If you look closely in the background of your favorite shows, you’ll typically find one hijabi, one black person, and one brown person. A not-so-merry-go-round of token diversity hires can be seen rotated around to appease the target progressive audience. Hollywood higher-ups putting in an ersatz cast of people of color to decorate and support the white lead in an attempt to create the idyllic “melting-pot” comes off as gauche and untruthful. Yet, what is the result of forcing a false, exaggerated narrative?

Holding up the legacy of white protagonists are directors and producers who are being forced to acclimate to the new expectations of tv and media. A scattered group of diverse background actors are spotted as one-dimensional, flat characters, many of whom have simple lines that perpetuate harmful stereotypes that their representation aims to combat.

Phineas & Ferb’s Baljeet, The Simpsons’ Apu, The Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali, all have one thing in common — they were typecast to be the butt of the joke. Akin to the “gay best friend” trope, tokenism is harming those who seek proper representation in media. Diversity of race on screen is meant to reflect a myriad of mindsets, backgrounds, and lives, yet stereotypical writing has become a poignant foe of candid brown Americans on TV.

When it comes to educating those who are unfamiliar with the immigrant experience or lifestyle, their education comes from the media. With the limited media representation of minorities on average, Indian-Americans become closely linked to the representation seen. Unknowingly, many will draw on the misleading and insulting stereotype in the face of uncertainty.

New Jersey student Sneha Gudibendi notes, “There are harmful portrayals of brown characters that are profiting off the stereotype.” When watching shows like Never Have I Ever, or looking at one of her favorite shows, The Big Bang Theory, she details the depth that tokenism took away from her identity as a brown person. Tokenizing confines and limits what brown characters dream they can do or how they want to view themselves.

The skewed representation of Indian Americans and people of color is plaguing the media, and by proxy — the next generation not only learns to adopt these stereotypes but turns into them. Without proper representation, how will the next generation understand their capabilities? Their art? Their music? Their culture?

Gudibendi and I discussed representation that we felt was progressive. The brown community received Kate Sharma during the latest season of Bridgerton, the desired protagonist who was valued for more than just her brains or just her looks. And it changed how brown women viewed themselves — beautiful and worthy. 

Lazy writing is not only manipulative and hurtful but injurious to the future of brown ingenuity. “Confining us to be flat, one-dimensional characters limits our abilities on screen and off,” says another student, emphasizing the significance of accurate on-screen representation.

People of color are not meant to be props or background characters, but when they are, they inhibit a future generation of truly authentic creators and dreamers.

Let us dream.

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Poorvi Sarkar

Poorvi Sarkar is a student, independent journalist, and mental health advocate from New Jersey who works to spread more information about educational and racial inequity.