Identity

Diversity Talk

Rishi Mutalik is a junior at Bard College, majoring in political studies and theatre. On campus, he hosts a podcast called Compelling Conversations and he has interned for journalist Soledad O’Brien at her company Starfish Media Group, which aims to tell the stories of marginalized communities. Outside of Bard, he has been performing and auditioning professionally throughout his life. Recently, Mutalik gave this speech on his experience in the acting world at the Bard Leads Conference in August 2016. Here is his story:

 

“I’d like to start by painting a picture for you all. Imagine a 5-year-old me, sitting in a theatre for the first time. There is chatter everywhere, kind of like the chatter we heard in here before we began. The orchestra can be heard tuning. The lights go down, the room hushes. The sound of tuning turns into a symphonic melody. The curtain goes up, and people emerge from the stage. Not people—characters. As they take the stage, they begin telling a story. Through songs, dances, and monologues with the help of scenery, costumes, and lighting, they take the audience on a journey. I am enthralled.

15 years and hundreds of shows later, I still feel the same way.

This first experience propelled me to begin my life journey in performance. I wanted to be one of those characters that could take your breath away with just a note, a gesture, a line.  From a young age, I started learning everything I could about the craft of performing. I took every opportunity I could to sing, act, and dance in various venues like community theatre, concerts, and talent shows. From these first performances, I had already found my passion. At the age of 9, I auditioned for an agent in NYC.

Now picture this scene – an excited me at 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 years old – receiving auditions from my agent. I excitedly click open the emails with the audition information and what do I see – one character breakdown after the other flashing the same descriptors: Nerd. Nerd. Terrorist. Nerd. Antisocial, Asexual, Scared. Think of the character tropes in ‘Big Bang Theory’. All of this is despite my agent’s insistence on recommending me for every interesting and complex role available to a person my age in film, television, and theatre. It was as if writers and other creative people in the industry looked at people like me and saw only their own ill conceived, over simplified, and blatantly offensive Indian stereotypes. As a young child it was destabilizing. I had never characterized or viewed myself as what I was seeing and had never felt such limits placed on my identity.

Was I being too sensitive? I don’t think so. When your culture or any aspect of you isn’t fairly represented or are always the butt of jokes, it erases your humanity in the eyes of others and even in yourself. Such stereotypes are pervasive in the industry for all minorities and marginalized communities.

Fortunately for me, I have encountered a few progressive individuals in the industry who offered me roles that were not defined by stereotypes or limited by strictly white casting. Roles like Tom of Warwick in the classic Broadway musical Camelot, Bruno in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo, and an immensely complex role for a South Asian actor in a new play called ‘ In Bloom’. To say that I felt liberated and exhilarated does not even begin to describe the feelings I experienced on being defined not by stereotypes of my ethnicity and my race, but rather by my talent and my humanity. These roles opened me up as an artist and gave me the same visceral feeling that I first experienced as a young child seeing my first performance.

Motivated by the majority of my experiences, I researched diversity in the entertainment industry and the facts I found were damning. There has only been one musical, Bombay Dreams, that featured South Asians prominently in the almost 100 year history of Broadway, and it ran less than three months. Only one Indian artist has ever been nominated for the prestigious Tony Award. There are countless other statistics and facts spanning all entertainment that reflect the same hopelessness and setbacks in the industry’s progress towards racial diversity.

So how do artists of color grapple with working in an industry that is not inclusive or representative of them?

Here’s how I feel. Through all of this, I am more passionate about my craft, more determined to succeed, and more optimistic about the future than ever before. Why is that? First of all, in recent years, I have noticed kernels of change. I see Aziz Ansari creating a story centered on the son of immigrants. I see the faces of Dev Patel and Suraj Sharma in films. I see Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra leading television shows. I see people of color charting paths in theatre, film, and television.  It is hard to explain how visceral and emotional representation actually is. To see someone who looks like you in their full complexity, vitality, and excellence, is cathartic.

Second of all, my goals have also changed. My journey to this moment, now serves as a fuel. It has inspired me to pick up the pen and write the narratives and characters and stories that are not represented. It has inspired me to advocate for myself through articles and talks like this in which I say, “Yes we have a problem and here is what I am doing to solve it.” It also inspires me to use whatever creative freedom and choice I am given when I do get roles, to push the conversation, advocate for nuance, and combat racism, prejudice, or stereotypes in any form.

This goes beyond the arts and all that I originally dreamed of. It has inspired me to be a leader and champion for my community and to open doors that have not been opened. It has pushed me to be an inspiring image that young Indian children can look up to and feel that their dreams are valid.

As I continue to rise, I will use my power to raise hell and pull people up. And this is what I say to all of those working towards impossible dreams while trying to shatter glass ceilings. You might have started out just wanting to achieve a personal goal and you might be frustrated with the barriers you have faced, and you every right to be. But you now have the chance to be an activist, an advocate, and a representative for your community. Don’t feel a burden. Embrace it. Because as you work towards your dream, you can change the conversation, change your field, and change the images we see.”

 

Image by Bianka Bell

Unshaven

I have mostly sported a clean-shaven look. But, after coming to college, my look began to evolve. I experimented with different looks ranging from stubble to scruff to just short of a short beard. Ahh the joys of being a young, evolving college student…

I recently went home to Connecticut to spend time with my family. Upon arrival, my parents reacted to my one-inch beard with surprise. “It’s only for a little while,”  I explained. This particular long length was not a personal aesthetic choice. I had been rehearsing for a play at school and was interesting in making the character look a little different from my usual self. As a result, many had commented on how much older and different I looked. As someone who had spent most of my life looking younger and more innocent than my age (an advantage in some situations, a disadvantage in others), I was amused by the responses.

Beard chat aside, I was ready for a wonderful weekend with my family. We were planning to go a to a food festival the next day. I was overjoyed at this news. Is there anything more heavenly then sampling various cuisines with people you love? The next day we drove to a quaint but unfamiliar Connecticut town. My heart and stomach could not stand the excitement that was to follow. I could see big tents and smell all kinds of flavors. I walked from station to station, picking up every loaf, cup, or skewer that met my eyes. My appreciation for this special day with my family was boundless, yet it was not lost on me that we were perhaps the only non-white family at the event. I quickly set the fact aside. Growing up in the suburbs, you get used to less diverse environments.

I soon separated from my family to explore more food stands on my own. As I walked around the festival grounds, I began to sense a certain energy being directed at me. As I stood in line, waiting to sample the food, I started to notice people looking at me. At first, I shrugged it off. As far as I was concerned, there was no imaginable reason anyone would be staring at me. More looks. I continued walking. No, something wasn’t right. The people were not acknowledging me in a normal fashion. There was discomfort in their looks. There was uncertainty. There was distrust. There was fear. You can’t miss that. More looks. “Perhaps I should look for my family, “ I thought. More looks. I grew increasingly nervous and tense. As I walked to another food stand, I found myself having to maneuver through the crowd. I accidentally bumped into a woman who was walking with a young child. I promptly said, “Excuse me.” With unbelievable rage and aggression, the woman shot me a look of disgust and hatred, shielded her daughter, and moved away.

I think you should shave,” my mom later said to me. She hadn’t seen this particular incident but she had seen enough. “I noticed people were giving you looks and I am not ok with that.”

I shaved my beard. I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to erase this memory. I wanted the feeling to go away. I wanted the shame to go away. By growing my beard out, I had inadvertently invited the world to view me as a stereotype: one associated with danger and hate. I was someone to be feared and avoided. I was a potential terrorist.

The more I thought about it, the more disgusted, sad and livid I grew. How dare they antagonize me? How dare they create a narrative for me and erase my own. How dare they make me distrust myself and want to change who I am. My own response was only a microcosm of what some people endure every day, as they travel, commute, work, and exist. In many ways, I am more fortunate than most. I have many friends and even acquaintances who have treated me with complete respect and celebrated every aspect of who I am. I have experienced this profound level of hate only once in my life. But for so many, it is an everyday occurrence; that is not something any of us should ignore. Yet, as some in this world continue to stigmatize and demonize others, there is only one thing I know I can do. And that is to tell my story.

I am writing this to reclaim my identity and reclaim my narrative. I am so much more than the label I was given at that festival. All of us are. This post is me fighting back in the most peaceful, powerful, and productive way I know. I am proud of my skin color. I am proud of my race. I am proud of my ethnicity. I am proud of every piece of history and complexity that comes with it. I am proud of my identity. And I hope when you look at me, that is what you see.

Rishi Mutalik

Originally published in Skintone Stories Blog

 

‘Earthling’

The modern Asian Australian female experience is a pendulum that swings between the extremes of invisibility and hyper-exotification. 

I have become relatively accustomed to questions like “What are you? You don’t really look Asian… are you actually fully Asian? Why is your hair curly?”

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of these questions is that they often come from fellow Asian women. The textbook Asian appearance tends to fit this particular description: Fair, with yellow-toned skin, monolids, and straight, jet black hair. This image has been engrained so deeply and intensely in the way that we think, that we are now oblivious to the multi-faceted aspects of our culture. In a society that traditionally underestimates our biological and social variation, it is crucial that we look for courage and validation within ourselves and the sisters of our own community in order to truly accept our diverse Asian Australian identities.

 

Gisselle Enriquez 

 

“El Poder Del Pueblo”: The Whispered Prayers of the Dominican Diáspora in the South Bronx

 

Paola

Photo of the South Bronx by Pamela Victoria Munoz

If Atlas opted to bear the weight of an entire planet instead upon his face, maybe then would that very mass encompass the crushing weight of the multidimensional identity lodged upon my mask. Awkwardly sustained by the fragile stature of my neck, this world of people, generations, prejudices, and myself seesaws back and forth upon the tip of my nose as I desperately attempt to maintain some sort of equilibrium. The tightrope walker mustn’t stumble; this is the balancing act that I must uphold in order to sustain — to preserve — myself.

El refrán dice that diamonds are made under intense pressure, but there are days when the heavens themselves never felt so dense. In the Bronx, every one and their mothers look like me, and I look exactly like them. Los niñitos on my block carry pounds of gorgeously kinky hair upon their heads up until they’re old enough to take the heat lashed on by the Dominican salons, an act of alchemy where las hermanas del calor transform baby girl’s frizzy crown into silk. “Pelo malo,” dice tu mama, to which baby girl responds: “pero mami, mi pelo nunca se he portado mal”. I beg to differ; her pelo is mean-as-hell because baby girl’s mane swallowed up the salonist’s entire comb and coughed it back up into pieces as an act of resistance. Our skin works in much the same way. The latinxs within the community, a blend of the Dominican and Puerto-Rican diáspora, and the hijxs de la diáspora produced from it, waited for winters to bleach their leather skin back to a colonial past, piel stained and blessed by the Sun alongside their Taino/Afro ancestors; others — the same folks who’d take delight in the ways in which their hair would shatter timid combs — did not mind being referred to as “morenita”; they waited patiently for summers to come.

On Sunday mornings, los vecinos would bless you with twenty Hail Mary’s and two sloppy kisses to the cheeks. As a child, I’d pay close attention to las vecinas’ sharp adobo stained nails; with their right hand, they were ready to snatch any one that came for their life; with their left hand, they mastered the art of measuring the right amount of sasón to add to their special paella de mariscos, an act of love and resistance against the bland-as-hell gringo food that had been introduced by the neocolonialists gentrifying mi barrio. I’d watch Doña Rosa fumble around with her rosary during Wednesday group prayers on the fourth floor in Mami’s — the loud-ass vecina on the fourth floor — crib. The weight of years creasing the edges of their eyes and mouths revealed the prayers that they would whisper to themselves after taking in the body and blood of their Cristo; they longed for a heaven that would erase the erosion of their faces and spirits. Womyn would decorate their heavily calloused hands in rings that bore their names, while boldly wearing crop tops to reveal the scars etched across their navels — sometimes from forced c-sections — as proof of the pride they have raised: their children. Sometimes, mothers don’t live long enough to teach their daughters the difference between a caballero and a tiguere; mi mama trato, but fate was not kind to her. I was 13-years-old and had just started my period when she abandoned me for another world, taking with her my love of miracles as well as my love of a white dios that falsely promised salvation to the luchadxr; I only now realize how much this dios hated me for my untamed hair and my wider set nose, much in the same way as the gringos who rebranded my South Bronx as the Piano District hated me. Para el carajo with him. I tell my closest friends now that I don’t believe in god (yes, lowercase god) not because I don’t believe he actually exists somewhere sitting idly as my mother suffered, but because I want him to know that I am rebelling against his being. I am choosing to believe in myself over him.

The men leave home at 4 p.m. returning to their daughters by 4 a.m. I barely recognize my father in the mornings; he grows older every night. Perhaps they bring back a nickel or two in their pockets. Despite that, they’re always rich enough to hand us our sour patch kids, just as they promised. My father’s arms, sore from holding a taxi wheel for hours, are still strong enough to pick up both his daughters, and fling them across his shoulders, so that they might be able to reach for something that he was never able to reach himself. Our dreams are now his wishes.

Families crossed entire oceans, far beyond the comfort of native soil beneath their feet, dream after dream deferred, at the slight hope that one day, their great, great, great granddaughter (their final dream: The Great American Dream) will actually be just that: great. I’d like to hope that they didn’t look back when they dropped their names in the ocean in exchange for new ones. I can only image how difficult it must have been for them to reintroduce themselves.

Now, more than ever, I struggle with my own identity because these narratives — that of my community, friends, family, and ancestors — are tangled into mine; like my hair, these intersecting narratives will unapologetically resist against, and shatter, anything that tries to neatly partition it. It demands that it be understood and loved as a complex and intertwined entity — that it is enough.

At Cornell, people do not look like my vecinos. Whereas I would have been praised for touching the hot paella and learning that it burns, failure doesn’t work in the same way within institutions of higher education. Failure haunts me; because my education is a gamble, I could lose it all if I were to let my untreated anxiety and depression — my mental illnesses political in and of itself as it intersects with my latinidad, multiraciality of white/afro/indigenous, poverty, atheism, and womynhood — keep me tethered to my bed during mornings when the world feels far too heavy for my face to carry. My financial security is contingent upon a certain grade — I am reduced to digits.

 

There are days when I can do more than just wake up. There are days when I don’t give a fuck and I let the hood flow out of me within oppressive academic spaces; I disrupt respectability and what it means to be “educated”. I can be academic, hood, and feminista all at once. Just as I expect for the ways in which I have, and continue to, educate myself to be honored as valid within academic spaces, I also expect that this world may honor the experiences and physical presences of my father and aunt who have educated me.

 

The village of people who raised me have never made me more proud of being Dominican — especially as I decolonize my identity and reclaim my afro/indigenous narratives — than I am now. I love that every morning when I have to walk up the slope in front of my dorm, I can put on some Gilberto Santa Rosa and salsa my way up the godforsaken climb just as I did back in Harlem during my hour long commute to high school. I love that my hair is political and that it has a mind of its own, just like mi angel de la guardia of a mother and my father. I love that luchando is a habit — because I’ve witnessed it being done over, and over, and over again from my own community. Indeed, it does take a village to raise a child. More than that, I love who I am. I love myself, and that is a revolutionary act in and of itself. Everyday I see myself growing (perhaps, not vertically), along with everyone else around me back home. This is the place that my father had us reach for and there are entire stratospheres that I have yet to see for myself. I only regret that I cannot bring him and my aunt along with me sometimes so that they may witness for themselves the fruit of their labor here at Cornell. The world has grown three times its size and it feels heavier than ever before — I hope it doesn’t stop. Despite the tremendous weight I carry now, I could not imagine a greater honor. I will proudly carry my pueblo along with me.

Because of everything that I am, the whispered prayers and narratives of the Dominican Diáspora in the South Bronx, este “Nuevo Mundo” es mio para reclamar: this “New World” is mine to reclaim.