I had seen the book Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse on social media sites and had decided to have a read of it to see what children’s authors were up to at the moment. There was a double bonus as the writer appeared to be an academic and I was interested to see what a more educated writer would do. The beginning was fine and as the story developed, there was the introduction of a British Asian boy nicknamed Kip. I was interested to see how he had been characterised. He was, evidently, a buffoon. He was slow on the uptake. He was short and extremely conscious of his height. He could not sing at all, although his voice is suited to the tuba. As I reflected on this stereotyped image of the males in our community (from the pen of an academic), I decided to write down what the work of stereotyping British Asian males is. It is a short summary.
Unattractive and Undesirable – In Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, one of the characters (I can’t remember who, although I feel it is a white, British woman), is surprised by the beauty of a British Asian male. I seem to recall that there is a lengthy justification of the word ‘pulchritude’ in relation to him. Compared to the men in the corner shops, the boy is astonishingly beautiful. This surprise of the character is because attractiveness in a British Asian man is seen as atypical. The implication is that the majority of us are ugly and undesirable.
This construction of the British Asian male is evident in cinema, TV and modelling. There are no famous British Asian males who are renowned for their looks. Indeed, there is a certain requirement that anyone connected to the entertainment industry who is of British Asian heritage should be physically unattractive. I am thinking of the leading character in the film Life of Pi as well as Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire).
Outside of the world of culture, on the online dating scene, Asian men (including British Asians) are consistently seen as less attractive. There are a number of studies on this phenomena. Here is a link to one such study: https://psmag.com/the-race-dynamics-of-online-dating-why-are-asian-men-less-eligible-a43b70042ed2 (also see Mona Chalabi’s video on this: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/18/racial-preference-dating-racist-video )
The majority would have it that we are unattractive and undesirable. In Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham, the freedom of the British Asian Woman is celebrated in her dating of White Man. This is a familiar storyline. Dating us is seen as servitude and slavery – liberation is in the white man.
Untalented and Uncreative – In Poppy Pym, Kip can’t sing. Why can’t Kip sing? Why are there practically no British Asian males on the music scene? The reason is that we are seen as untalented and uncreative.
Every field that you look into which involves creativity has under representation by British Asian men. In fashion, art, photography, music and drama, there is basically no one. And anyone that is British Asian is not one of the major players (recently the Westminster graduate that won an Oscar, Asif Kapadia, is one of the exceptions to this rule, but he is hardly influential).
The implicit construction of us is that we have no talent and that we are uncreative, according to the majority.
A Troubling Culture – While the construction of us as uncreative and untalented would appear to suggest that we have no culture, in fact, our culture is seen as problematic. We are not seen as integrated in mainstream society. If we ask the question, “why don’t we have British Asian singers in the West?” one of the answers usually given is that because we have Bollywood instead. Our culture is seen as incompatible with Western culture, but also as inferior. Bollywood for the west is shorthand for an outdated musical cinema which bears little reference to actual reality. Yes, only the Westerners have privileged access to something they call ‘reality’. We, on the other hand, have song and dance routines.
We are not ‘integrated’ and incapable of ‘integration’. Instead, the culture that we have, depicted variously as misogynistic, full of rank, class prejudice and uneducated and superstitious, is the problem. We are not real, cultured beings.
Money grabbing and mercenary – While the majority white males make much more money than us, we are seen as money grabbing and mercenary. They starve us and then protest that we are hungry. In David Walliam’s children’s novels, there is a shop keeper called Raj who is illustrative of this construction. He sells out of date food stuffs and is always trying to turn a profit from his odious wares, always trying to sell something. I was once talking to an attractive young woman and then she suddenly thrust this construction on me, trying to make an unpleasant joke about corner shop owners charging too much (I forget the actual joke, I only remember that I stopped talking to her and went off).
This association with the exploitative businessman leads to another construction – that we have no soul, no human empathy (see below).
No Soul – In Hari Kunzru’s debut novel, The Impressionist, the white woman chooses a black man over the mixed race British Asian male who is pretending to be a white man. She says it is because he has more soul.
According to the majority, we really do not have a soul. This is what our uncreativity and lack of talent stems from. It is why Kip cannot sing, because a song has to have soul in it. Why else did the missionaries try to impose their religion onto us, a key justification for the British Raj? It was to give us soul. And yet this characterisation is still evident today. We do not have any soul and are incapable of expressing a basic humanity.
In conclusion, the majority construction of British Asian males is that we are inhuman monsters, ugly, undesirable and with nothing to contribute to Western society.