Being A South Asian Creative In Traditionally White Spaces
It’s 6 pm on a summer evening in 2017. We’re still in the office, and my palms are sweating. The Head of Design is on us about creating more — on top of our regular workload. She turns to me amongst all the other junior creatives at the agency and asks, “Where do you think the world of advertising is heading?” Hesitantly, I speak my truth to one of the most decorated white women in the industry.
“Knowing this upcoming generation, I think brands will need to take a stance on social issues. That’s what people my age want to see anyways. I think we know how messed up this world is and that corporations have the money to fight the huge systemic problems that we will face in our lifetime.”
In her long black overcoat and stylish, geometric glasses, she looked me in the eyes and said in front of the other juniors, “I don’t think brands need to talk about social issues. That’s just not a brand’s place.”
While I’m paraphrasing the actual words used, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation. Not because 2020 proved her wrong, but more importantly, how invisible and inauthentic I felt throughout my time there — especially from that point onwards.
I know I’m not the only one to experience intense “imposter syndrome” in creative spaces explicitly designed to uphold the privilege and perspectives of white folx. In fact, the systemic bias and gaslighting in these spaces have pushed highly qualified BIPOC professionals to leave the industry for years.
In the first-of-its-kind Canadian study of BIPOC in Marketing and Advertising, POCAM found that over 56% of overall respondents had less than ten years of experience and only 10% of respondents held Management/Executive positions.
Though South Asians made up about 35% of the respondents, this study revealed that BIPOC creatives are in a cycle of entering the industry and moving on to a different path because they don’t see themselves represented in leadership. Moreover, they struggle to find adequate mentorship and sponsorship, which is crucial for their career progression.
Quite frankly, the longer South Asians stay in creative spaces not designed to include us, the more they dim the creative light within us.
The consequences of fine tuning your craft and strategic thinking in these environments are career-altering. When systemic bias and gaslighting are coupled with the traumas perpetuated by the guilt and shame culture prevalent in South Asian communities, it creates a recipe for serious self-doubt, perfectionism and inevitable burnout, no matter how talented or intelligent you are.
The problem stems from the outer pipelines into the industry as well. Aside from brown parenting typically undermining arts degrees, post-secondary arts programs have favoured applicants who already have a grasp on euro-centric art forms and often come from wealthy households. In a 2017 study, the Ontario Institute For Studies In Education found that students in specialized arts schools in Toronto are more than twice as likely to be white (67%), with more than half (56.7%) from families representing the top three highest income deciles. This bias also feeds into the pipeline of future faculty and whether art from non-eurocentric backgrounds is considered worth teaching. Meaning if all your professors are white, you will likely be unequivocally exposed to more eurocentric practices and techniques.
As a Canadian-Bangladeshi studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU), I learned a lot about Walter Gropius’s legacy (Bauhaus) and nothing about Rabindranath Tagore’s. Even though I know that Bangladeshi culture is rich with arts from poetry to painting, pottery, singing, dancing and everything in between, unfortunately, the professionals around me at the time didn’t.
Reflecting now, the whitewashing of arts programs and spaces is not something I could’ve fully been aware of — mainly because I was born and raised in Canada.
The mask that helped me glide my way through white spaces was created years before I even considered applying to OCAD.
After working many late nights and weekends and using a cultural mask to seamlessly fit into white-dominant spaces (where leadership was not equipped to mentor culturally diverse creatives), I now consider whether a company’s culture is a good fit for me. Because the truth is, I’m not an imposter in western art and design spaces. I’ve studied history, learned the processes, adapted to stay on top of their culture’s changing needs, and even created an internal and external mask just to get my foot in the door. But white folx in art and design have yet to do the same for South Asians and other cultures that are alive and thriving all over the Greater Toronto Area.
We need more South Asian creatives in white spaces to hold the door open until we see ourselves in leadership positions.
Recently the movement to decolonize arts institutions has been on the rise, but we are a long way from systemic change if we don’t start with ourselves.
As part of the work required to decolonize our minds, South Asians should actively reject the shame and guilt culture that keeps us in competition with one another. When we dismiss creative careers as viable paths, we limit the reach of our unique stories and allow others to tell them for us. Instead, we could adopt a mentality of risk-taking and offer a hand up to each other as we grow.
As people of colour and diaspora, it’s incredibly enriching to explore our cultural art histories. Art and design studies provide an emotional context for the waves that came before us. They offer a reflection of life as it were, from pre-colonial times to independence wars and even the minutiae stories that ripple effect right through our family trees. We deserve to reclaim the heritage that we were taught to push aside.
To anyone reading this who wants to pursue a career in art and design, I’ll leave you with this: keep pushing because no dreams are too far to reach. Give yourself permission to think creatively, even if the voice in your head tries to stop you. Hopefully, you’ll find someone who looks like you, so you don’t have to face the “imposter syndrome” alone. The creative realm needs more of us to create systems of support for future South Asian creatives - every single creative counts. Above all else, just know you will find your footing and when you do, I hope you decide to be the person you wish you had for the next generation of South Asian creatives to come.
Images from OCAD university, Nisha K. Sethi, Shankara Ragaputra of Megh Raga, Nobel Prize Organization, Zainul Abedin