A recent article by Allure, profiling TikTok creator Seerat Saini has sparked many critical conversations on social media about the role of the South Asian diaspora influencers.
Many of you have probably seen Seerat’s videos pop-up on Instagram or TikTok. Her content mimics that of many South Asian creators in the diaspora lifestyle-influencer space—dancing in lenghas, reclaiming traditional clothing, joking about desi parents and posting ample “glow-up” videos.
Once Seerat was on my TikTok FYP, it felt like I would see her every time I opened the app. In all honesty, I recognized that her work was falling into many brown influencer tropes, like the portrayal of an obfuscated, privileged perception of what it means to be brown. This was a kind of brownness that strives for that perfect mix of displaying a palatable racialized experience for entertainment while still maintaining a proximity to whiteness. While it’s definitely cringe, when I’m scrolling on TikTok, I don’t think it’s that deep—it doesn’t particularly bother me.
The controversy, however, came when an article in Allure suggested in their title that, “Seerat Saini is Decolonizing Desi Beauty, One Instagram at a Time”. This was an assertion that many have problematized on social media.
TikTok creator Henna, who goes by @henna_speaks, posted videos outlining her criticism of the use of the term “decolonization” to describe Seerat’s content. In one video, she addressed how the article suggested that Seerat’s work empowers South Asian women to embrace their features—which is blatantly contradicted by the series of glow-up videos that she posts on her account.
These glow-up videos are a very popular, sickening trend on BrownTok. People find pictures of their pubescent selves, often with more facial hair, and in Seerat’s case, pictures where her skin looks darker. She then contrasts it to how beautiful she looks now in comparison, now that she has lighter skin, has removed her facial hair and grown into a woman. In her glow-up video, Seerat suggests that through “decolonizing her mind” she was able to grow to love her appearance— an appearance which now fits better within eurocentric beauty standards.
Henna’s main critique is the use of the term “decolonize” itself by many South Asian diaspora influencers, including Seerat. While Seerat may have occasionally used this term in her content, it was ultimately Allure who sought to describe Seerat’s work in that way.
So it begs the question, do we (particularly those of us in the diaspora) really understand what decolonization means? Do we understand what decolonization should look like?
Simply being of Indian-descent, a country that was once colonized by the British, does not make you an arbiter of South Asian culture. It does not make you an expert on coloniality or decolonization.
In a follow-up video, Henna discussed how decolonization is complex and has many different layers to it.
“Obviously embracing our culture, our clothes, our food, our tradition is a part of decolonizing,” she says. But to suggest that decolonization is as simple as an Instagram post wearing a bindi or posting a tutorial for a haldi face mask is extremely reductive. It fits into a culture of mango-and-chai-tea activism.
People are willing to fight tooth and nail for white people to understand that naan bread is just saying “bread-bread”, but wouldn’t dream of discussing ongoing violence or human rights injustices happening in their home countries, let alone their own complicity in ongoing anti-Indigenous violence.
Instead, many influencers choose to appeal to whiteness through their content, often reducing their culture to a spectacle. We watch as they meticulously curate a version of their culture that is palatable to white people.
This isn’t “decolonization”.
Instead, I think for many influencers, the word “decolonize” is often conflated with deconstructing one’s own internalized racism imposed by colonial structures. Internalized racism is absolutely a symptom of colonialism. But unpacking that does not mean we have fully engaged with or understand decolonization as a practice.
Decolonization points to something much deeper than that.
As a student and a second-generation settler myself, I’m always learning more about what decolonization means.
My first real interaction with the term came from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, a piece that comes up again and again in my Sociology classes. When I first read this essential text, I realized I previously had an entirely different understanding of the term.
The authors point to the dangers of treating decolonization as simply an idea—a word that floats in the air. Decolonization means the repatriation of Indigenous land and ways of life. The idea of decolonizing one’s mind may absolve settlers of their responsibility to commit to decolonization as a lifelong practice.
I would in fact further explain that decolonization is a violent process, where revolution is required to restore systems of self-determination that are violently eradicated by the colonial state, as argued by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. This process is often erased from discussions of decolonization, but is key in understanding what is truly required to deconstruct systems of oppression.
It may give settlers the false notion that decolonizing your own mind is enough—that it’s enough activism for today.
To be clear, I don’t think all influencers have to be activists. I don’t even think most influencers should be activists. I also don’t have an issue with influencers who want to shake their ass in a lengha and tell us what makeup works for them.
I do however, take issue with how influencing gets sensationalized as accomplishing more for our communities than it is capable of.
Though as an adult I take what influencers say with a grain of salt, there is something to be said about the impact influencers have on young people who are building their perception of self. In all honesty, as a girl who grew up obsessing over beauty and lifestyle YouTubers and Instagrammers, it would have been cool to see more brown people popping on social media. To have seen someone who has built a platform around embracing their culture and the features of brown women that were considered ugly, could have truly been transformative for my own understanding of beauty.
As the audience, we too must push ourselves to seek information on decolonization and activism from more sources outside of TikTok. We are inclined to stick to social media out of convenience, but the real work is happening beyond the confines of TikTok and Instagram.
In her last video on the matter, Henna touches on where we can engage with these concepts in a more meaningful way.
“If you want to learn more about your identity and the issues that all communities face and how to combat them in the world, go to writers and educators and activists.”
I’m thinking here of foundational texts on colonization like The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, in addition to contemporary academics activists who explore the nuance of coloniality and resurgence movements such as Leanne Simpson, and Winona LaDuke.
Most importantly, it’s crucial that we look to the Indigenous resistance movements around us, which is perhaps the strongest indicator of decolonization. Sites of resistance such as the ongoing resistance in protection of the old growth forest at Fairy Creek, Wet’suwet’en land defending protests and Idle No More, an Indigenous-led social movement that seeks to fulfill Indigenous sovereignty through public education and direct action.
I think too of more localized sites of resistance like the group of Indigenous youth who occupied the lobby of one of the 11 insurers of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project. While some youth sat inside the building, others stood outside entrances and hung red dresses which act as a symbol for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
It is in these spaces we see true signs of decolonization in action, not within the watered down, one-dimensional understanding provided by lifestyle influencers.
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