From announcing his leave from One Direction, to leaking a new demo with producer Naughty Boy, and most recently being referenced in Bill Maher’s talk show, Zayn Malik has been in the headlines frequently these past few weeks.
On leaving One Direction, Malik expresses that he is looking for something new and unique in his career and life. Many people have expressed sadness and were distraught about Malik’s leaving, tweeting that this is “an end to an era,” and using hashtags such as #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik and #ZaynComeBack.
I never cared much about Zayn Malik in the beginning days of One Direction, but after realizing that there was a mixed race British-Pakistani Muslim in the group, I found myself excited to see someone like me represented in a mainstream light.
Looking at this from a sociological perspective, Malik is (or was, rather) the only person of color in the ensemble. Malik has had to navigate white Western standards throughout his entire career. He’s had to play through the politics of the industry, where he needed four other white dudes to validate his worth as a musician — his brown face alone wasn’t enough for the industry nor public to appreciate.
There are other countless examples of how Asian Americans are just not taken seriously in the media. A lot of this is attributed to the Model Minority ideology, where people of color are demanded to assimilate to whiteness in order to be accepted and successful.
On Season 8 of American Idol, Anoop Desai, an Indian-American, auditioned for the show. The judges reacted with shock that he could actually sing well, but also commented on his “geeky” look. He was wearing a button up and khaki shorts, to me looking more like a frat guy at the beach than an executive in a business meeting. I wondered if his geekiness was less about his clothes, and more about him being Indian.
These stereotypes create a monolithic view of Asian Americans and say that we aren’t “cool” enough to be artists, comedians, writers, and more. Additionally, as South Asians, we face a more specific type of criminalization, particularly Islamophobia, that hinders our livelihoods. As South Asians, we have always had to compensate for our brownness with whiteness. We always have to assimilate or indoctrinate white supremacy into our work in order for the white world to accept us.
Criminalization and racism are all too familiar in Zayn Malik’s life — he has been referred to as a terrorist heavily by the general public via twitter, as well as in the media by shows like the Daily Show, on one particular blog for “pimping jihad” onto teenage girls, and in a racist song. His leave even prompted mock speculation of whether or not he was leaving to join ISIS.
Mostly recently, of course, Bill Maher compared Malik to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Bombers, by placing pictures of the two side and side and asking the question, “where were you during the Boston Marathon?”
Fans responded directly to Maher’s bizarre accusations with the trending hashtag #Respect for Zayn.
The fact that calling Zayn a terrorist was allowed on tv just shows how ignorant humanity really is #RespectForZaynpic.twitter.com/rBnjqiDNeu
For Zayn, because he is a mixed race British-Pakistani, the politics of his racial identity become much more conflated. He represents a face of the South Asian diasporic kid as he is perceivably brown in appearance. At the same time, he is also very light-skinned, which allows him to fit within the constructs of white hegemonic beauty ideals. Consequentially, and also in line with the experiences of many mixed race youth, he is forced to succumb to the expectations of both diasporic South Asian youth as well as the mainstream white population.
This generally results in Zayn being a “face” of diversity, but it also enforces the idea that she should stay silent about that diversity, especially if it challenges white Western norms. However, Malik is very open about his culture, religion, and politics. He has shared his experiences with racism, balancing his identity, his religion and celebrating Ramadan and Eid, and has even tweeted support for Palestine. This generates a lot of loyalty and admiration from the desi diaspora, yet it also very much upsets his assimilation and leads to racist responses against him.
In the end, I think Malik realized that the world he was in was never going to truly accept him. Malik has had to be an outcast throughout childhood as a biracial individual, continuing throughout his duration in One Direction, and now as he is leaving the group he may feel his differences even more.
However, I try to see things more positively — I believe that on this new chapter of his life, Malik is finding his moment of self-determination, of really embracing who he is and not allowing others to define or control his art. As South Asians, I think it is powerful to see someone persevere so courageously and successfully — it’s an extremely hopeful image.