As a South Asian growing up in the UK, being brown was never cool; in fact, it was something to be ashamed of. Our portrayals on TV and film were always tokenising and perpetuated stereotypes; we were never seen in adverts or modelling in fashion publications. This gave me a warped sense of belonging; a belief that, in order to be appreciated in the arts, we had to be ridiculed.
Establishing yourself as a brown person in the west, not to mention a creative brown person, is difficult, to say the least. From a young age, our parents would have our future lives planned out: take academic subjects at school, study hard, become a doctor or lawyer, and then get married. Taking up the arts isn’t seen as a proper career path, so it’s not an option. Then there’s the problem of brown people being accepted into these spaces – we’re not exactly meant to be there. As Nikesh Shukla writes in Brown Baby: “White is default and because that default is pernicious in its execution, especially in terms of who it others, it becomes a standard that you always have to be in the opposition to.” The absence of brown people in the industry can be draining, as you always feel the need to prove yourself even more.
In recent years, there has been a rise in Instagram accounts designed to uplift and inspire marginalised communities, and through these online platforms, such as Diet Paratha, I have started to reconnect with my South Asian identity. Established in 2017, London-based Diet Paratha celebrates the best of South Asian talent, particularly South Asian creatives. The name Diet Paratha (paratha, meaning Indian flatbread) is of course a play on Diet Prada, but this Instagram feed is about celebrating people, not cancelling them.
New Zealand-born Londoner Anita Chhiba was inspired to start the project because of the glaring lack of South Asian perspective in Western media. “SA people are still fighting to be seen in creative spaces, and there isn’t a lot of perception around being ‘cool’ – I feel like Diet Paratha definitely helps shift the perspective,” she says. Navigating race has been a constant journey for Chhiba.
“As a child and even up until my mid-twenties, I wasn’t very aware of white privilege, because the internet wasn’t as accessible as it is now. Unpacking all that stuff has been a really long journey as well as unpacking themes within our own people. Casteism, colourism and body positivity, to name a few.”
Diet Paratha’s content incorporates extensive picture research, showcasing everything from underrepresented musical talent, to emerging models in fashion editorials. “South Asian representation in the fashion industry is weak and needs more attention. Sadly, like many other cultures, so much of it is tokenism or performative. If brands and publications want to be true allies, they need to come to the people that are already doing what it is they are trying to achieve – give a platform to the grassroots. ”As well as championing creative talent, Diet Paratha challenges Eurocentric beauty ideals, highlighting the importance of embracing brown features. One of Chhiba’s projects features an image carousel of side profiles, focusing on nose shapes. “Selected beauty standards have changed where inherently ethnic beauty features are now worshipped. The nose, however, never seems to have gotten its moment. This is nothing we don’t already know. Ethnic features are picked to complement the white default,” Chhiba writes.z
Setting up the platform has had its downsides, but the lack of white allyship Chhiba has witnessed only serves to emphasise how important the work Diet Paratha does is. “It’s been 99 per cent of SA people who have helped me so far in terms of press and opportunities,” she says. Sadly, Chhiba says, being ignored is nothing new, but rather a legacy of the long history of BIPOC being excluded from the mainstream media. “What it shows is the importance of having a diverse make-up of people on the ‘inside’,” she says, pointing out that people of colour understand the importance of representation because they quite literally have “skin in the game”. “We need more white allies. People whose actions reflect their social media stance in supporting and uplifting marginalised communities.
”While South Asian culture can come with toxic behaviours and traditional mindsets, Diet Paratha’s main focus is to showcase South Asian talent in a positive light, confronting stereotypes and challenging the status quo. “I love learning about the positive stuff. Love stories, stories of immigrants making it big where they settle. We are underrepresented and overlooked, but there’s a whole wave of us with our own stories to tell.”