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Representation Matters!

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

"It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my brown skin and my Indian identity. To be honest, there are still days it can be a struggle."

Pam Dosanjh Phillips shares her story with Black Voices Cornwall

The theme of South Asian History Month 2023, (18 July - 17 Aug) is "Stories To Tell" -celebrating the stories that make up the individual cultural experiences of the diverse and vibrant wider South Asian community. The chair of our trustees board, Pam Dosanjh Phillips shared her story with us in honour of the occasion:

"I'm a British born Punjabi Sikh, from a working-class background and I grew up as one of the only Indian families in my neighbourhood during the 80s and 90s.

My surname on my passport was ‘Kaur’ and not my family name ‘Dosanjh’ because my mum thought it would be easier when I got married and became ‘Mrs Kaur’. Yes, from the day I was born, because I was a girl, the only future my parents could see for me was one of a wife and mother (example of the influence patriarchy right there). To be honest, the British education system didn't have any higher expectations for me either.

Despite this, by the time I was 11 I had my own dreams of becoming a lawyer to help others. I don't know where this desire came from, I didn't have any lawyers in my family; they are largely working class with a few who worked hard to become small business owners. No one in previous generations had gone to university, and there was definitely no representation in the media, and no one thought I was the one that may break that tradition.

Pam attended De Montfort University, qualifying with honours

You see, I was extremely timid (due to some childhood trauma), I had little or no social skills, and didn't feel like I really belonged anywhere, all of this made me extremely insecure. I was happy to hide in the shadows, had many hurdles to overcome, constantly doubting myself and was embarrassed of standing out for being different (by that I mean Indian). I never heard anything positive being said about the Indian culture, also there were not any positive representations in the media (our only way to connect with the outside world at that time). I was stared at when walking to the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) on a Sunday in my Punjabi suit, always wore my hair in an unfashionable oiled-slicked long plait, probably smelled of curry, I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends after school or play football or join the karate class like the other local kids. And yes, I was called the ‘P word’ many times. All of this made me uncomfortable with my identity.

A march for justice for the Bradford 12 in 1982 (Pic: John Sturrock)

The change started to come, albeit slowly, when I became friends with my lifelong best friends in 6th Form, then later my university and work friends. I started to learn about different South Asian cultures from friends from different Sikh castes and different religions (Gujarati/Hindu/Muslim/Christian). See, I needed representation, to find myself and flourish.

Over the last two decades there is a little more representation on TV. Initially I was happy to see the black and brown faces on TV, even if it was in the stereotypical depictions of the Indian wife, the criminals or the thugs that did not resonate with me or reflect what I had seen or experienced. Recently things are starting to get a little better. It is inspiring seeing more representation with newsreaders, TV presenters, actors and politicians reflecting diverse political perspectives, a wide spectrum of personalities and values. However, things have so much further to go, because like you, I witness the backlash that inevitably follows when a minority actor is cast in a role that audiences do not expect to be anything other than the industry default of white.

There was very little representation for the Punjabi community during the 80s and 90s

In some ways, it seems that I followed the traditional Indian path of becoming a lawyer and looking after my family. However, my journey to the place where I can proudly say that I am a successful lawyer and proud Punjabi Sikh woman and married to my wonderful Cornish husband, has been like summit Mount Everest.

I have wanted to give up, and success always seemed out of my reach. Nevertheless, the world may have expected little from this shy young girl that really didn't that didn't

really fit in anywhere, but I succeeded anyway, and I will open the doors for those who come up behind me as wide as I possibly can.

To my sisters from all ethnicity’s cultures and backgrounds: there is not only one seat at the table, there is room for everyone to succeed, we just have to build a bigger table!

Pam Dosanjh Phillips x

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