voice caught on microphone.

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Tina Fey’s role in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is the same as always, and that’s a good thing

Photo from thewrap.com. This contains spoilers for “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”:

Tina Fey’s role in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is exactly what we’re used to from her — a working, somewhat unhappy adult, rooted in her ways and heavily concerned with her job and impressing her boss. We saw this with “Baby Mama”, where Fey played the careful, collected woman intimidated of chaos; we saw it again with Liz Lemon in “30 Rock”, who was unhealthily committed to work; and we saw some glimpses through her several stints as Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” (“somewhat unhappy”, “concerned with impressing her boss”, you get the point). Fey’s role in “WTF” is no WTF — but it’s the jarring portrayal of women that caught me unexpectedly.

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Memorable memories: afraid at age 4

One of my earliest memories of life is about death.

It’s difficult to gauge what my first memory is because young ages are a blur of emotions and recollections from others. I’ve pieced my early memories into a timeline (with my mom’s help with chronology, thanks mom), and one of those memories is most significant because it introduced me to pain, death and fear.

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Where I’m a Local

People frequently ask me, “Where are you from?” When I reply with the unsatisfactory, “Cincinnati”, they shake their heads and further and ask, “Oh, I mean, where are your parents from?” Reluctantly, I give them the answer they want.

I find it frustrating because it allows others to define me by my ancestry and the preconceived notions that are associated with it.  Taiye Selasi tackled this topic in her recent Ted Talk called “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”

She explained that there is a three-step test in determining where someone is a local: through rituals, relationships and restrictions. Continue reading


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There’s nothing ‘mock’ about the impact of Mock Crash

I feel like all my experiences in theatre thus far were leading up to Mock Crash: the opportunity to inform the school about the devastating consequences of drinking and driving and urging everyone to think first and drive safely.

The Chronicle and MBC teamed up to put together this fantastic coverage of Mock Crash on thecspn.com.

As an actor in the demonstration, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never been in that kind of situation, never lost someone close in a car accident. I made the 911 call in the simulation and we prerecorded it a week before.

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like pretending that your friends just got into a car crash, that one of them was drinking and driving, and that one of them is most likely dead. Continue reading


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Lucky: an ode to high school journalism

I recently talked to a friend of mine who attends Kings High School — which is the school 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn attended for some time before switching to the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Leelah, a transgender girl, committed suicide on December 28, 2014 because she felt like she could never truly be who she wanted to be because of the surrounding environment and people, including transgender conversion therapy.

You’d think that, after this tragic event, Kings School District would have implemented some policies for tolerance, for anti-LGBTQ bullying or creating safer spaces for LGBTQ youth. According to my friend who is a junior at KHS, there hasn’t been much of a change, though a quick search on WCPO let me know that counselors were made available by phone and the basketball teams held a moment of silence. KHS also held a candlelight vigil shortly after her death. I didn’t find any information regarding policies or programs advocating for LGBTQ safe spaces or against LGBTQ bullying.

I asked my friend if someone who we know at Kings who is gay is taking his boyfriend to prom. He replied that no, he didn’t think it wasn’t allowed. I don’t have information about whether or not gay couples are allowed at Kings’ proms, but my friend said most of the gay students at his school weren’t out. He said he could only think of five openly gay students, whereas at Mason High School the list never ends.

We both thought it was a little ridiculous that gay couples weren’t allowed at Kings’ prom, or at least that their appearances weren’t common, and that gay students felt uncomfortable or unsafe bringing a same-sex date.

I asked him if his school had a newspaper and he nearly laughed at the question. He pulled up an online news site on his phone, populated with quick tidbits of news, but it doesn’t have an opinion section or any kind of forum for student opinions. So students who feel strongly about Leelah’s call to “fix society. Please” or who may have known her personally can only sit idly by watching as their friends stay hidden in the closet, at prom or elsewhere.

It’s times like these when I notice how lucky I am to be attending MHS and to be working as editor of the newspaper. Our opinion section thrives, thanks especially to the incredible work of Jessica Sommerville, Madison Krell and our columnist staff. Our staff editorials consistently take an intelligent perspective on light and heavy topics alike — ranging from our generation’s desensitization of terrorism to bathroom graffiti. We have Tweets to the Editor which allow MHS students to use social media to voice their opinions on our hot-button questions like how far is too far when directing social-media angst toward the superintendent.

The Chronicle is also fortunate enough to have Emily Culberson, the Business Manager, and Ashton Nichols who is diligently learning how to take Emily’s place next year when she graduates. Through advertising with various businesses, Emily and Ashton supply all of the money to print the newspaper. We receive no additional funding from the school — because we don’t really need it. Emily and Ashton do such a great job that we are able to operate completely self-sufficiently.

Some other schools, like Steinmetz College Prep high school in Chicago, didn’t have enough money to support its printing. Luckily, Hugh Hefner, a graduate from Steinmetz, pitched in money to keep the newspaper running for five years.

But not every school has an Emily or an Ashton or a Hugh Hefner — many school newspapers have been forced to fold because their staff cannot support the funds.

According to The Chicago Tribune:

In 1991, nearly 100 percent of Chicago public high schools surveyed in a study byRoosevelt University‘s College of Communication had newspapers. By 2006, the number had dropped to 60 percent, according to Linda Jones, associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt.

This can be attributed to a bigger interest in social media, teachers’ focus on standardized testing and diminishing interest in the news media in general.

Further in the same article from The Chicago Tribune:

At Morgan Park High School, English teacher Keith Majeske used to have to hide stacks of newspapers in the school’s main office so students wouldn’t grab them before they were ready for distribution. Today, stacks go untouched for days — unless it’s an issue with prom pictures or Valentine’s Day personal ads.

This is particularly interesting to me — especially since we spend so much time working the kinks of our cover page. We try to make something appealing to a huge demographic, hoping that everyone will be eager to pick up our paper. But lack of interest is lack of interest, and we’re very fortunate that our student body (on the whole) thinks highly of The Chronicle.

Journalism has the potential to make change. At Kings High School, it could allow gay couples to safely attend prom together, or for the school to implement anti-bullying policies. And I hope it does. High school journalism in particular is crucial because it provides a forum for students to be heard.

We’re lucky.