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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Leap of Faith

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 7.15.51 PMMy mom and dad performing in their wedding ceremonies.

My parents’ marriage began with a leap of faith.

My mom and dad could have unknowingly passed each other dozens of times in the streets of Madras, India before formally meeting in May of 1988. But the two never met in Madras, both of their hometowns, and instead in Los Angeles, as planned.

Let me back up a little bit. My maternal grandpa worked in America for many years, cherished his time here and often told my mom and her siblings about the great opportunities America offers. My mom’s siblings moved to America to start their new lives, and my mom made the 20-hour trip to see what all the fuss was about…and wasn’t impressed. She spent the next two years back in India, bored without her siblings and willing to go back to America to be closer to them. When my grandparents on my dad’s side met my mom and suggested she go to California to meet my dad, she took a leap.

My mom first stopped in New Jersey where her sister was living, and together they flew to California and met with my aunt’s friends. It was at the friends’ house that my mom and dad first met. He introduced himself with the same name as my mom’s brother, sparking years of muddled confusion. But that’s another story.

The group paid a visit to San Francisco, my aunt and her friends driving in one car, and my mom and dad driving in my dad’s all-too-classy white Nissan Sentra. He sure knew how to impress a girl.

I imagine my mom sitting far back into the seat, resting her hands in her lap, as she always does, and my dad constantly checking his mirrors and sides as he always does. They spent the day driving to the sound of their small talk, which was probably strangely comfortable.

“When did you both decide you’d get married?” I asked my dad recently.

“A few days after the San Francisco trip, I asked her,” he said. “She said yes.”

Three months later: my mom and dad were married in (simplified) Indian style. And they’ve been together for those 26 and a half years.

Arranged marriages do not always go so smoothly, as I have seen in a few extended family members’ situations. My parents are lucky, to say the least, for finding mutual companionship.

My mom could have said no — the worst misconception about arranged marriages is the notion that parents force marriage upon their children, offering them no choice but to obey.

That couldn’t be further from the truth, at least for my parents. When my mom came over to the States, her parents and siblings undoubtedly had hope that she would meet my dad and want to spend her life with him, but they didn’t have any expectations. Her ticket wasn’t one-way. It was just a leap of faith.

So no, they weren’t high school sweethearts, and no, they didn’t meet serendipitously in a big city or on top of the Empire State building. Their love story won’t be replicated on a Hollywood screen (though Bollywood has made many fair attempts).

Their marriage captures the kind of love that stems from trust and commitment. So when people (often) ask me, “Do your parents even like each other?” the answer is yes, they are in love, their own definition of love – even though their meeting isn’t the same as Harry and Sally’s.

It all started with a leap.

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 7.32.05 PM

Left: My parents exchanging garlands as part of Indian ritual; center: My mom cheesin’ on her big day; right: My parents throwing rice as part of the wedding ceremony.

This column was originally posted on thecspn.com.