For those wanting to challenge the status quo, even South Asian media spaces aren’t always inviting. It’s time to move past the “uncle’s club,” but how?

As someone who entered the media industry bright-eyed and full of optimism, the feeling certainly waned upon recognizing the reality of the world of journalism.

In the mainstream media, despite only briefly dipping my toes in the water, I felt I was always trying to translate my experiences, and trying to tell stories that pertained to my community, yet were understandable to non-brown audiences.

If I wanted to tell stories about Surrey, or about the South Asian community, there was always the risk of being accused of being impartial or biased, despite these stories being an extension of my lived experience.

I always felt like I was walking on egg-shells, not trying to be too much, because I would never be accepted in mainstream media. At least not as a young journalist with a loud mouth, who doesn’t back down from authority and wants to shake up the status quo.

But the same could be seen even in South Asian media outlets, where I felt that myself and many other female journalists and media personalities were in many cases up against the “uncle’s club”. The ‘club’ that gives powerful men the confidence to dominate media spaces, alter the stories told in these spaces, and determine who is given a seat at the table. 

Despite having an educational background in this industry, I knew I would walk into the rooms with these uncles and not be taken seriously -- either because of my age, my appearance, or my experience. 

It’s the same feeling of being at a family get-together with older uncles, who assume you don’t know what you’re talking about. The ones who shut you down when you try to join serious conversations, as those are reserved “for the men,” while women are relegated to other gendered spaces. 

It’s a way of upholding the patriarchal ways of thinking and lines of authority that already dominate many spaces within our community, and outside of it. This makes it even more difficult for those on the margins, who are excluded from important conversations, and told they don’t need to worry their pretty little heads about it. 

It reminds me of when I was only in high school, shadowing a South Asian media outlet when I was told by an older man that I should consider a “safer career, like nursing,” instead of pursuing a career in journalism. Despite being a reporter himself, he didn’t acknowledge my enthusiasm and passion for the industry, and told me I’d be better suited for a profession other than his own.

We also saw this line of thinking when MLA Rachna Singh was asked a sexist question during a debate. We see this in who owns many of the radio and television stations, and who is given space to have a platform within these outlets, given that it is mainly the older men in our community whose voices are given authority, while women are often relegated to “less serious” topics, shows, and conversations. 

Broadcasting pioneer Shushma Datt was one of the first South Asian female voices to carve out her own path, and wasn’t taken seriously by mainstream or South Asian media despite her extensive resume, while some male hosts and personalities are given their own shows for far, far less. 

Many years later, now a few years into my own career, I was given the albeit well-intentioned advice to “tone down” my social media, and the way I post about my personal life, in order to be taken seriously in the industry.

In either world, mainstream or South Asian, I was being taught to dilute my own identity and my voice. I was told to rid myself of what set me apart in order to be palatable and acceptable in the industry. 

If the entire purpose of journalism is to disrupt the status quo, then we can’t just be expected to toe the line and do things as they’ve always been done. 

But then I would read think pieces within the diaspora about turmeric and bindis that still were appealing to the western gaze and I would ask myself, where do we get to tell our stories without having to translate our voices and our experiences? Where are our voices not just valid, but unfiltered, honest, critical, and reflective?

Many in the diaspora likely have their own experiences with being “too brown” or “not brown enough,” but a lot of us haven’t ever been given space to navigate what our brownness means to us on our own terms -- for us, by us.

I think of the many narratives of Surrey and South Asians, where we are constantly being talked about, but never given a space to speak back to those narratives.

I also think often about how being given the opportunity to lead an online magazine -- as editor-in-chief at 25-years-old with a small but mighty team of many first-time and aspiring writers -- is an absolute anomaly.

But it shouldn’t be.

5X Press has been a place for me to contend with what my brown identity means to me, and to explore these conversations and intra-community dialogues through shared experiences and understanding.

It's a place to both teach and learn, a place for connection, community, and difficult conversations. A place to make our own connections to the culture, not through our parents or through what’s passed down to us, but organic connections that we too can pass forward and take pride in.

It’s a reminder that there is an audience for this, and that members of the South Asian diaspora want to be able to connect with their culture, and to each other, and these voices are valuable in and of themselves.

But if it is time to move past the “uncle’s club” in South Asian media, where do we start? 

I’m glad you asked. 

On November 16 join us for a conversation between journalists and communications scholars about representation, disruption, changing the narrative, and storytelling in the South Asian community. 

We'll be shining light on some of the challenges and opportunities of our first 2 years running 5X Press, as we re-launch Canada’s only South Asian youth magazine.

At this event, panelists will talk about how spaces for the diaspora, including 5X Press, are often starting points to get conversations into the mainstream media. They will unpack how to move past the “bindis and turmeric” levels of representation to meaningfully challenge the status quo.

How do we get there?

Register here to find out.

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.