In Defense of Creating Safe Space on Social Media

tumblr_n2sum9iWod1rfwfq9o1_1280During the Occupy protests, I remember attending a meeting created by and for people of color. Their goals were many, including efforts to de-center white activists who failed (and refused) to address issues like racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. They also sought to change the name to “Decolonize” instead of “Occupy” because the land on which we walk in the United States is already stolen and occupied Indigenous land. As the first meeting began, we recognized that there were white people in attendance seeking to show solidarity and become allies. They were welcomed in the group, but most people of color also demanded that there be time for safe space, i.e. meetings for people of color only. As expected, the reaction from white folks was extremely defensive. I heard some even say that we were resorting to the very discrimination that we were fighting against (we’ve all heard this before, nothing new). Also not surprising was how there were some people of color in agreement with these white activists. As one could imagine, a lot of exhaustive arguing ensued, especially from people of color who were trying to explain the need for safe space. Ironic was how the white activists who kept complaining and crying “reverse racism” failed to recognize that their defensive reactions were precisely the reason why people of color ask for safe space — a space where our concerns don’t get derailed or where we don’t need to explain ourselves or worry about being labeled “reverse racists” or “anti-white.”

Recently, on my Facebook, a person of color (who I had recently added) accused me of “reverse racism” and “discriminating against white readers” when I shared my previous post on X-Men’s appropriation of anti-racist struggles. He also said that the answer to racism is not the “supremacy” of “another race group” just like the “the answer to patriarchy is not matriarchy.” After I replied to a private message of his and recommended some readings for him, he de-friended me and wrote a scathing message where he accused me of “playing the victim,” “isolating myself” and surrounding myself only with people who “agree with me.” It’s not important who this person is specifically. What’s more important and concerning is that there are far too many people like him who buy into the myths of “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism,” as well as the “multicultural” notion that respecting and accepting “all views” is a marker for being “progressive.”

I’m not going to address the “playing the victim” comments in-depth here, but I will quickly just say that regardless of how much I disagree with someone, I would never go as far as using victim-blaming attacks against someone, especially a person of color. I don’t know how anyone committed to anti-racism, feminism, and anti-oppression can accuse another stigmatized and marginalized individual of “playing the victim.” The vocabulary reminds me of “playing the race card” or “playing the gender card,” which imply that those who struggle against racism and sexism are “treacherous” and have the “advantage” over those who are more privileged in white supremacist heteropatriarchy. As Ann Anlin Cheng writes in her book, “The Melancholy of Race”:

Even in contemporary vernacular culture, we observe the increased frequency with which the ‘race card’ is displayed… Indeed, it has acquired the peculiar status of a game where what constitutes a winning hand has become identical with the handicap. Reappearing with the vagrancy of a Joker, the race card brings with it a host of haunting questions about the value and perception of race and racial matters in America. What does it mean that the deep wound of race in this country has come to be euphemized as a card, a metaphor that acknowledges the rhetoric as such yet simultaneously materializes race into a finite object that can be dealt out, withheld, or trumped? Why the singularity of a card? Who gets to play? And what would constitute a ‘full deck’?

Holding a ‘full deck’ may imply some idealized version of multisubjectivity (that is, the potential to play the race card, the gender card, the immigrant card, and so forth), but it also implies a state of mental health and completion that renders such playing unnecessary in the first place. One would ‘play’ a card only because one is already outside the larger game, for to play a card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset … [T]he vocabulary of the card also reveals a conceptualization of health and pathology that underlies our very perceptions of race and its abnormalities. Figuring the minority can be treacherous… [A]s the ‘race card’ rhetoric makes clear, there is more than a little irony, if not downright counterproductivity, in effort to relabel as healthy a condition that has been diagnosed, and kept, as sickly and aberrant.

Cheng calls attention to the paradox: “the one who plays with a full deck not only need not play at all but indeed has no such ‘card’ to play. Only those players with less than a full deck need apply.” I would go as far as describing such arguments (“playing the race card” or “playing the gender card”) as racist and sexist. Similarly, when it comes to people who make “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” arguments, I believe those assertions should be described as racist and sexist arguments as well, not merely flawed or problematic. Recently, a First Nations band, A Tribe Called Red, heard cries of “reverse racism” after one of their members wore a T-shirt mocking the Cleveland MLB baseball team: the word “Caucasians” instead of “Indians” was written across it. Far too often, claims of “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism” and any other type of “reverse” oppression are attempts to derail, vilify, and silence people resisting against these oppressions.

I’m not going to explain why “reverse racism” arguments are oppressive, mostly because so much work has been done on it already (watch Aamer Rahman explain it and read Mia McKenzie and A.D Song’s brilliant post). What I want to talk about is the flawed “multicultural” notion that if you don’t surround yourself with people who “have different views,” you are “close-minded.” I’m not talking about “different views” in the sense of having different perspectives that are non-oppressive. None of us think exactly the same, but there is a significant difference between having different perspectives and having views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. If you’re going to trivialize and/or justify drone attacks, rape, racism, racial slurs, gender slurs, Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc., then we are going to have issues. There is a difference between having a disagreement over, say, whether or not we are ready to see complex supervillains of color in western sci-fi/fantasy (I don’t think we are, but I know others who feel differently) and having a disagreement over use of the “i” word to describe undocumented immigrants. Use of the “i” word is not “up for debate,” as the term is dehumanizing. I’m not talking about people who are unaware of how this word is a racial slur; I’m talking about people who have already made up their mind and insist that this language is “appropriate” and “acceptable.” If you set boundaries for yourself and seek to avoid people who are perpetuating racist and sexist ideologies, then how is this “close-minded”?

In my personal life and on my Facebook page, I used to be ok with befriending people whose politics were profoundly different than mine. I spent the time and energy “dialoguing” with them and addressing their misconceptions about Islam, anti-racism, and other issues. However, a lot of times, these conversations would become quite heated and accusations of “reverse racism” were leveled at me and my friends.  After a while of going back and forth with these people, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted on people who were never interested in learning in the first place, but rather wanted to argue, insult me, and prove me “wrong.” I remember I would go to work on some days and then come home at night only to see ridiculously long comments posted on my wall that labeled Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a “terrorist” and “Jew-hater,” or comments that demanded Muslims to explain the “violent verses” (most of the time, I found that these comments were copied and pasted off of notorious Islamophobic websites). I remember spending hours responding to these people. I recall writing an 11 page e-mail to a friend (who I knew since 6th grade) who believed that the Qur’an didn’t permit friendships between Muslims and Christians. I would cite so many books on Islam and Islamic history to assure people who were important to me that my faith didn’t preach discrimination or violence against people due to their religion. In some cases, things worked out fine. Sometimes my messages to online non-Muslim friends (i.e. people I never met before) had better results than my conversations with friends who knew me for years. In many cases, no matter how “peaceful,” “polite,” or “respectful” my tone, the conversation would go nowhere. When some asked ridiculous questions like “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” it was never a sincere question most of the time. It’s an attempt to vilify Muslims unless they support racist U.S. policies (NYPD spying of Muslims, racial profiling, etc.) and violent U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries.

A turning point came for me after I read Mia McKenzie’s post, “Read a Book! Or, Why I Don’t Talk to Strange White Folks About Race,” where she writes about why she refuses to respond to random white people whom she doesn’t know well or trust. She argues that, most of the time, when people of color spend the time and energy and exhaust ourselves in explaining racism to random white people, most of the time, nothing good comes out of it. She elaborates:

What happens, most of the time, is nothing good. Why? Because the person who posted the thing that offended us did so because it’s what they really think, it’s what they actually believe, it’s the conclusion that they have somehow come to after 25 or 30 or 40 years of living in this world. The ridiculous position they just laid down isn’t something they just came up with. It’s their fucking philosophy, and they mean that shit. And now here you come telling them, uh uh, nope, your analysis is flawed and this is why. And you are right. You really are. And guess what? It doesn’t matter… Nothing you say is going to change that. But you might spend a lot of time and energy trying.

[...]

More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?

I found myself relating to much of this and I soon began to remove offensive people from my Facebook. Some of these people were from interfaith groups I had joined and while I don’t doubt their intentions were initially good, they often would try to tone police me and other Muslims on my wall when we expressed outrage against Islamophobia and imperialism. Respectful and compassionate conversations with our friends and allies are important, especially when we make mistakes. However, when it comes to people who are insulting, condescending, and/or think they’re superior to you, what is to be gained from this “friendship”? What is the point of “friendships” when white people, and those who defend them, are constantly trying to police our thoughts, feelings, and experiences? I found these interactions quite unhealthy for me. I’m sure all of us have dealt with these people. The kind of people who NEVER comment on anything you post EXCEPT the times when they want to argue with you. Or, the people who lurk on your Facebook and click “like” on the comments written by someone else who is insulting you. And of course, there are the passive aggressive people who will just post a link on your wall (or under your post) without leaving a caption or explanation of why they’re posting it (and the linked article is often something in response to the views you’ve expressed on your wall).

Some people have come at me for deleting people with accusations of “censorship” and being “close-minded” or “intolerant.” There have been countless times on my blog, for instance, where I’ve responded to Islamophobic, racist, and sexist comments from random people, yet what seems to outrage certain people the most is when I decide I’m done responding and would rather delete comments. I cannot control who reads my blog, but the main reason I put comment moderation on is because responding to Islamophobic comments became exhausting and a waste of my time. On the same thread where several people were saying “all Muslims” should be “executed” or “evicted,” some chose to tone-police me and accuse me of “censorship” instead of addressing the violent, anti-Muslim comments. I have heard countless incidents from women bloggers/writers who have received rape threats, in addition to death threats, from men who disagreed with them. Why is it “censorship” or “close-minded” if someone wants to ban these comments or delete people who think and behave this way?

For people who think maintaining a safe space on Facebook is “close-minded,” I ask them to consider this: most people of color are already in spaces that are discriminatory, unsafe, and/or hostile to them in their everyday lives. One of the major problems with “multiculturalism” is that it legitimizes “all views,” including views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and so on. If you challenge someone who holds such views, the blame is on you for not being “multiculturally competent.” That’s how messed up “multiculturalism” is. Whether it’s in the workplace, school, or any other public setting, hearing these “different views” are things we hear on a daily basis. How often do people of color have to deal with ignorant remarks, offensive questions, or stereotypical assumptions? Many students of color are verbally attacked in their classrooms for raising anti-racist critiques and disrupting the status quo. How many are attacked, either verbally or physically, just for their mere presence in a classroom or workplace? What about people of color who have to bite their tongues at work 90% of the time for the sake of keeping their jobs? Many do speak up and get suspended, fired, and vilified for standing up for themselves. What about how often women see and hear sexism and misogyny, especially women of color who face both racism and sexism?

“Different views and opinions” that perpetuate racism and sexism not only come from classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, lawyers, doctors, but sometimes even from members in our own families. Yes, sometimes they are not intentional, but white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are so normalized that people don’t need to be deliberate in order to carry out oppressive acts or behaviors. When there are so many oppressive forces in everyday life, why is one considered “close-minded” or “living in a bubble” if he/she chooses to maintain a safe space on their Facebook, in their circle of friends, at their club meetings, etc.? I know lots of people of color, including myself, who like to use Facebook not only to network with people and stay in touch with friends/family, but to also vent comfortably and safely without worrying about judgment (or accusations of “reverse racism/sexism”). If you are constantly arguing and insisting that people of color can somehow oppress white people institutionally, despite being told and informed over and over again about how these arguments perpetuate racism, re-center white people, and silence and vilify people of color, you’re not just being disrespectful. You’re making your unwillingness to listen and learn very clear. Telling someone that they should be “more open” by having to listen and accept racist views is oppressive, not a sign of “progress.” If we cannot feel comfortable venting to our friends, then who can we speak to?

I have to clarify that I’m not saying everyone should delete people in this way.  I know this is more complex than simply saying, “Oh, that person posted something racist on your wall? Just delete them!” It’s no one’s business to tell you who you should or shouldn’t have on your Facebook. I have seen that play out as well and how it perpetuates shaming and victim-blaming. I do believe there are times when it’s important to show solidarity on someone else’s wall if they’re being attacked with racist, sexist, and oppressive comments. A lot of times, these comments are inevitable, no matter how hard we try to filter them out. There are complex reasons why we choose to maintain friendships with certain people, despite them holding views that are quite different than ours. Also, I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in conversations with people. As a friend told me recently, it’s important that we don’t shut out friends and allies by being arrogant and condescending towards them.

My overall point isn’t about how people should use social media, but how we shouldn’t label people “close-minded” if they choose to delete people they don’t feel comfortable or safe having on their friend’s list. I don’t believe a safe space means that everyone thinks exactly the same or that people agree on everything. My friends and I disagree on a lot of things, but those disagreements occur in a space of trust, respect, compassion, and humility. When we are constantly surrounded by the images and messages that promote white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, etc., how can we blame people for seeking a safe space among their friends where they don’t have to deal with the headache, stress, and trauma of these oppressions? It is not “close-minded” or “censorship” – it’s the need, as McKenzie said, to protect our own psychological and emotional health and well-being.

For the Billionth Time, Magneto is NOT Malcolm X: Thoughts on Appropriation and Mutants of Color

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Spoiler Alert: There are major spoilers ahead for X-Men: Days of Future Past (and all of the other X-Men films).

I never liked the comparisons that significant comic book writers, filmmakers, actors, and even some fans make between Magneto and Malcolm X, as well as between Professor Xavier and Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of the first X-Men film (2000), Magneto delivers the line, “By any means necessary,” one of Malcolm’s most famous quotes. Prior to the release of X-Men: First Class (2011), Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr, stated in an interview that the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. directly influenced the film and the relationship between Magneto and Charles Xavier. “It came up early on in the rehearsal period and that was the path we took,” Fassbender confirmed.

I ranted about how inaccurate, offensive, and racist these comparisons are on my Facebook wall and then shared a blog post that expressed similar sentiments, “By Any Means” (and later, a more recent post, “Professor X isn’t Martin Luther King, and Magneto isn’t Malcolm X, either”). This would be a conversation I would have with fellow people of color, especially those who are X-Men/comic book fans as well. Despite the serious lack of mutants of color, the frequent racist and sexist representations of people of color (e.g. racist, sexist depictions of Japanese women and men in The Wolverine), and the problematic appropriation of anti-racist and civil rights struggles, I still considered myself an X-Men fan. Like many, I was looking forward to X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was always one of my favorite storylines in the comic books and the acclaimed animated series. While I enjoyed the movie, I could not help but feel annoyed by the way the X-Men films ironically fail to address the issues they claim to be challenging. In fact, Neil Shyminsky argues in his essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men,” that, “While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality.”  For the record, I don’t expect anything radical from Hollywood (and mainstream comic books), but I also find it upsetting that people of color are always expected to “look past” things like offensive and racist depictions of their communities, and to simply “enjoy the movie” uncritically. Given the powerful influence of media (on society, perceptions, attitudes, social norms, etc.), I don’t think it is meaningless to raise such critiques.

After seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past, I watched a new interview with Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen (the latter plays Magneto from the original timeline of the series). About 11 minutes into the interview, McKellen drew the parallel between Magneto and Malcolm X yet again. McKellen states:

“In the history of all the civil rights movements, and I’ve been involved in the gay civil rights movement, there’s always a divide, there’s always an argument between how we go about making our lives better. Do you do Professor X’s way, which I rather approve of: standing up for yourself, but explaining yourself, wanting to be part of society. Or do you rather withdraw and get rather violent as, say, a Malcolm X figure would be.”

Fassbender replied in agreement, “Absolutely.”

These comparisons and characterizations of Malcolm X as “violent” are not just wrong and inaccurate, but incredibly offensive and racist. They reinforce a simplistic and harmful binary between Malcolm and MLK Jr. – one that vilifies the former, and de-radicalizes/co-opts the latter. I would also argue that a Christian (MLK Jr.) vs. Muslim (Malcolm X) narrative may also be present here, though perhaps not as pronounced as the “Good Black/Bad Black” binary. I know I should not be surprised by the sheer ignorance and irresponsibility of white actors and filmmakers, but I honestly felt that enough people have spoken out against these analogies that Bryan Singer, Ian McKellen, and Michael Fassbender would adopt a different approach to Magneto. Perhaps I was too optimistic in thinking that Hollywood would learn something for a change.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Professor Xavier and Magneto are both white, not Black. Even if the philosophies of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X aligned accurately with Professor Xavier and Magneto, it’s still racist appropriation. In fact, this is one of the major problems with X-Men: it draws its influence from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but replaces people of color with mostly white people. In other words, the experiences of people of color and their struggle against racist oppression are appropriated by white and mostly male mutant characters. As argued by Shyminsky, this allows white male audiences to “appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples.” In his excellent post, “What if the X-Men were Black?” Orion Martin cites an interview with Stan Lee who said the civil rights movement allegory existed from the beginning. “It not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time,” Lee said. In 1982, long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont explained, “The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.”

Yet, like many others, I’ve always felt the X-Men films failed in exploring mutant identity/positionality in conjunction with the complex and intersecting dynamics of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. Instead, the experiences of mutants, irrespective of their race and gender, are depicted within a flawed understanding of “all oppression is the same,” or “shared oppression.” Overlooked are the opportunities to explore how racism, sexism, along with anti-mutant sentiment, impacted mutant women of color differently than white male mutants, for instance. Or, what would the experiences of a Muslim mutant character look like in a hostile climate of anti-mutant oppression and Islamophobia within a white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal society? As Martin writes:

What’s disturbing about the series is that is that all of these issues are played out by a cast of characters dominated by wealthy, straight, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied, white men. The X-Men are the victims of discrimination for their mutant identity, with little or no mention of the huge privileges they enjoy.

One of the major criticisms of X-Men: First Class was its glaring omission of the civil rights movement and how, as Seth Freed Wessler stated, the “racial justice allegory was thrown out with the bathwater of history.” Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that the film takes place in 1962, the same year when South Carolina “marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol” and the year when “the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot.” He argued that the film “appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield.” Furthermore, he described the film as a “period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.” And we all remember what happened to Darwin and how he was the first mutant to be killed (and the racist editing just made it worse). Despite the fact Sebastian Shaw tells Emma Frost earlier in the film that “we don’t hurt our own kind,” what he really meant was, “we don’t hurt our own kind unless its a Black mutant.”

X-Men: Days of Future Past doesn’t improve much in this regard. The mutants I was excited to see, namely Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot (all characters of color) had some excellent action scenes, but very limited dialogue and screentime. Oh, and THEY ALL DIE. BRUTALLY. Some of them DIE TWICE (once at the beginning of the film and once at the end). Yes, by the end of the film, the dystopian future is prevented and the timeline is fixed, which means these mutants are now alive again, but the only mutant of color that we see at the end is Storm. Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot are alive, but they were nowhere to be found and this on-screen absence is significant. I know they’re not part of the X-Men (they were part of Bishop’s Free Mutants Resistance Force in the future), but there are ways the filmmakers could have shown them (that is, if they really cared for these characters). Also, I’m aware that Iceman and Colossus were also killed viciously by the Sentinels, but the majority of the mutant characters killed off were people of color, including Storm. Some may argue, “No, they died honorably,” or, “They were selfless heroes because of their sacrifice,” but how often do we see this pattern in the way people of color are depicted? What this boils down to is, people of color need to die so that the white heroes can fix things in the past and save the whole world. Because it’s always up to white men to save humanity.

Ok, I’m getting off track. My second point: Magneto is not Malcolm X because the former murders people and the latter did not. It is ironic that Ian McKellen believes it is “simplistic” to label Magneto a “villain,” yet he resorts to a simplistic and incorrect understanding of Malcolm X. I am not an advocate of “non-violent” resistance, but when McKellen refers to Malcolm as a “violent” figure, I wonder if anyone bothered to ask him to name a time when Malcolm was violent. Malcolm X advocated for self-defense, which is extremely different than the ruthless violence Magneto carries out.  It seems obvious that neither McKellen nor Fassbender bothered to read Malcolm’s autobiography (Fassbender admits he “didn’t study any Malcolm X videos” for the role).

In one of the aforementioned posts, David Brothers calls the likening of Magneto to Malcolm “both disrespectful and part of the ongoing demonization of Malcolm X.” The latter statement especially rings true because it was only one semester ago when I heard a professor pit Malcolm X against Martin Luther King Jr., relying on the same dichotomy that depicts the former as “violent,” “anti-white/reverse racist” and the latter as the “peaceful” one. Brothers continues:

Magneto is a charismatic man who talks a good game, but won’t hesitate to kill a gang of people if it suits his purposes. This is the Malcolm X figure in Marvel Comics? A killer? That isn’t what “By any means necessary” is about… It isn’t as simple as Malcolm X bad, Martin Luther King good. That’s a false dichotomy that is practically taught in schools nowadays. It’s untrue. Magneto is Magneto. He is a killer, sometimes a sympathetic one, but a killer nonetheless.

In his 2013 post, Brothers elaborates further and argues that “America likes to place them [Malcolm X and MLK Jr.] in conflict with each other” while ignoring how “the truth was much more nuanced.” He also explains why Professor Xavier is not MLK Jr. either:

Professor X drafted children into a paramilitary unit under the guise of educating them, and then sent them out to fight other mutants. They’re essentially a self-police force for the mutant people… Magneto is the other side of the fence. Where Xavier wants mutants to coexist with humans, Magneto is a mutant supremacist and terrorist. He murders humans, he brutalizes mutants, and anyone who stands in his way is found wanting and considered a traitor. Magneto is a murderer with ideals, when you boil it down.

Neither character bears any resemblance to Martin or Malcolm, outside of a short-sighted and frankly ignorant idea of what Martin or Malcolm represent. People have said it, but that doesn’t make it true.

Lastly, it needs to be understood that these comparisons are harmful. In addition to demonizing Malcolm X and de-radicalizing MLK Jr., the binary maintains racist thinking that attempts to divide African-Americans into two, simplistic categories. It distorts history and insults the legacy of both Malcolm X and MLK Jr. Claiming that two super-powered white men are stand-ins for two civil rights leaders fighting for the liberation of Black people and then appropriating and exploiting their struggles does the opposite of challenging oppression. In films where men and women of color characters are marginalized, and where the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. are never given mention, these forces might as well not exist in the world the characters inhabit. As a result, this erasure perpetuates a harmful “colorblind” and “post-racial” myth. If there is any analogy to draw, it is that simplistic binaries of “good mutants” versus “evil mutants” (attempts to make the latter mutants more “complex” notwithstanding) are analogues to the workings of white supremacy which oppressively categorizes people of color as either being in the “good camp” or the “bad camp.”

On February 16th, 1965, five days before El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm X, was assassinated, he made a speech about the way media vilifies those who resist against racism. Below is an excerpt from his speech, which is so relevant today that it could even apply here – to the people who keep insisting that Malcolm was a “violent” figure and “like Magneto”:

“We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York. They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.”

Where is the “violence” that McKellen spoke of?  If anything, McKellen falls into the same racist logic used to demonize Malcolm. The enormous lack of respect for leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is apparent in the way white filmmakers and writers attempt to transform these individuals into fictional white super-powered characters where one is labeled a “hero” and the other, a “villain.” In a film series where white characters dominate screen-time, what does it mean when the filmmakers and actors insist on drawing false parallels to Malcolm X and MLK Jr. while they promote these films? What message are they promoting? The films are often applauded by mainstream movie critics as offering important lessons on racism and prejudice, but who gets to “teach” these lessons? The stories may be influenced by anti-racist struggle, but, as usual, white characters lead the way in these films.

Filmmakers, actors, comic book writers, and fans need to stop making these comparisons. If you want to learn about Malcolm X, don’t read about Magneto. Read Malcolm’s autobiography and stop likening him to a fictional white mutant supremacist created by white men.

Happy Muslims: Performing “Happiness” and “Normalcy”

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I can’t believe I haven’t updated my blog since 2013! Most of my hiatus is due to being busy in graduate school and also working on a feature film. I’ll share some details about the film later in this post, but I first want to address a video that came to my attention a few days ago.

By now, most Muslims active on social media have seen the “Happy British Muslims” music video, which shows a diverse group of Muslims in Britain lip-synching and dancing (happily, of course) to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I noticed friends on Facebook sharing the video, but at first, I didn’t take the time to watch the video. However, after I noticed debates taking place, I decided to give it a view. Yesterday, a Chicago version of “Happy Muslims” was released online and I also heard about Boston and Toronto versions being in the works. Before I share my critique of these videos, I want to discuss a few conversations I’ve been seeing online.

So far, from what I’ve read, most of the articles framing this debate are reinforcing binary-thinking within the Muslim community. The articles state that there are two groups of Muslims that are dominating this discussion. The first group are Muslims who enjoyed the video and believe that it humanizes Muslims and helps break stereotypes. Obviously, it makes sense that many Muslims would support the video. After all, in Hollywood and mainstream western media, Muslims are overwhelmingly depicted as villains and terrorists (for over a 100 years!), so it’s refreshing to see Muslims being happy in a music video that has gone viral. The second group of Muslims, on the other hand, find the video sinful and incompatible with Islamic teachings. Their main criticism being that Muslim women are dancing in the video and that such “behavior” does not “follow the Sunnah.”

This debate continues to ensue on online forums, Facebook pages, Twitter posts, etc. However, the problem with this binary framing is that it ignores other perspectives that have not been receiving much attention (or being left out of the discussion altogether). One of these perspectives is concerned about the problematic messages the video reinforces politically. I believe Yasmin Jamaludeen’s powerful critique of the video touches upon many of the same concerns I had, but also so much more. As she writes:

What the video very evidently does is it seeks to humanise Muslims by implicitly submitting to orientalist accounts. Why do we continually insist on trying to prove our humanity and normality through such nonsensical antics? And just for the record, I don’t take issue with the dancing or the music, although I know some elements of the Muslim community will. To be clear, I am taking issue with a very specific point, the underlying message that is being bulldozed through this video: “Hey Britain, check us out, we’re not all suicide-bombers. Some of us are even in touch with chart music. And look, we can even crack a smile when we’re happy”.

Like Jamaludeen, my problem isn’t with the dancing or music. In fact, I disagree with some of the Muslims who are objecting to the video on religious grounds. It’s outrageously sexist that a “halal” version of the video was made, where all of the Muslim women were edited out. By erasing Muslim women, they are being deemed “haram,” which is beyond horrible. I also don’t believe in shaming anyone who participated in the video nor am I interested in making personal attacks against the people who enjoyed the video. Jamaludeen also made it clear she wasn’t cynical about the people in the video and wasn’t attacking anyone, but rather expressing her cynicism about the agenda, which is what I’m interested in discussing. Specifically, what I’m interested in examining is how videos like these promote assimilation narratives that subsequently reinforce the harmful good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

One of the main issues I have with the video is that it follows a problematic, though common, trend we see from Muslims in the West who are attempting to “break stereotypes” or respond to Islamophobia. The common trend being that we have to assert our Western national identities in order to show the dominant culture that we are “normal” and “peaceful” people. In many ways, the problems I have with this video are the same problems I had with the “All-American Muslim” reality TV show which aired briefly on TLC (and faced Islamophobic attacks). I didn’t take issue with how Muslims in the show dressed, or where they worked, or whether or not they dated. It was with (and I know some people are probably tired of me saying this) the notion that we must be “proud Americans” (or proud Westerners) to qualify as human beings. It’s with the premise that we need to operate within the white non-Muslim gaze in order to claim our humanity; that we need to say, “Hey, look, I have barbecues in my backyard just like every other American! Look, I watch football games like you, too! We’re all American!” The title is cringe-worthy enough, too — what does “All-American” mean exactly?

National Muslim civil rights organizations promote these narratives too, unfortunately. In their PR campaigns, they’ll showcase images of Muslims proudly waving (or even wearing) American flags in the name of “breaking stereotypes,” as if performing Americanness (or Canadianness, Britishness, etc.) is the only way to prove to the West that we are human. Meanwhile, the Muslims who resist these narratives and/or question the legitimacy of white supremacist nations (often by addressing the racist, sexist, and violent colonial histories of these nations and the impact these forces have today) are categorized as “bad Muslims” – the militants, the extremists, the radicals, etc. Sadly, we see this good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy also perpetuated by people in our own communities. I remember a few friends and I raised concerns about the way some Muslim civil rights groups were praising the “founding fathers.” In particular, we called attention to the fact that the founding fathers owned slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous peoples. The response we received from one of the representatives was a hostile one, accusing us of being “bad PR.” What message does this deliver to Indigenous peoples struggling against colonialism and genocide? What message does it deliver about Muslims in America and the agenda that some organizations are trying to promote (i.e. “we’re only concerned about our interests” over the rights of others)?

We saw the same pattern of the assimilation narrative in the awful Mipsterz video (which I believe is still worse than the “Happy Muslim” videos). With regard to the “Happy Muslims” videos, the critiques are again about how Muslims perform “happiness” for the white gaze to be seen as “normal” (“normal” meaning “just like every other British/American/Canadian person” and being seen as nonthreatening to white supremacy). An article on OnIslam.net, which wrote in defense of the video, concluded with a sentence stating that 83% of Muslims are “proud to be a British citizen.” To counter stereotypes, the message seems to always be: “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re proud British/American/Canadian/Australian, etc. citizens,” instead of “We deserve equal rights and dignity because we’re human beings.” It’s as if the only way to be respected and accepted in society is to show white non-Muslims that we are not only “happy” in their white supremacist nations, but also how we are “the Good Muslims,” or “proud citizens just like them.” Subsequently, this works to distinguish us from the Muslims “over there,” i.e. the Muslims who aren’t citizens of the West and characterized as being “backwards,” “uncivilized,” “unintelligent,” etc. (and as if their lack of citizenship makes them less human or their deaths less outrageous).

Indeed, Islamophobia and other oppressive forces from the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal establishment have tremendous effects on Muslims and people of color. I’m not saying that the Muslims who participated in the video are unaware or not impacted by these forces. However, what I’d like to call attention to is that we rarely see stories or videos that show Muslims resisting against state racism, assimilation, and other oppressive forces in their lives without being demonized for it. Are “happy” and state-friendly images of Muslims the only response we have to Islamophobia? Or, to phrase another way, are these images the only “appropriate” ways to counter stereotypes?

The argument from people who are defending the video is that the filmmakers are humanizing Muslims. However, let’s ask ourselves what it means to be human. Does “human” mean that we are only allowed to express one emotion, “happiness”? Does a “humanizing” depiction of Muslims mean we restrict ourselves to the narrow depiction of being “Good Muslims” and omit the other emotions (like anger and sadness) we experience for the sake of “proving” to white non-Muslims that we are not terrorists? I’m concerned with the ironically angry personal attacks that critics of the video are getting from fellow Muslims. Critics are labeled as the Muslims who “don’t know how to be happy” or “don’t know how to have fun.” Unfortunately, it goes to show how the good Muslim/bad Muslim is being reproduced, but also how oppressive “positive-thinking” politics can be, especially when they’re imposed on people who are expressing the opposite.  That is, if you aren’t “happy” or thinking “positively,” then you’re characterized as being “oversensitive,” “ungrateful/unappreciative,” or “too angry.” What does “happy” mean in this context anyway? Be happy and don’t talk about Islamophobia? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who do not perform happiness in the way the Muslims in the video do? What are the views toward Muslims who would be classified as “angry,” and are actively resisting against white supremacy and patriarchy? What are the attitudes towards Muslims who are disloyal towards the British government (or any government, really)? What about Muslims who don’t feel like they can “fit in” or may not even want to “fit in”? Aren’t all of these questions and concerns also part of people’s humanity?

There are ways to show Muslims struggling against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without portraying us as “helpless victims” or mass murderers. There are ways to tell stories about these struggles without relying on demonizing stereotypes. We can tell these stories without being primarily concerned with the gaze of the white non-Muslim audience. A few days ago, I read a really moving article by author Daniel José Older, who wrote about writers of color and the challenges they face in storytelling and publishing. In the article, titled “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” this part stood out to me the most:

The disproportionally white publishing industry matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers. Anika Noni Rose put it perfectly in Vanity Fair this month: “There are so many writers of color out there, and often what they get when they bring their books to their editors, they say, ‘We don’t relate to the character.’ Well it’s not for you to relate to! And why can’t you expand yourself so you can relate to the humanity of a character as opposed to the color of what they are?”

So we are wary. The publishing industry looks a lot like one of these best-selling teenage dystopias: white and full of people destroying each other to survive.

But let’s go back to this: “It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other. And it’s not just a question of characters of color, it’s not a numbers game. It’s about voice, about narrative flow. Because of who we are and what we’ve lived, our stories often contain implicit critiques of white supremacy, critiques that we know stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet of the majority white publishing industry. We see diverse futures, laden with the tangled past of oppression and we re-envision models of empowerment and survival. But only a few of us make it through. There is a filter and the filter is white culture [Emphasis mine].

Yes. All of that!

The part about “writing past” editors and agents resonated with me the most because I believe it articulates how I’ve been approaching the feature film I’m currently writing/directing/producing (filming is about 70% finished). I did not want to make a PSA announcement nor was I interested in “educating” a white audience about Islam and Pakistani culture. I did not want the two Pakistani Muslim protagonists to be seen as representing “all Pakistanis” or “all Muslims.” Instead, I have been focusing on telling an honest and unapologetic story that treats these characters as complex, multi-dimensional individuals and human beings. I don’t mean “human beings” in the universal, colorblind, “we-are-all-human-therefore-race-doesn’t-matter” sense. I mean “human beings” as in owning our feelings, emotions, complexities, without being concerned with whether or not these characters make white non-Muslim audiences comfortable. In some scenes, these two characters are happy. In other scenes, they’re sad and conflicted. And sometimes, they are angry and disruptive. I’m sure some people will have critiques about the film and I’ll do my best to be ready for those criticisms (and own up to any mistakes I’ve made), but overall, I have found that not worrying or caring about the white gaze has been a very empowering process in telling this story. By the end of it, I hope it is seen as a disruptive film that challenges white supremacist patriarchy in education institutions and the workplace (where most of my film takes place), and promotes solidarity among communities of color. I also hope it’s seen as challenging assimilation and “American identity” in general. Of course, I anticipate white people watching the film and, if anything, I’d like them to think about how they can be allies (or improve their roles as allies), but overall, they’re not the target audience of the film.

Lastly, I’m not saying that we should see Muslims being “angry all the time” in contrast to all the “happy” videos that portray Muslims as “joyous,” “hip,” and “cool.” I’m saying that we do not see Muslims expressing rage or anger in videos/movies/TV shows that are seeking to humanize us. Too often, all we see are PSA or PR campaigns that are about “educating” non-Muslims that we are not “terrorists;” that we are just like them; that we are not actively challenging state oppression. If we see “angry Muslims” in mainstream media, they are terrorists, misogynists, and “oversensitive,” racialized Others who are “backwards” and “pre-modern.” Very rarely do we see stories or depictions of Muslims where we just are being and existing in all of our complexities without the filter of white culture.

While some people defend the “Happy Muslims” video (which seems to be turning into a campaign now in the West) and believe it helps “break stereotypes,” there are other stories that are left untold. I know there are other Muslim filmmakers and storytellers who are telling more nuanced and complex stories and not catering to the white gaze, but we do not see their work being promoted enough. We need to move away from this idea that we have to perform “happiness” and/or assert “American,” “British,” or “Canadian” identities to be seen as human beings. As Jamaludeen expressed at the end of her critique, we need to “start defining ourselves on our own terms.” The white supremacist nation-state doesn’t decide who is human or isn’t — our humanity is God-given and no one can take that away.

Totally Radical Muslims Volume 2: Karbala Fired Resistance Stories

TRMcoverart

Cover art for Volume 2.

Dear Readers,

I am grateful and honored to announce that a short essay of mine was published in the latest zine from “Totally Radical Muslims” (I especially love the title, “Karbala Fired Resistance Stories”). I have read some of the works published in their first zine, including a powerful poem that was featured on The Feminist Wire’s Forum on Muslim Feminisms last year, and I can’t wait to read the other pieces in their latest publication. Please visit their website, like them on Facebook, and support their radically awesome zine, if you can! I am so grateful that such a platform exists for many Muslims whose stories and experiences are often untold, marginalized, and/or vilified. Below is an excerpt from their website, which best describes their zine and efforts:

a group of oakland based muslims have started a zine to confront, share, name and re-imagine experiences of islamophobia.

surviving and being a muslim in this political moment is a constant struggle and political act.

this zine is to lift up the perspectives of often untold muslims – the radicals, queers, fabulous and fierce folks - through adding narratives of navigating the spectrum of practice, belief, ideology, sect, gender and islamophobia.

this zine is about resistance and resilience, and us telling the stories for ourselves with all their edges, contradictions, beauties and gems.

this is about saying no to islamophobia and being racialized and politiczed because of our muslim identity – regardless of how secular, radical, and culturally muslim we are.

this is about saying yes to the liberation of all people.
yes to being allied with, and an ally for others.
this is taking a step towards our collective healing.

If you are interested in buying the zine, you can purchase it through their website! :)

Planet of the Muslims?

planets

“The Muslim World” – Otherizing much?

Whenever I hear expressions like “The Muslim World,” or “The Arab World,” especially when they’re used by white non-Muslims, I think of those old science-fiction serials where the title screams across the screen in scary green text, accompanied by ominous music and a male radio broadcaster voice saying “The Muslim World!”  Admittedly, I have used these descriptions in college papers and blog posts in the past. Sometimes I used them out of simplicity and other times I used them because I didn’t know of any alternatives. I prefer saying “Muslim-majority countries” when referring to groups of countries that have predominant Muslim populations, but also make it a point to critique the Orientalist stereotypes that treat Muslim-majority countries or any Muslim population as monoliths.

I don’t like terms like “The Muslim World” or “The Arab World” for a number of reasons. First, it attempts to reinforce generalizations about all Muslim-majority or Arab-majority countries. Rather than acknowledging the complexity and diversity among and within Muslim-majority societies, “The Muslim World” simplifies these differences for the sake of Orientalist narratives and stereotypes. All Muslim-majority countries, according to this label, follow the same rules, laws, norms, lifestyles, beliefs, etc. In the Orientalist imagination, it’s like one of those exoticized “New Age” shops you’d find in an American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, etc.) suburb or city, where everything that “looks Indian or Arab” is showcased and treated “as the same.” Yeah, that’s racist.

Second, the language itself is absurd. It’s too intergalactic for me. Not only are Muslims from different racial and religious backgrounds, but they might as well be a different species. The language is dehumanizing and implies that Muslims are from an entirely different world – that their beliefs and ways of life are completely alien to planet Earth. Meanwhile, western white-majority societies are made out to be the real representatives of human beings on our planet. Ever notice how western science fiction movies, novels, and comic books about alien invasions tend to have white people representing Earth (and if they’re not white, they make sure you know that they’re American citizens)? Recently, I heard a non-Muslim writer say, “You’re right, our site needs more writers from the Muslim world.” What is being said here? That a random group of Muslims who happen to be from a number of Muslim-majority countries are going to represent a  homogenous “Muslim world”? That if a Muslim writer is based in, say, Lebanon, s/he is going to be an “ambassador” of an imagined “Muslim world”? That Muslims have some kind of shared “home world”? Though sometimes these phrases are used with good intentions, it’s important that we examine the language we use (in this case, the language used to describe Islam, Muslims, and Muslim-majority countries) and understand its implications.

Lastly, I don’t like these descriptions because of the way they’re often used to fuel generalizations and stereotypes that have harmful and deadly effects on real people.  “The Muslim world is evil,” which means all Muslim-majority countries need to be monitored by the U.S., invaded, occupied, and bombed. The “Muslim world” is characterized as a “dark, treacherous, and violent” place, and this kind of racist demonization maintains white supremacy, policies like racial profiling, hate crimes, and imperialism. If you listen to the hate speech of Islamophobes in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and other countries, their hostile hatred of “Sharia law” and Muslim immigration sounds like they’re warning against an “alien invasion.” Muslims, as well as other people of color, are viewed as perpetual “threats” and “uncivilized savages” that need to be cleansed to keep Earth (i.e. the family of white nations) “pure.” Yes, people have differences, especially different realities and experiences based on factors like race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth, but I find the manner in which phrases like “Muslim world” or “Arab world” are used are often otherizing and exoticizing. It reminds me of sexist language that asserts “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus,” which likens our differences to different planets and claims that we are “stuck in our ways” due to our biology; that we will always fit gendered and racialized stereotypes; that we have always been this way.

A few months ago, I was meeting with a white male administrator at my previous university and the conversation, unsurprisingly, shifted to where I was from. He then talking about how he wanted to visit Egypt and said he wanted to learn Arabic. Then he joked and suggested that maybe I could teach him. I told him I didn’t speak Arabic, mostly because Arabic is not spoken by majority of Pakistanis. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Wait, I thought Pakistan was in the Arab world?” As many Pakistanis know, we hear this a lot, so it wasn’t utterly shocking.  It would be racist to react with disgust to his question because there’s nothing wrong with being Arab, of course, so I took a moment and then said, “No, we’re on a neighboring world. You know, the planet next to the Arab world.” There was an awkward silence and the administrator’s face went blank. Then he laughed nervously, “Oh, ha ha ha ha.” I laughed genuinely – not with him, but at him. “You see what I did there?” I asked. He nodded and then apologized because he “didn’t mean it that way.” I then proceeded to explain to him why I find that language silly and offensive. He seemed to understand and said that he would “make a note of that.”

Perhaps its a message he can deliver back to The White World, right? :)

Beyond “Equal Representation”: Some Thoughts on Racebending Villains of Color in White-Dominated Sci-fi and Comic Book Films

startrek1SPOILERS AHEAD: Don’t read further if you plan on seeing “Iron Man 3″ and “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I remember when “Batman Begins” was in development, I felt uncomfortable learning that Ra’s Al-Ghul, an Arab villain from the Batman mythology, was set to be the antagonist. The idea of an iconic American superhero battling an Arab terrorist sounded like a perfect set-up to propagate America’s so-called “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitting Batman against an Arab enemy during a time when real-life Arabs and Muslims are increasingly regarded as “threats against western civilization” didn’t seem like a coincidence to me at the time, nor does it now (I’m not going to delve into the disturbing fascist, capitalist, and pro-police state politics in “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” but there have been many excellent critiques which you can read here, here, and here).

When audiences discovered Liam Neeson, an Irish actor, ended up being Ra’s Al-Ghul, my initial reaction was mixed. On one hand, I was relieved that we didn’t see a stereotypical dark-skinned Arab man blowing up Gotham city, but on the other, I knew what this character was meant to represent: Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, etc. Not too long after the movie was released, I read some comments on discussion boards where some fans were upset that Ra’s Al-Ghul wasn’t played by an Arab actor. Several years later, I heard the same sentiment expressed when a white actor was selected to play the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” (the character is Latino in the comic books). Most recently, outrage has been directed at the casting decisions for Iron Man 3′s “The Mandarin” and Star Trek’s “Khan Noonien Singh” (pictured above), played by Ben Kingsley and Benedict Cumberbatch, respectively.

I have enormous respect for those who advocate for equal and fair representation for people of color in mainstream western film and television. Mainstream media is a powerful tool/weapon wielded by the interlocking systems of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. For this reason, it is challenging for men and women actors of color to find prominent roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows. Even more difficult is finding roles that don’t perpetuate racialized and gendered stereotypes. With this in mind, I can understand why advocacy groups protest against casting decisions that choose white actors to play iconic villains of color. When roles for people of color are so limited and scarce in an industry dominated by white actors, producers, writers, and directors, I can only imagine how difficult job-searching must be.

I also recognize that villains of color like Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, Bane, “The Mandarin,” and Khan Noonien Singh are beloved by many fans, including fans of color. Indeed, when I watched “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” it sounded ridiculous and even laughable when a white man declared his name to be “Khan Noonien Singh,” but I don’t believe having a South Asian/Desi actor playing him would solve the racism here. Similarly, an Arab actor playing Ra’s Al-Ghul would not challenge anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes (quite the opposite!). The problem is with these characters themselves and the fact that they exist in the first place. Exoticized names like “Ra’s Al-Ghul,” “The Mandarin,” and “Khan Noonien Singh” are not real names Arabs, East Asians, and South Asians would ever have for themselves. Any South Asian who looks at a name like “Khan Noonien Singh” would find it absurd. It looks as if Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was combining different South Asian surnames to make something “exotic sounding.” It’s yet another example of white writers creating inaccurate and exoticized names for their characters of color, while also portraying them as stereotypical, racialized villains.

Personally, I don’t want to see another brown-skinned terrorist character in a Hollywood film, especially in a blockbuster like “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” In a “Star Trek” episode, Khan Noonien Singh is described as “probably” being a Sikh (because what we really need to see right now is a Sikh terrorist blowing up London). Aside from the obvious vilification that is at work here, when one considers the increasing anti-Muslim violence and terror that is afflicted upon Muslims and Sikhs, it is even more offensive to see brown characters relegated to playing terrorists (even if they are played by white actors). Similarly, I never wanted Ra’s Al-Ghul or Talia Al-Ghul to be played by Arabs. At the same time, I don’t like the fact that white actors are used as stand-ins for villains of color who have exoticized South Asian and Arabic names. The problem is with the source material and how and why these characters were created. A lot of times, we understand these characters with respect to the story and the worlds they inhabit, but I think it’s important to go beyond that and question the context in which these characters were created.

An excellent post about “Iron Man 3″ points out that “The Mandarin” was created in 1964 and was used to perpetuate “the whole ‘Iron Man as capitalist versus Evil Chinese Communist’ mindset.” Patriotism and pro-war propaganda aren’t new to American comic books, nor are they going away any time soon (e.g. Frank Miller’s Islamophobic “Holy Terror” book). I haven’t done too much research on the context in which Ra’s Al-Ghul was created, but descriptions of him on the DC comics database states that he is an “international immortal eco-terrorist” who was born to a tribe of nomads “somewhere in Arabia.” When one sees the noticeable anti-Iran propaganda in “Batman: A Death in the Family,” it’s hard to imagine that Ra’s Al-Ghul being Arab and a terrorist is something coincidental.

I’m not saying people of color shouldn’t play villains in these stories, but I also think the following question needs to be considered seriously: where do we not see people of color portrayed as villains? If I wanted to see brown and black people vilified, all I need to do is turn on CNN. The demonization of African-Americans, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, and other communities of color have been well documented by countless anti-racist writers, scholars, and activists. Do we really need to see more villains who look like us and our families? I get that villains like Khan are respected and admired by fans and, yes, it is racist for filmmakers to assume that people can only sympathize with him if he is played by a white actor. I found myself sympathizing with his character, too, but at the end of the day, he is an “invisible” South Asian character who is a terrorist. This is why it’s so frustrating and upsetting – it loops back to the stereotype that brown people are already locked into.

When “Prince of Persia” came out, I joined the voices of other bloggers and fans of the video game who spoke out against the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role. It is true that “Prince of Persia” is an Orientalist fantasy written by a white man, but I still felt it would have been powerful to see an Iranian actor play a heroic lead role – something that is extremely rare, unlike villainous roles. The decision to cast a white man was a harsh reminder that (1) the majority of these characters in popular western science fiction, fantasy, and comic book stories are created by white male writers, and (2) Orientalism will always construct “the Orient as the West’s other” and therefore belonging to the West. As Edward Said said, Orientalism is not only inaccurate and dishonest, but also “a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the ‘Orient.’” In other words, when applied here, a white man is cast to play the prince of Persia because the Orientalist owns this character and the world in which he lives. White people are cast to play Ra’s Al-Ghul, Talia Al-Ghul, and Khan Noonien Singh because they are creations based upon racialized, gendered, and exoticitized constructions of the “Other,” therefore owned by their white creators and reproduced in whatever manner they wish.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends, but I was pleasantly surprised with what “Iron Man 3″ did with “The Mandarin.” By no means is “Iron Man 3″ devoid of being racist and problematic, but I thought it was really clever how they literally dismantled “The Mandarin” character. For half of the film, we were led to believe that “The Mandarin” was a Chinese, yet “Arab-looking,” terrorist who wished death upon western civilization, but it is later discovered that he was just a British actor being used by a white male villain named Aldrich Killian. The British actor, played by Ben Kingsley, didn’t even have a clue that people were being killed. In other words, “The Mandarin” simply does not exist as a character in the film (worth noting is that when the director Shane Black was asked about “The Mandarin” back in 2011, he replied by dismissing the character as a “racist caricature”). What Aldrich Killian did was deliberately create an Orientalist caricature of a “foreign” villain that American society would fear and feel threatened by. The real threat didn’t come from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Syria, which are all mentioned as possibilities by Tony Stark and his friends, but rather from a white man in Miami. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to hold up a mirror for America and commenting on how easy it is for people to believe that a racist caricature like “The Mandarin” (who is an Orientalist mix of different cultures) is actually real. I also felt that the director was essentially saying that a character like “The Mandarin” is so ridiculous and racist (his name alone is appalling enough) that he shouldn’t exist to begin with.

What’s also interesting to note is that a lot of white fans have been complaining about how “The Mandarin” was ruined (their rage about this can be seen/read everywhere from YouTube videos to blog posts to discussion boards). After the film was over, I heard a young white man sitting behind us express how angry he was about “The Mandarin.” He said, “Shane Black f***ed this movie up! The Mandarin is not like that in the comics, he’s an evil Asian guy! He’s supposed to be Asian!” I couldn’t help but think about how disturbing it was that people like him were angry because, what, they didn’t get to see another “Yellow Peril” narrative? We don’t need more “Yellow Peril” movies (we’ve already seen a couple of them released this year: “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” Click here and here if you can stomach reading the racist tweets people posted after watching both of these films). One of my favorite responses to these complaints comes from someone with the username “Whatever,” who wrote:

“-sniffle- I didn’t get my outrageously racist villain because he was instead revealed to be a powerless figurehead created by a white man playing on the xenophobic tendencies of the United States. I’m so upset. Wah. -_-”

Is this message in “Iron Man 3″ going to end Islamophobia? Certainly not. It doesn’t erase the other nationalistic and racist elements in the film, like that horrible scene involving Muslim women wearing niqabs (which is why I won’t call “Iron Man 3″ an anti-racist film). I understand the argument that erasing “The Mandarin” character would also mean erasing an opportunity for an Asian actor, but why don’t the filmmakers open non-stereotypical roles for these actors? The sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book genre in American film is overwhelmingly white, but God forbid if people of color start filling roles for characters who have always been imagined as white (we all remember what happened when some “Hunger Games” fans found out that Rue was black). What would happen if Batman was black? Or if Superman was brown? Or if the “X-Men” films centered on Storm instead of Wolverine? Or if the lead character for the next “Star Wars” film was a woman of color? Why do people of color have to settle for villains or supporting characters or the-black-person-dies-first character? (it still happens – remember “X-Men: First Class”?)

While I respect those who advocate against the racebending of villains of color, I think further steps need to be taken. The framework of “equal representation” for people of color leaves many potential problems unchecked and unexamined. For instance, when “Argo” was released, there were blog posts that voiced outrage over Ben Affleck, a white man, playing a character who is Latino in real life. However, nothing was said in these posts about the pervasive Islamophobia and demonization of Iranians existing throughout the film. Similarly, if we focus solely on “equal representation,” we overlook the racism that it is engrained in these villains of color. We need to move beyond “equal representation” and recognize characters like Khan Noonien Singh, Ra’s Al-Ghul, “The Mandarin,” and other villains of color as racist caricatures. We need to challenge the writers who are creating these villains and telling these stories. We need to challenge how these racialized and vilifying stereotypes fit into larger discourses in society, as well as the role they play in perpetuating racism, sexism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. We need to challenge why these characters exist in the first place.

It’s because people of color deserve more than “equal representation” in western science fiction and fantasy stories. They need better, dignified, non-stereotypical, honest, and unapologetic stories that highlight upon their experiences. They need stories that don’t tokenize them or pretend that things like racism don’t exist. They need stories where they are not only centered, but also radically challenge and disrupt these white-dominated genres. These kind of stories are told and need to be told by people of color themselves.

UPDATE: Coco made these important points in the comments, which I wanted to share here. Re-sharing with permission!:

“great post! I want to add on to your last point, which is that fair representation can only occur when we tell our own stories where we are not caricatures of our race but actual human beings. But the way racism is entrenched in western media and societies, it is not that non problematic narratives involving non-white people don’t exist, they simply aren’t heard because they aren’t promoted, financed, etc in the same way as white dominated narratives and so are forever left in the margins. Power lies in the hands of the capitalist racist hetro patriachy and the mainstream media is one way it perpetuates itself.”