Before living in Mumbai for a month, I thought that I’d known all there was to know about the lack of diversity in mainstream American media. I thought wrong. I’d traveled to many countries before making my way to India, but my experience there was different on a level that was both frustrating and enlightening.

In my experience, I realized that many Indians I encountered didn’t believe that black people don’t live in America — although, black people (slaves) built America. If you don’t believe me, fly to India, tell someone that you’re from America and take note of their reaction. But this belief stems largely from the actions of America itself, specifically of Hollywood.

I went to Mumbai to learn about and work in Bollywood, the famous movie industry that beyond surpasses Hollywood in scale. I wasn’t on vacation — I was on the ground, every day, interacting with Bombayers of many castes. I spent time in their schools, restaurants and rickshaws, speaking a terrible blend of Hinglish.

Photo: Veronica Ortiz
Photo: Veronica Ortiz

Despite the blatant colorism, we didn’t face much adversity during our time in Mumbai. However, it was the day that a rickshaw driver accused one of the only other black people in the program of lying about being from America that everything came crashing down.

I’d noticed that nobody had ever asked or assumed that I was from America. There was the jewelry boutique owner who wrote Africa on my receipt then proceeded to ask: “Where in Africa are you from?” There was the cashier at the gas station where I did my grocery shopping at, who said: “Are you from South Africa or the West Indies?” then decided for me that I was from South Africa. Lastly, there was the rickshaw driver who assumed that I was from Nigeria. No matter how kind and innocent these questions might have been, I blame Hollywood for the discomfort that we felt as black Americans in Mumbai.

If you know one or two things about the American film industry, you know that the real money is made overseas. This means that more people around the world are watching our movies than we do.

Plain and simple: people who do not live in America learn about America from Hollywood. They see the New York skyscrapers, the LA traffic and one or two black people in the shadows.

Sunset in Mumbai
Photo: Kadisha Phillips

Imagine your surprise as you’re a proud African-American who has known nothing but America for all of your life when someone questions your background. There’s nothing fun, comfortable or enjoyable about that feeling.

The lack of black and brown faces in American media implies that America is ‘white’ by blatantly ignoring the diversity of people that make up this country. Where does this come from? Hyphenated Americanism, the notion that black people ‘act a certain way,’ the desperate need for more color-blind casting in Hollywood, the notion that films/TV shows with more than two black lead actors are only for black people, AND the very, very incorrect assumption that we live in a post-racial society.

In 2014,  Shonda Rhimes won a diversity award from the Director’s Guild of America. This is what she said about it:

“When I heard I was getting a Diversity Award, I was really, truly, profoundly honored. I began to get calls from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, etc., and I was asked to comment on the award. Asked how good I felt about the award. Asked if it made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on my cast and crews. While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off.”

This speaks to the lack of but growing amount of diversity in mainstream American media. There really shouldn’t have to be an award for diversity, and diversity shouldn’t have to be conscious, because although we live in a diverse country, not every writer/filmmaker feels the need to portray that in a positive light, if at all.

Have you had any similar experiences in your travels as a black man or woman abroad? Share this article with your thoughts on Twitter or Facebook!