South Asian Americans are navigating the fine line between sharing funny videos and perpetuating stereotypes.Natasha Roy
When 19-year-old Melvin Thanath first downloaded TikTok, he figured that it would just be another source of entertainment. But when he saw other South Asians post videos about their heritage, he felt inspired to make one himself. Last September, Thanath, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, posted a TikTok of himself saying “McChicken” in an Indian accent, and it went viral — gaining nearly 19,000 likes and over 170,000 views.
“I had no idea that there was a whole desi community on TikTok, and I saw there’s so much funny content, creative content, and it was just something that I really admired,” said Thanath (@malluvin, 44,400 followers). “I did it for fun at first, but then I saw I gained a pretty big following and people really enjoy my videos, so I kept making them.”
The world’s biggest TikTok stars have over 60 million followers. At least 13 of the top 40 accounts are by Indians — India is TikTok’s largest market with over 200 million users and videos hashtagged #desi garner more than 16 billion total views. But who are the South Asian Americans on TikTok? They tend to create TikToks about everything from their upbringings to intercultural relationships to systemic racism to showing brown girls running to their eyebrow technician after quarantine. They rope their parents into dance challenges and debate the saddest Bollywood movies. Some are funny, others serious, and like any other social media platform, the app can be divisive — especially as South Asian Americans navigate the fine line between sharing their heritage and perpetuating stereotypes.
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, was first available in the United States in 2018: now, of its 800 million active global users, it has more than 30 million American users — at least 60 percent of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24. Users can share 15- to 60-second-long videos on the app, and can navigate between a home screen that shows videos from accounts they follow and a curated “For You” page that tailors content for each user.
Viral stars such as Charli D’Amelio (64.1 million followers), Addison Rae (46.2 million followers), and Chase Hudson (21.4 million followers) — who regularly attract millions of views and have even inked brand deals — may come to mind when people mention TikTok. But the South Asian diaspora on TikTok is on the rise.
“There’s so much support for us showcasing our culture and creating a community that’s so tight-knit on such an expansive platform that a lot of it’s been received really well,” said Anisha Cheema (@anishapovs, 6,848 followers), 22, who posts videos showcasing her acting.
In one of Cheema’s more popular videos, she shows photos of herself on the set of To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (2020) — in which she played a character’s girlfriend on Valentine’s Day — while a voiceover says, “Aye yo, I had a small part in a famous movie, check.” She’s noticed solidarity and support among South Asian users, and she even joined a group chat of 20 other South Asians TikTokers called “Desi Hype House.”
Other TikTokers might not be Hollywood actors — yet — but are using the platform to gain fame.
Sven Hegde (@svenhegde, 29,700 followers), 21, puts out humorous videos, ranging from a ranking of Indian sweets to impersonations of people from The Last Dance. He wants to go into the film and television industry and hopes to get sponsorships and even TV roles.
“The general idea is that it’s hard for South Asians to make it,” Hegde said. “But I feel like if you make good content and you’re consistent with it — and you don’t listen to the critiques and all that stuff — then you can do something with it.”
Twin sisters Kiran and Nivi (@kiranandnivi, 60,000 followers), who requested their last names not be used, post covers of popular songs, including Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” as well as humorous TikToks — such as when Kiran pretends to hurt Nivi and their mother believes it.
“We started to get a lot of support from the Asian community, South Asian community,” Nivi said. “They just felt like they were part of us.”
Another sibling account, the Jikaria Sisters (@jikariasisters, 405,000 followers), put out dance videos that regularly gain hundreds of thousands of views. The three have trained in several dance styles, including Bharatanatyam, Latin, and hip hop, and incorporate them into their choreography. Rishika Jikaria, 22, said they initially put South Asian twists on popular TikTok dance trends — like when Rishika and Aashika Jikaria, 20, added dandiya sticks to the “Oh Na Na” dance challenge. Now, other South Asians are replicating their videos and tagging the sisters.
“People really liked seeing us engage with our Gujarati identities and they were commenting that, so I think that kind of was the point where we realized, ‘Okay, if we’re going to move forward with posting on TikTok, let’s try to engage with our identities more,’” Rishika Jikaria said.
Radhika Gajjala, a media and communication professor at Bowling Green State University, said that when people come to a new place, they seek like-minded people. Platforms like TikTok also allow people to be “prosumers” — producers and consumers — of content.
“Now in the COVID situation, where worldwide, at least the middle classes are sitting at home and working, we’re also trying to find our leisure online,” Gajjala said. “Things that we produce for each other, these are our way of expressing ourselves, but also expressing community.”
“Social media provides them with a community that helps them navigate at least both these identities, of being an Indian by heritage and American by birth,” Tarishi Verma, a doctoral candidate at Bowling Green State University, said. “They find people dealing with similar issues and can get together to joke about it.”
Romy and Taz Chowdhury (@that_brown_couple, 10,800 followers), a Bangladeshi American and Bangladeshi Australian married couple who live in New York City, often post about their relationship and heritage. They originally started sharing on Instagram, but then joined TikTok a few months ago. Romy Chowdhury said they have noticed people both from the subcontinent and diaspora comment on their videos.
“We do want to try and kind of not change their mind, but try and inspire them to...be proud of your culture,” Romy Chowdhury said.
Morgan and Pratish Patel (@hinjewcouple, 15,200 followers) often post about their intercultural relationship — she’s Jewish, he’s Hindu. One viral TikTok shows photos and videos of Morgan with Pratish’s family along with the text, “I wasn’t only marrying my husband on this day…” — implying that she was also marrying the entire family. The Patels said that they have had other couples reach out to them, too.
“It’s comforting to know that people can at least relate to the situation and find some type of hope...it was taxing to get to where we are today,” Pratish Patel said.
BuzzFeed creative producer and TikToker Swasti Shukla (@iamswastishukla, 138,800 followers) pointed out that since many South Asian TikToks are rooted in shared experiences, viewers tag their friends and bond over similar struggles. Shukla, 31, found TikTok was a place where she could be herself compared to other platforms, such as Instagram.
“On Instagram, it’s all curated, perfect photos and you have your filter, but TikTok was beyond that,” Shukla said. “Here, I can be who I actually am and I can have fun on this app, and people will appreciate that.”
While Shukla makes universally relatable TikToks depicting things like her laundry-folding skills (or lack thereof), she also portrays more culturally focused videos, such as the “stages of discomfort during pooja,” humorously readjusting her position, snapping back into prayer when she sees her parents glaring at her, and falling asleep after hours of praying.
“I feel like the community on TikTok, especially the South Asian community, they’re pretty uplifting,” Shukla said, adding that people from India also comment on her videos.
But content about Brown culture isn’t without its critics.
Rishi Madnani (@rish.dog, 46,000 followers) had been putting out a mixture of videos — including about South Asians — but he quickly became known for “Dear Brown People,” in which he called out Brown TikTok creators for allowing non-South Asians to make fun of their culture and for doing it themselves — including jokes about smelling like curry or mocking parents’ accents. He also addresses social issues, such as racism.
“Even if you’re not doing it actively, I’ve seen you in the comments on these white people making fun of us, talking about ‘I’m Brown and this content is funny. I approve of this,’” Madnani, 18, said in the video. “It’s not f—ing okay, bro. Like, you’re making a joke out of our own people.”
Madnani told The Juggernaut that he loves relatable content, but it’s clear when videos perpetuate stereotypes. When he made the first “Dear Brown People” TikTok, he had seen two white people mocking South Asian accents and showing an Indian parent beating their child. He scrolled to the comments and saw Brown users saying that they thought it was funny.
“I kind of just snapped that one day, and then I dropped that video,” Madnani said. “When I see something I feel the need to speak about, I speak about it.”
That line between perpetuating stereotypes and sharing one’s culture is complicated.
Kushaan Shah, 27, follows many Brown TikTokers and gets excited when he sees them on his For You page. He said that a majority of South Asian creators he follows are versatile and that someone stereotyping the culture once or twice doesn’t bother him.
“I think it is funny,” Shah said. “I’ve always found, regardless of whether I can connect with an experience myself, being South Asian, I always know at least one or two people that can connect with that experience.”
Shukla pointed out that there is a difference between people exaggerating an accent to make fun of it and using it to portray their own upbringings. “If you are presenting a true narrative for how you grew up without poking fun at your culture, it’s way different than...people who will actively...[look] for acceptance from white people,” Shukla said.
Madnani’s videos have struck a chord outside the TikTok community. In May, he posted “Dear Brown Conservatives,” in which he said conservative South Asian beliefs about racial issues have been “fooled by the model minority myth.”
“Black Americans were not introduced to this society on the basis of education,” Madnani said in the video. “They were brought in as slaves, as property. And then they were lynched, and they were segregated against, and forced into ghettos, and knocked out of jobs...South Asians face ignorance, casual racism, hate crimes — but we have never in American history been systematically dehumanized and oppressed in the way that Black people have.”
Actors Niecy Nash and Poorna Jagannathan both lauded and shared Madnani’s video on Instagram. But while Madnani is happy the message has spread, he also received pushback. “Buddy, just because we classify as ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ does not mean we support oppression or discrimination. Learn to respect others’ beliefs,” one user commented. Madnani replied: “And why would I ever respect a belief that ignores and perpetuates the systemic dehumanization of others?”
But Madnani said he doesn’t love the attention, and that he’s thinking about quitting TikTok.
“It feels like, nowadays, I live in social media, and then when I put my phone down, I’m just kind of trying to get back to my phone,” Madnani said. “I just don’t want to let myself lose touch with the present reality.”
Still, Madnani finds himself going back to TikTok because it provides a community that he didn’t have growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, or even in school or college.
“[TikTok] provided me with an actual community, when I’ve never had one with my own people,” Madnani said. “It feels so good to finally have people I can relate to and connect with.”
Natasha Roy is an Indian American freelance journalist who has reported from Atlanta, New York, and Ghana. She covers Asian American communities and public education, and has written for several publications, including NBC News and Inc. Magazine.
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