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Hymn For The Weekend: India’s Got 99 Problems…But Beyoncé’s Not One

Hymn For The Weekend: India’s Got 99 Problems…But Beyoncé’s Not One

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyoncé's Not One

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyoncé's Not One

The reality is that Chris Martin’s colonial stance throughout the video has a starkly different historical baggage than Beyoncé’s role in it.  After all, let us not forget that the entire Indian Subcontinent was under British rule for 200 years. Martin in essence depicts the ever-present remnants of colonial India, while Beyoncé–a vision on a movie screen, a goddess-like, albeit appropriative, figure–seems to depict the British colonial fantasy of Mother India, inappropriately sexualized and gazed upon by the colonizer. It is that very same white gaze that marks the West’s relationship to Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America.

While Beyoncé’s “character” is a troubling depiction, my concern is less with her individual presence in the video than the message it sends about Western and White power over brown and black bodies. The critiques aimed at Bey have become an unfortunate brown vs. black “who is appropriating who” narrative that misses the point, as Patankar explains:

“We should not be pointing fingers at our Black friends for not calling out Bey. I think this is anti-black racism. Our communities are so deeply anti-black, whether in the U.S or in South Asia. Just days ago, we saw the brutal beating of a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore. It’s shameful! Given this, we need to think twice when we wag our finger at black people for something that is already exoticized and appropriated by our own diasporic community. I feel that suddenly South Asians are jumping on this because they feel like they now have a pass to say something — like ‘see, you do it too.’  I am deeply offended by it.”

While representation is important, we must also spend some time thinking about what representation we are talking about. For many dark-skinned South Asians, myself included,  you won’t see us represented in Bollywood, where light-skinned beauty is upheld above all else. In a region where the use of skin-lightening creams is encouraged and where you’ll rarely see an actress darker than a paper bag, Beyonce playing the part of a Bollywood actress is not my concern.

Yes, it’s appropriation. And no it’s not South Asia’s biggest problem.

In this reductive “Hands Off My Bindi” war against Western stereotyping of Indian “culture,” are we suggesting that Bollywood – a billion dollar industry that has on multiple occasions perpetuated blackface and other stereotypes and on a daily basis sends a message to millions of South Asians that beauty equals light skin – is the “culture” we are defending?  

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyoncé's Not One

Should we not, at the same time as we rightfully point out recurring Western Orientalism in pop culture, interrogate our own defense of Bollywood as it stands? Are we willing to challenge the Desi film industry to better represent the millions of people who don’t in fact see themselves (nor their skin tones) in the Madhuri Dixits and Aishwarya Rais and Sonam Kapoors of actual Bollywood movies? Will we critique Beyoncé’s appearance in this altogether forgettable Coldplay video and not also tweet about why Bollywood welcomes white women as back up dancers in many Bollywood movies?  

Only when we are simultaneously doing these things as South Asians–when our tweets are not just about representation in a Coldplay video but also about changing the very “cultures” we are defending–will I start paying attention.

In a complex political time for India and South Asia as a whole, we must be careful not to fall into the very traps that we are attempting to expose. Western representations of non-Western cultures are deeply exotifying and inherently problematic, and this video is no exception. And yet, in our critiques, we must be wary of the very nationalisms and forms of anti-black racism that we are trying to fight.

In an email exchange I had with Sharmin Hossain, a Bangladeshi organizer from Queens, NY, she put it perfectly: “The dialogue around the overwhelming Savarna [upper caste] and Brahmin imagery in the video is most important in my opinion… this video does what most media, including Bollywood, does – it creates a picturesque “Incredible India” in the wake of Rohith Vemula‘s death, and some jarring cases of young Dalit women being brutally raped and burned alive.” In a Facebook post responding to criticism of Beyonce in the video, Hossain added:  

“I’m not here for your shallow aesthetic politics. Your mehendi, sarees and bindis will not liberate you.”

She calls for a more nuanced discussion of representation in the context of contemporary South Asia. I’m calling for that too.

Thanu Yakupitiyage is Sri Lankan-born immigrant rights activist, writer, and DJ in New York City. She deejays by the name “Ushka.” Follow her on twitter at @ty_ushka.

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