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

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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?

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“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.”

Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but nonetheless those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent in white English majority-speaking countries tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing stereotypes to bodies of color and perpetuating the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that there are anti-racist ways in which people of color imitate the accented English of their communities. There have been times when I used a Desi accent in ways that I felt were empowering and a form of resistance against racism. We perform these accents to counter the stereotypes that are projected unto us and others in our community. However, we also need to remember that we have the privilege of “switching off” the performed accent and go back to speaking with white accents that will never be mocked, degraded, vilified, and judged.

I also don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin colors, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.

Eid Mubarak, Readers!

Salaam everyone,

I was a bit sad when Ramadan came to an end yesterday. I know Allah is ever-present no matter what month it is, but still, I will miss Ramadan this year.

My family and I had a beautiful Eid celebration, alhamdullilah. I was quite proud of my mom for the Chand Raat event she organized at our Mosque. There was an enormous turnout and everyone seemed to have a fun time (we were up till 2 in the morning). In light of the recent attacks against Muslims and Sikhs, there were a lot of posts written about how these hate crimes frightened both communities. It upset me that one of my mom’s friends at the Mosque stopped attending the iftari dinners after the horrible Gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin. It also angered me that so many of these attacks against Muslims and Sikhs were going unannounced and unnoticed in the mainstream media. Many non-Muslim white people I spoke to hadn’t even heard of these attacks (including the shooting in Wisconsin!). Despite the increase of hate crimes and Islamophobia, Muslim communities in North America attended their Mosques to celebrate Eid without fear. Despite how racist Islamophobes scattered bacon strips on the ground before Eid in New York, the 1,500 Muslims in attendance carried on with their celebrations.

Everyone should have the right to celebrate in their house of worship without fear of being attacked.  I hope everyone had a joyous and blessed day! May Allah answer all of our prayers and protect all communities! Ameen!

Eid Mubarak. :)