Aymen Sherwani saw a lack of recognition and representation of South Asians in mainstream media, but she chose to combat this by starting her own column, called Spill the Chai.
Spill the Chai is a regular feature in the U of C’s student paper, The Gauntlet, aimed at highlighting South Asian people and issues they face such as lack of diversity and role models in media, and divisions within the South Asian community itself.
“We should have media for South Asian people,” she says. “(Media) that uplifts us not just the one that is written in Urdu or written in Hindi.”
Sherwani explains that she noticed most of the local talent in the South Asian community does not seem to make it out of the condensed area of the northeast, so they all go mostly unrecognized.
“I started the column as a way to introduce South Asian creatives and South Asian issues that usually are under the radar on a more mainstream platform.”
Sherwani was surprised by the amount of traction and feedback the column received when it first started in October of 2019. The number of people of all races and religions that were reading the column was very unexpected to her, as she did not realize so many would be interested in the ins and outs of what South Asian people do.
“[All South Asians] are considered homogeneous apparently in mainstream culture,” she says, “although that’s obviously incorrect.”
She goes on to explain that even though these assumptions are incorrect, the different cultures (Pakistani, Bengali, Sri Lankan, Arab, Indians…etc.) share many commonalities.
Sherwani says that in a way, the column provides a sense of solidarity and understanding to the community, combatting stereotypes and negative perceptions, attempting to unite the community that reads it.
“We’re better and stronger together, rather than being a cut-throat culture where everyone tears each other down.”
As part of Spill the Chai, Sherwani has interviewed many local South Asian talents and leaders. One of her favourite interviews was with Harbir Kaur. Kaur is one of many Sikh women challenging Western beauty standards and embracing her culture and religious identity.
Sherwani had nothing but praise for Kaur, who is an Amritdhari Sikh Woman, and holds very conservative values; she wears a turban, doesn’t cut her hair, she is vegetarian, and doesn’t drink or smoke.
“How she embraced her values as her own, I think that was really powerful,” Sherwani says. “Every brown girl struggles with body hair and loving yourself. I think it is an important message to send that your values come before beauty standards.”
Kaur was impressed by the amount of positive reactions she had from people after the article came out. She recalls having a fellow nursing student come up to her who complimented her despite having never spoken to one another before.
“I saw the positive reaction,” Kaur says. “I saw that people were finding interest, appreciating and learning something It made me really happy.”
“It just makes you feel like you matter, [and that] your voice is valuable enough to be heard,” Kaur says. “When you can see yourself on a screen, or in a book it really makes you feel like you have a place in this world.”
Kaur goes on to say that, while growing up, there were times she didn’t have that strong sense of belonging, so to see herself represented in the media makes her feel seen and understood.
Aysha Ikram is a Pakistani Muslim Canadian and a reader of Spill The Chai. She strongly believes in the importance of accurate representation in mainstream media, which is why she enjoys the column.
“I’ve learned to fall in love with my culture,” Ikram says. “The partial credit for this would definitely have to go to the increase of South Asian representation in the mainstream media.”
Sherwani hopes to continue the column, as it is one of her passions, but part of her hopes that in a few years there won’t be a need for diversity columns.
“[I hope] we won’t need things like the BET (Black Entertainment Television) awards or something that specifically segregates minorities and segregates people of colour to specifically showcase their talents.”
Sherwani, Kaur and Ikram agree that they have noticed a shift in representation from the past decade to the present. Seeing faces like Hassan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani and other South Asian people in the media is changing the way South Asians are perceived. The three all have a strong sense of hope for the future of representation in media.