SFU lecture series starts conversation on South Asian stereotypes

This year SFU’s department of history’s annual lecture series will focus on Canada’s 150th birthday. As a part of the lecture series, historian and professor Bidisha Ray will be moderating a panel discussion on South Asian stereotypes titled Life isn’t all Bhangra and Butter Chicken! Deconstructing BC’s Punjabi-Canadian Culture.

Guest speakers will include: Balbir Gurm, faculty member at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and activist; Mo Dhaliwal, entrepreneur and founder of the Vancouver International Bhangra Society; Shushma Datt, the first female Indian radio journalist and head of Spice Radio.

The panel discussion, slated for Nov. 16, will be semi-structured and allow for audience participation.

“It’s going to be a very fun conversation that has to do with life stories and funny anecdotes and also touching upon the depth of the issue itself and the tensions related to being a hyphenated identity in Canada,” says Ray.

Discovering identity

Ray completed her Ph.D. in history at the University of Manchester after completing her undergrad in political science, a MA in international relations and a M.Sc. in gender and development. She currently teaches modern South Asian history at SFU. As she went through her studies, Ray discovered that history was what connected all of her interests.

“I wanted to find out how things have come to be how they are, and looking at changes over time helped me understand myself and my own place in the world.” says Ray.

In terms of having a hyphenated identity, Ray says that everyone has their own preference as to whether they would like to be referred to as Indo-Canadian, Punjabi-Canadian or simply Canadian or Punjabi.

South Asian culture is more than just bhangra. Photo by Anthony, Flickr

South Asian culture is more than just bhangra. Photo by Anthony, Flickr

“Some people who believe their origins need to be highlighted in their identity, some believe that they have grown up here and identify as Canadian,” says Ray. “I believe there’s also a third piece, people who would like to only be called Punjabi and feel that citizenship is a matter of choice, a passport is not who you are.”

Mistaken identity

Ray says that Punjabi Canadians in particular have been victim to a wide variety of stereotypes and some are also historically accurate.

“Living in BC, everyone assumes I’m Punjabi!” says Ray, who is from the state of West Bengal.

According to Ray, Punjab is one of 36 provinces in India and stereotypes of all South Asians have been minimized to just Indians and further minimized as to being just Punjabi people.

“People have a tendency to reduce people to a lazy stereotype whether they are Chinese, Indigenous or European,” says Ray. “Sometimes it’s very interesting to see what images they associate with different communities.”

However, despite the fact that some stereotypes such as ‘all Indians like to eat butter chicken and dance Bhangra’ may seem harmless and inoffensive, this reduces the person to their food and dance choices and is a display of cultural arrogance for the person insinuating these stereotypes.

“We have to understand that this causes aggravation to people in the community who have been working hard to keep the diversity of their culture alive and assimilate positively in Canada,” says Ray. “If they have put in effort to learn the nuances of broadly speaking ‘white’ culture, then the same respect can be rightfully expected but doesn’t always happen.”

While not everyone from a seemingly homogenous community will share the same experiences, it is important to recognize and celebrate differences.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a positive or negative stereotype. If there’s no thought or respect, it’s negative,” says Ray.

Although having one discussion will not be enough to deconstruct all the stereotypes, Ray hopes that, with the audience’s participation, a wider conclusion can be drawn about what it means to be a hyphenated identity.

For more information, please visit: www.sfu.ca/history/events/lectures/canada-150/bidisha-ray-panel-canada-150.html