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    Who do you represent?

    by Rupa on 5th October, 2007 at 8:17 am    

    If you’re an Asian foraying into media/arts/academic arenas is there anyway you can separate your work from your ethnicity? I found myself at an ‘in conversation‘ event this week with the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor onstage at the British Library plugging his new book where this question arose.

    Manzoor seemed shocked that anyone would want to pay £6 to turn up - which probably explains the lack of Asians in the audience. The only other Asian there bar me asked him how he felt as a spokesperson for Muslim youth. This scenario has been termed by academics including me as ‘the burden of representation‘.

    Manzoor described “the Muslim thing” as “an open goal”, continuing: “If I’ve got something to say about Muslims I know people will allow me the space to do so”.

    On the other hand he agonized, “I don’t want people to only accuse me of talking about Islam. I’m not actually that interested in religion. I like other things as well”. And to illustrate he told us his next commissions were on the moon landings, Philip Roth and Bruce Springsteen, although the last one had been on whether immigrants should be forced to learn English.

    In my own little way I’ve got gigs out of my cultural background as both Muslim and Asian. I’ve found as an academic researching youth culture it’s taken as a given that I’ll be studying bhangra although I’ve always been a Smiths fan. But whining white indie guitar boys are less attractive to publishers than multiculti music in the world we inhabit.

    As a friend once put it “I’d rather be a token than unemployed”. The burden of representation argument can be applied to allsorts of things. I found East is East a stinking turd of a film but people who liked it reckon it should be accepted as a comedy not a representation of anything. What do other people think?

    This is a guest post. Rupa blogs here.

    Print this page and comments   |   Trackback link   |   Add to del.icio.us   |   Share on Facebook   |   Filed in: Culture, British Identity

    45 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. Julaybib — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:12 am  

      I do a lot of Muslim stuff on Second Life, although I know some people don’t take it seriously - shame, coz IslamOnline do and they are now present in the metaverse in force. I feel very loyal to the Muslim community and get very pissed off by Islamophobia, which is there as it is everywhere these days.

      But as a sometimes ’spokesperson’ for Muslims there, I am somehow expected by some NON-Muslims to be traditionally pious. One guy got really irrate when I told him I wasn’t. I love the Muslim tradition, but I read it my own way - more, dare I say it, as an intellectual (still a crime in England, I know).

      Hence, when I find myself speaking on behalf of SL Muslims - a role handed to me rather than sought - I find myself flagging up Muslim diversity before anything. Which is an argument contesting Islamophobic representations of Islam as monolithic, anyway.

    2. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:17 am  

      I absolutely hated East is East…if a white middle class person had produced and directed this film Asians would have been up in arms about it being a stereotypical portrayal of a particular community. On one hand it sold itself as something for an Asian audience, not simply a comedy (I found bend it like beckham a lot better as a comedy). When I went to see it (EiE) in the cinema in London alongside many young Asians, there weren’t many laughs..rather a lot of comments on how shite the film was.
      As for burden of responsibility, its funny how if you have a brown face or a Muslim name you’re suddenly an expert on all things Asian/Muslim etc. Look at Saira Khan…why she was the best person to go to Pakistan and do a programme on it I won’t ever know..having seen her in the queue at Heathrow on my way to Pakistan I knew she was going there for reasons other than meeting the faaaamily…lo and behold she’s on the tele a few months later…at least have someone who isn’t as goddamn self righteous and patronising as her..she’s almost as bad as Konnie Huq…I said almost…

    3. Rumbold — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:27 am  


      Calm down- you will do yourself an injury. From a film point of view, I rather enjoyed East is East.

      “Its funny how if you have a brown face or a Muslim name you’re suddenly an expert on all things Asian/Muslim etc. Look at Saira Khan…why she was the best person to go to Pakistan and do a programme on it I won’t ever know.”

      I agree with you on that one. This is not just an Asian trend though, as shows are know being fronted by people who have little understanding of the situation and are only cast because they are a celebrity. Bring back presenters who knew what they were talking about.

    4. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:48 am  

      Rumbold, yes I do get slightly passionate about things…for all their educational and employment credentials, konnie and saira really manage to do the “i’m a pretty Asian idiot” down as a fine art.

    5. A councillor writes — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:48 am  

      I know how you feel, as one of the three out gay councillors on my council, I get the “and what do LGBT people think of this?” question all the time.

      I much prefered Bend it like Beckham to East is East.

    6. Rumbold — on 5th October, 2007 at 10:52 am  


      I agree with you about Saira Khan, but would have to disagree about Konnie Huq- what programmes has she presented where she pretends to be a socio-political-economic expert on an entire country?

    7. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 11:08 am  

      I know maybe I should calm it down..she just did this piece once on bangladesh which I found irritating…and also think she sells herself short on the things she could be doing, instead of allowing herself to be portrayed as totty…i suppose i’d just like to see her more serious side as well as her “entertainment” side, as she obviously did have an interest in politics when she was younger (from what I’ve read anyway)

    8. Labour Pains « Rupa Huq’s home on the web — on 5th October, 2007 at 11:49 am  

      […] have asked Sharma about “the burden of representation” - see Pickled Politics post here.  […]

    9. sean — on 5th October, 2007 at 12:54 pm  

      I rather liked Rupa’s “I’d rather be a token than unemployed”

    10. sean — on 5th October, 2007 at 12:56 pm  

      What I was going to say before my comment (number 11)got posted when I had only just got started was that Rupa’s friend’s

    11. sean — on 5th October, 2007 at 1:04 pm  

      Try again…What I was going to say before my comment (number 11 and now 12)got posted (for reasons I know not) when I had only just got started typing was that Rupa’s friend’s comment“I’d rather be a token than unemployed” reminded me of the late JK Galbraith’s witticism concerning economic development. He said: “Better to be exploited than not to be exploited at all”. By which he meant some form of employment/wage is preferable to having to deal with the serious problems of hunger and disease. So the lesson is: the burden of representation is relatively low-cost relative to the high cost of cultural and political invisibility.

    12. justforfun — on 5th October, 2007 at 1:36 pm  

      So the lesson is: the burden of representation is relatively low-cost relative to the high cost of cultural and political invisibility.

      Is there a high cost for cultural and political invisibility?

      konnie and saira really manage to do the “i’m a pretty Asian idiot” down as a fine art.

      Sofia - “meeeow” are we seeing a new side to you. :-)


    13. Sofi — on 5th October, 2007 at 2:19 pm  

      East is East was funny in places. But but but its all part of the Goodness Gracious Me era, yawn. Yes, asians can have a laugh - at themselves and others, we’ve acknowledged that now. lets move on to somethign else.

      Saira Khan should stick to business orientated roles or better still, reality tv.

    14. Zak — on 5th October, 2007 at 2:28 pm  

      don’t mess with the huq to quote mock the week

    15. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 2:48 pm  

      Justforfun…yes i’m not normally catty…so plz see that as a blip…I just think sometimes women who are perfectly intelligent are shown/made/encouraged (?) to become something else in order to get ahead…Konnie Huq being an example..whether this all down to her own wishes then fair enough…whether it is part of a media desire to put only pretty young (Asian) women on screen is another debate.

    16. Sunny — on 5th October, 2007 at 2:53 pm  

      Homi’s comments and related ones have been deleted as per our comments policy. He has been banned here repeatedly but keeps coming back like a bad smell.

    17. Sofi — on 5th October, 2007 at 2:56 pm  

      (sorry - in my defence i am a new reader so didnt realise policies or certain poster’s antics)

      >>whether it is part of a media desire to put only pretty young (Asian) women

      i dont believe its just pretty asian women at the forefront. its more on a general level. the bbc have got rid of moira..how tragic!

    18. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:05 pm  

      Yes I know it is tragic..although on a separate note..did that woman never age??? I’m sure she looks the same as she did 20 years ago..

      Btw..i did put Asian in brackets to mean that it does go far beyond race.

    19. Sofi — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:19 pm  

      the woman has aged well! wouldnt mind extracting some tips from her.

      its well known that beauty gets you further than brains alone. and its not just in media. although perhaps its more apparent and transparent. although i dont feel saira got so far on looks - im not a fan..but she was very determined. i think a separate debate/question would be do asians need to visibly lose any sense of their roots/culture/religion when theyre propelled into the media limelight on mainstream tv, for them to be successful (or even before theyve made it there). i mean, do i stand a chance of becoming a newsreader on BBC1? accent - check. hijab - check?

    20. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:31 pm  

      Well accent - no..there is the bbc “accent”..as for appearance…not sure…I suppose there are unsaid limitatiions?..i.e would niqabed/hijabed newsreaders be acceptable? Rastafarians, turban wearing sikhs?

    21. Sofi — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:37 pm  

      (ok. “bbc accent” - check!)

      so inherently prejudiced to those portraying any sign of religion or culture? even race is contentious but not as much as an issue as it once was.

    22. Kismet Hardy — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:38 pm  

      I’m working on my fourth book.

      Sounds grand doesn’t it?

      Except the first three weren’t published and are shreds of their remains still glare at me with resentment from forgotten drawers and folders

      The first: Wasn’t Asian enough. In fact, it wasn’t Asian at all. I was on that ‘I don’t know any Asian people, I take ecstasy and want to write about ecstasy’ tip. No one wanted to know. Then that Irivine Welsh came out with the book Ecstasy and I believe I cried for a day or two.

      The second: Way too Asian. Okay, 10 years ago, when I started it, the idea of having an Indian restaurant waiter as the protagonist seemed original and I swear my heart bled bitter tears when years later I saw the same jokes done in Meet The Magoons. Except mine had a twist. The protagonist turned psycho, you see. But no. The kinder rejections said the subject matter was too risque. I still remember the tagline: tandoori and torture. Shut up. It was 10 years ago.

      The third: I thougt. I’m going to hit the market. I see what sells: either Bloomsbury type ones about old ladies under banyan trees shitting out three generations of shlock, culminating some sort of gay realisation in Leamington Spa. They said it’d work if I were a woman. Then Monica Ali’s Brick Lane came out.

      Shit, I’m really fucking bitter about it aren’t I?

      Anyhoo, I’m writing my fourth. I’ve got an agent, as it goes. How’d that happen? I might have mentioned the word ‘terrorist’

    23. rupahuq — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:41 pm  

      Is the Homi who’s banned the same reputed academic? Saw him at a conference once - would be curious to know what he said if it’s not someone pretending.
      Huq junior actually got sackloads of mail some years back from Brit-Bangla kids after her “Konnie goes to visit ancestral village” episode, who found it empowering. That country is rarely on tv (apart from maybe a cursory mention at floodtime) - even the state of emergency was little covered. The programme was the last time I saw my nani - albeit via cathode ray tube.
      I still hate “East is East”. I saw it in a cinema with a largely white crowd who found it all hilarious. Some were even fondly reminiscing about Enoch Powell who was shown making the 1968 “rivers of blood” speech even though the film was set in the 70s by which time he’d defected to the Ulster Unionists.

    24. Jai — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:42 pm  

      turban wearing sikhs?

      Well, Hardeep Singh Kohli sometimes presents Newsnight Review…..

    25. Abu Dharr 05/10/07 « Anarcho Akbar: The Muslim Postcolonial — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:44 pm  

      […] Verkaik, The Independent) Hindu sacked over nose stud wins back job (Jonathan Petre, The Telegraph) Who do you represent? (Rupa, Pickled Politics) Arms trade obscenity (Cameron Duodu, Guardian […]

    26. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:44 pm  

      Kismet, I used to work in the marketing dept of a book shop and we got lots of manuscripts in..most went in the bin without a look…glad you got yourself an agent…one of my colleagues got published *spit* …i’m not bitter at all…i love writing, started something ages ago..which then got deleted by accident..ha bloddy ha…

    27. Sofia — on 5th October, 2007 at 3:49 pm  

      I like Hardeep…a lot of issues get aired through comedy…

    28. Rumbold — on 5th October, 2007 at 4:55 pm  


      “Is the Homi who’s banned the same reputed academic? Saw him at a conference once - would be curious to know what he said if it’s not someone pretending.”

      Homi is just an alias for our resident Sikh Punjabi Khalistani, who has taken to using anti-colonial monikers when posting.

    29. AsifB — on 5th October, 2007 at 5:10 pm  

      I represent me and no-one else. (in the absence of a democratically elected mandate)

      Rupa- I heard you talk about East is East at the Brick Lane circle earlier this year and know exactly what you mean about the ‘wrong’ way in which some white audiences react and the way it is Pakistani/Muslim cultural traits that are the butt of humour in this film - BUT really you have got to get over this because
      a) It’s a genuinely autobiographical piece - accurately reflecting many mixed heritage relationships of its time. (When to some the fact that there were mixed heritage relationships in those days comes as a surpise) nb; Ayub Khan Din is gay and some of the plot is clearly coloured by how this affected his life in the early 70s
      b) As a Bangladeshi - did you not notice the way in which the father listens to news about the Bangladesh Liberation war in the background ? (And how his heavy handed treatement of his kids splits the family and mirrors the way in which the brutality of the Pakistan military broke the country)

      and c) try watching My Beautiful Laundeette as a 19 year old bloke back from college with your parents if you want to squirm a bit - East is east is a cakewalk
      - but then my generation had lots of training what with Love thy Neoghbour and Aint Half Hot Mum being watched as avidly as Naiz Zindigai, simply for the brown faces.

      If you’re looking for a non-representiative yet entertaining film about British Asians, check out Wild West from the early 90s.

      For entertainment, Beckham delivers nicely - but my favourite British Asina film and one which IS representative for a seventies non-London generation both as a book and flick is Anita and Me.

    30. Jai — on 5th October, 2007 at 6:15 pm  

      try watching My Beautiful Laundeette as a 19 year old bloke back from college with your parents if you want to squirm a bit - East is east is a cakewalk

      “Sammie and Rosie Get Laid” (starring Shashi Kapoor, no less) was pretty embarrassing too, as was the television adaptation of “The Buddha of Suburbia”. Oh look, Hanif Kureishi was involved in both, surprise surprise. Not exactly flying the flag for your average stereotypically sheltered 2nd-gen Brit Asian dude who didn’t want to terrify his paranoid parents about what he was getting up to behind their backs whilst simultaneously trying to sample some of the more, er, liberal aspects of Western life without going to “extremes”.

      I don’t think we really had any positive (and relatively family-friendly) depictions in the British media at all until the whole Goodness Gracious Me era kicked off. “Cardiac Arrest” starring Ahsan Bhatti was pretty good, but not exactly watch-with-your-parents stuff.

    31. AsifB — on 5th October, 2007 at 6:23 pm  

      Jai - I think you’re basically right about GGM being v.v. significant - but to be fair to Kurehsi, everything he’s done since Laundrettee has usually been better (though Sammy and Roise was probably worse - but wins points for the politics plus I didn’t watch it with myparents.)

      I do rate Black Album the book and Bhudda being autobiographical as well worth a go - arguably his best stuff is his writing for Venus and the Mother - all very West Londony and poncey - but better than being a token.

    32. Haris — on 6th October, 2007 at 12:42 am  


      Interesting post, although I’m not quite sure I like the term “burden of representation”. To me the term seems to suggest we are on a one-way street – that the burden is placed on Muslims by some third party against their will. That is to say, the majority foists responsibility onto the minority, and in essence uses one individual as a gateway into a particular community.

      I don’t think this is fully the case, as in many cases Muslims themselves are complicit – Sarfraz himself admits so when he says he is happy to use the media to discuss Muslim issues. As previous posters have written, people like Saira Khan are happy to capitalise on their good fortune of being the representative flavour of the month to further their own careers.

      If you get a chance, I would recommend Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence”. Essentially, he argues that people have multiple identities which they use in different contexts. So, on a Saturday afternoon my most important identity might be that I’m a Man U supporter, but come Friday my Muslim identity is strongest. As a human being it is perfectly natural to have a composite identity. However, it is much harder for minorities to express these composite identities as the majority tends to focus on one particular identity to make their interaction with them easier. So the Muslim component of my identity becomes elevated to my be and end all – in essence it means the only way I can communicate to the majority is as a Muslim. I think this is where the burden element comes in. The complicity element comes in when people in the minority become lazy and allow the majority to only see them as having one identity and exploit it.

      Oh, and since everyone is discussing “representative films” – for pure entertainment value I really enjoyed Ae Fond Kiss a few years back by Ken Loach – yes, it’s the usual story of love across the divide, but I thought it was intelligently portrayed and actually seemed relevant to me.

    33. Desi Italiana — on 6th October, 2007 at 8:29 am  

      Kismet #22:

      I love you :)

      You don’t have a blog anymore? What’s up with the Facebook thing? I feel like I’m the only one without a Facebook page/account/whatever. I feel left out.

      “As a friend once put it “I’d rather be a token than unemployed”.

      Related thought: I know that recently, I got tokenized for being both brown and a woman. I don’t doubt that there weren’t other factors involved, but I know I was used for this. Being brown and a woman pretty much encapsulates the “marginalized,” or “underrepresented,” or “diversity” all around, which people seem very enthusiastic to market so as to make themselves appear welcoming “to all.”

      I felt exploited.

    34. Agog — on 6th October, 2007 at 8:40 am  

      Seeing as we’re onto a history of Brit-Asian flicks tip here can I recommend “Bhaji on the Beach”? It was about wimmin which is what I liked about it.

      Brown women (term of person above) used to be seen as exotic + “full of Eastern Promise” but I think since veil issue now are more usually perceived as oppressed and repressed with many Joe Public not able to distinguish between Muslim + non-Muslim.

    35. Ruby — on 6th October, 2007 at 3:19 pm  

      It’s interesting that Sarfraz Manzoor was there regarding issues of ‘Asian’ art and representation, and yet the first question he was asked was about being Muslim. It shows how completely the ‘Asian’ identity has been superseded in the mainstream mind by ‘Islam’, and the two identities have become erroneously fused.

    36. Ruby — on 6th October, 2007 at 3:38 pm  

      Haris’s comment above reflects this. He speaks only in terms of ‘Muslim representation’

      Is there any point any longer in even discussing things in terms of ‘Asian’, when doing so is seemingly meaningless because it marginalises Hindus and Sikhs in the discussion? Whilst AsifB has a genuine sense of an Asian identity, it seems that some people don’t even understand this.

    37. Arif — on 7th October, 2007 at 10:02 am  

      Just want to join in the “Hate East is East” group here. Not because it misrepresented Asians, it represented a point of view - but a point of view which is bigoted and judgmental, white people don’t have to like Bernard Manning, and I don’t like East is East.

      On representing Asians an Muslims, there is no way to avoid it when I am with people who have little contact with us, to be aware tht people will form opinions about us as a group by my actions as an individual. What I do will either challenge or confirm their stereotypes. And we all think in stereotypes to an extent.

      I guess that this can be a good thing if it makes us take the responsibility seriously and improve our behaviour out of awareness of its wider impacts. And it can be a bad thing if you want to be treated as an individual and feel that unless you have time to give people a lecture, their understanding you will probably result in misunderstanding your group.

      A film or an academic event is a bit like a lecture, when nuances can be brought out. The burden of representation in that context is just being careful. In real life it is hard to be so careful, and so sometimes people get the impression that Muslims are very pernickity and earnest by seeing how I act and connecting it to media representations of fundamentalism, while sometimes they get the impression we just want to be liberated and western if it weren’t for our families, if they meet a less uptight Muslim and then connect it to that hilarious “East is East” comedy with a serious message.

      Of course we aren’t monolithic, but people want to feel they can understand us in an easy way, rather than get bogged down in all our petty internal squabbles and dissecting what comes from culture, what comes from religion, what comes from family conditioning and what comes from personality. Let’s face it - we don’t routinely make such distinctions among non-Asian people, so we can’t expect others to know all about us, and so we either gently educate by taking on the burden of representation or make no effort to do so, and leaving people responsible for their own stereotyping.

    38. sonia — on 7th October, 2007 at 7:23 pm  

      i’m tired of this you’re brown/minority so you must represent the ‘minority group’ business.

      you’re interested in human rights so you must be a brown feminist.

      i get that sometimes - not too often thankfully - and its always been from other asians. the wider idea of representation permeates the ‘political’ sphere and its too often taken for granted.

    39. sonia — on 7th October, 2007 at 7:25 pm  

      as someone up there said..i represent me and no one else. and i dont think i represent me very well either ;-)

    40. sonia — on 7th October, 2007 at 7:26 pm  

      desi - 33 - i hear ya!

    41. Sunny — on 7th October, 2007 at 8:43 pm  

      Let’s face it - we don’t routinely make such distinctions among non-Asian people, so we can’t expect others to know all about us, and so we either gently educate by taking on the burden of representation or make no effort to do so, and leaving people responsible for their own stereotyping.

      Very true Arif.

      By the way, I loved East is East.

    42. fugstar — on 7th October, 2007 at 10:41 pm  

      I think people should write and broadcast on their strengths. If someone doesnt really know very much about religion they shouldnt touch it because they’ll mess it up. If youve got expertise, hone it. Faking it is the worst thing, in media, academia, worst of all religion.

      If you are a world class development economist, dont spoil it with feeble, effete identity essays.

      The minority industry is very lucrative and tempting though. Great salutations to everyone who has shunned it and gotten on with adding value.

      sarfraz manzoors book was a pleasant change from ‘Teds’. The guy really loves his family.

      Rupa apa,
      Don’t feel burdened, just do your own stuff and make your own categories. suppose its all about taste at the end of the day.

    43. rupahuq — on 8th October, 2007 at 1:32 pm  

      I guess one day there will be so many fictitious portrayals of Asians/Muslims whatever that there will be no need for the burden of representation to kick in but while we have a dearth of these things each one will be picked over for its “messages” and has potential to “educate”. I was never a huge Hanif Kureishi fan. A really funny article by Sukdev Sandhu here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n10/sand01_.html has him sitting down to watch “My Beautiful Landerette” with his folks with interesting consequences. I had a not dissmiliar experience myself. Incidentally Sarfraz Manzoor said he wanted to write his book because he felt he couldn’t identitify with HK’s glamorous Asians.

    44. sanjay sharma — on 8th October, 2007 at 1:50 pm  

      For what it’s worth, I wrote a review East is East: the pitfalls of hybridity

      Interestingly, even though I didn’t say it in the review, the observational comedy of EE is superb in places, it’s just that as with much ethnicized humour, how it may get read amongst differing audiences is often ambiguous. Such is the contested politics of racialized representation. What’s more interesting is to consider in what ways such discourses play themselves out in the public domain.

      The identity markers of Asian or Muslim will always - in a racialized society - ascribe certain characteristics onto our bodies. Whether this gets reduced to ‘burden of representation’ doesn’t always have to be the case though.

    45. AsifB — on 8th October, 2007 at 5:20 pm  

      I agree with Fugstar that everyone should follow their own paths: the “burden” is clearly that it doesn’t matter that Sarfraz would rather write about Bruce and Rupa would rather be spinning (Labour and DJ;) they will be perceived by others as ‘representatives.’ And this does matter because media has a disproportionate power to influence irresponsibly -which is why Picklers take an interest in their works….

      On the other hand, people who judge entire groups based on indiviudals are wrong in principle aren’t they?

      I’m glad Fugstar highlights the positive family lessons in Sarfraz’s book - its been far too often that I’ve had to disagree with people who say so and so (usually Sarfraz or Konnie) isn’t a proper ‘Pakistani/Bangladeshi’ etc

      The problem here is both people ‘from within communities’ who want to ‘restrict identity’ and people from outside who want to stereotype.

      While I welcome Sarfraz and Rupa criticising Kureshi and East is east on merit , I’m wary of any arguments phrased in terms of cultural sensitivity and embarrassment - because for me the bigger risk is that this may help those from ‘within communities’ who want to restrict and control what is or is not acceptable.
      (eg; over Brick Lane) - say you don’t like X by all means, but don’t encourage censorial tendancies, encourage creativity instead. And support the stuff you do like whether popular like GGM or underapprecaited like Wild West or Cardiac Arrest.

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