British South Asian social media influencers balancing race, religion, ethnicity, and gender

Annenberg professor Aswin Punathambekar’s new paper examines life online for three social media influencers, including Nadiya Hussain from ‘The Great British Bake Off.’

Social media influencers dominate our online platforms, selling us products, guiding cultural commentary, and setting trends. A 2021 survey shows that 43% of internet users follow some type of social media influencer online. As they live their lives under the public eye, influencers carefully curate their “brand”—deciding what they want their followers to see and what they want to keep to themselves.

Three screenshots of Instagram influencer, at left Nadiya Hussein and. her daugher, center is Harnaam Kaur, and left is Amena Khan.
Instagram posts by Nadiya Hussain, Harnaam Kaur, and Amena Khan. (Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication)

These branding decisions can be particularly complex if you’re someone with multiple minoritized identities, argues Punathambekar, professor of communication and director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Punathambekar and his co-authors analyze how three British South Asian women social media influencers—Nadiya Hussain, Amena Khan, and Harnaam Kaur—present themselves online, curating media- and corporate-friendly brands while under pressure to be the perfect representation of their gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.

“In delving into the history of media and British-Asian culture, we noticed that there was a discernible shift in the 2000s involving women-of-color and their creative uses of digital platforms,” says Punathambekar. “We chose to study the work of Nadiya Hussain, Amena Khan, and Harnaam Kaur in particular because they are among the first and most prominent examples of such media producers but also because they allow for an analysis of the potential and limits of curating ethnicities.”

In the paper, there’s talk of diversity policies in the media industry failing and BIPOC, LGBTQ, and female media creators being sidelined—even on streaming platforms that were promised to be more “diverse.” Punathambekar considers whether there is a way to meaningfully increase diversity in British media on a large scale.

“Racial inequality in the media sector is multidimensional. So we do want to insist on the significance of focusing on representations and in particular, breakthrough moments that make us sit up and take note of a radically new way of inhabiting the world,” he says. “But far too often, our focus on diversity is disconnected from collective, anti-racist struggles. The work ahead for scholars, critics, and policymakers is to remake this connection and figure out a better way to position the study of race in media and communication.”

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.