I always imagined I’d be well-equipped for my 20s: partying, meeting new people, traveling, the works. I’m slowly learning that not knowing what the hell you’re doing is part and parcel of life, but the pandemic shattered my coming-of-age fantasy. Like everyone else, I tried biding my time in lockdown with Zoom quizzes and baking banana bread — but to no avail. Instead I found comfort in the unusual and immersed myself in my one true love: alternative culture, specifically emo.
I finally had the time to nurture my obsession with music and all things dark and spooky, which became a form of self-expression at a time when many of us felt like we’d lost a large part of our identity. But as I leaned into alternative culture, I unearthed a deep history of cultural appropriation, specifically how traditions — such as clothes, makeup, and jewelry — are often taken over by the alt community. This stirred something in me, which would later help me to appreciate and protect my Indian heritage in a totally unexpected way.
I felt like a cultural cop-out. I wasn’t Indian enough because I was mixed race; I was scared to embrace my culture openly. I was into alternative beauty, fashion, and music — a landscape where desi people are a rarity.
My father migrated from India to the UK in the late ‘60s and met my bright-eyed, pale-skinned Welsh mother in the ‘80s. They had three little brown babies. To most people, it’s glaringly obvious that I’m of South Asian descent as I have almost all of my father’s features: curly dark hair, large nose, deep complexion, and almond eyes. I’m a desi baby through and through. But I’ve always been told I “don’t look South Asian.” Why? Because I never wore traditional jewelry and clothing or spoke Punjabi and, perhaps most tellingly of all, because I love alternative fashion and beauty: colorful hair, bold eye makeup, tattoos, and clothes encapsulating my alt style.
I have never been ashamed of my South Asian heritage — and I never will — but I admit to being afraid to flaunt it, given my father’s experience. The word “struggle” doesn’t go far enough to describe the inhumane treatment he endured. His youth was consumed by “P*ki-bashing,” whereby South Asians would be chased home, beaten up, have their belongings stolen, and, in some cases, murdered. As a budding engineer in his teens and early 20s, he would push himself to exhaustion in an effort to prove his worth to white British colleagues, and was routinely turned down at interviews due to his skin color. He’s always been a proud Indian man but, like many immigrants who moved here during an intensely patriotic era and have fought ever since to be considered more than second-class citizens, it was instilled in our family to prioritize British culture above our own. It’s a means of survival. For years I experienced a brewing internal conflict. I felt like a cultural cop-out. I wasn’t Indian enough because I was mixed race; I was scared to embrace my culture openly. I was into alternative beauty, fashion, and music — a landscape where desi people are a rarity.
I thought, If people can get thousands of likes for draping themselves in my culture in the wrong ways, I might as well show them how it’s done.
Almost a decade since I bought my first Pierce The Veil T-shirt and started straightening and swooping my emo fringe, it’s fair to say that alternative culture has been a comfort to me. During my teenage years, it was easier to express my emotions by screaming along to My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not Okay” than to talk about them. And despite the South Asian stereotype of strict helicopter parenting that dictates how you look and what you do, my dad has come to appreciate and celebrate my interest in alternative culture, specifically my fashion and beauty choices. The reason I have felt dissociated from my Indian heritage actually comes from the idea that alternative culture is a “white people thing.”
I’m so frustrated by this notion and have written about it many times previously, in particular the focus on poker-straight, flippy Caucasian hair and pale features. Rock music originates with Black musicians in the 1920s, and there’s no handbook that says being brown and alt are mutually exclusive. Yet any Google search or Pinterest scroll for “alternative girl” and “emo boy” is awash with white faces. It’s hard to imagine yourself in a space where you can’t be seen.
As I scrolled through these painfully pale hashtags, a dubious trend began to crop up. People were wearing “goth bindis” and “punk naths” (or nose rings). To me, these are simply traditional bindis and naths, appropriated with black spray paint and kitschy or spooky designs. It’s ironic that the alternative community — which preaches acceptance and embracing your differences — has an underbelly of culture-leeching and praising white beauty standards. It has become so deeply rooted in alternative ideology that it is essentially the norm. Of course, I want everyone to understand and appreciate Indian and South Asian fashion and beauty — but is it appreciation if it has been rebranded and its rich cultural history erased? It didn’t sit right with me to see all the things I was mocked for or forced to be ashamed of in the past become quirky trends. Granted, efforts are being made to eradicate this from alternative spaces moving forward, but rather than sit and seethe, I felt an overwhelming urge to start wearing all of these items in the correct way.
I thought, If people can get thousands of likes for draping themselves in my culture in the wrong ways, I might as well show them how it’s done. I started to make daily trips to the South Asian boutiques in my area to find accessories for my alternative outfits. The Asian ladies running the shops loved it, and I began to grow an audience on TikTok, where people appreciated how I incorporated my Indian culture into my alternative style. It started with creating desi versions of hair and makeup trends, such as bold, black, winged eyeliner for desi faces, which are barely represented in alternative beauty. Soon, I began to let my natural hair show and incorporated jewelry and traditional Indian clothing, like bindis or nath nose jewels, into my looks. This shows that I acknowledge and embrace my culture but I am not afraid to be different and express my alternative personality alongside it. Before, I felt as though I had to Westernize myself because that’s what my dad had to do when he moved here from India. Now, I feel empowered to reclaim my culture and wear these looks and items proudly.
On TikTok, #altdesi has amassed 3.8 million views and counting, and there are many content creators sharing alt desi makeup tutorials and generating alt beauty trends, from colorful brows to smoky eyeshadow looks to suit brown skin and eyes.
Many South Asian alternative people have reached out in the comments of my TikTok videos or via DM to express how happy they are to see people who look like them in the alternative space. This is all I could want. Moreover, we’ve fostered a community on TikTok: #altdesi has amassed 3.8 million views and counting, and there are many content creators sharing alt desi makeup tutorials and generating alt beauty trends, from colorful brows to smoky eyeshadow looks to suit brown skin and eyes. #Altpoc also has a whopping 73 million views, and across both hashtags you’ll find people embracing and celebrating their race and ethnicity alongside their alternative style and beauty choices. It serves as inspiration — and a reminder — to alternative people of color who may feel like they don’t fit in that we belong here as much as anyone else.
I may have deemed myself a cultural cop-out in the past, but over the last 18 months I’ve never felt more authentically myself. I’d always worried about leaning too heavily on my white heritage and discarding the other half of my identity that makes me whole. Coming into an online space — where I felt compelled to reclaim my culture through the way I look — has been an education. TikTok is a crucial part of this and I don’t think I’d be so comfortable with my cultural identity had I not discovered the app and found a community of people willing to embrace me rather than force me to change to fit warped and racist beauty ideals. Now, I explain the significance of jewelry such as naths and bindis and, in the process, come to appreciate wearing them more and more. Seeing other South Asian alternative creators like myself has helped to boost my confidence when I’ve felt hopeless and alone. I spend a lot of time researching aspects of my culture, too, ringing family members and asking questions to try and understand more.
As a child, all the things my family taught me about my mixed race identity washed over me; it always felt like a lecture. But I no longer take my Indian roots for granted. Through openly accepting myself and the way I want to look via my fashion and beauty choices, I have reclaimed my history and heritage — and it intersects perfectly with my alternative identity.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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