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.”

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.

Post-Racial America? Yeah Right!

Uzma Kolsy wrote an important article about recent attacks on Mosques and the Wisconsin Gurdwara in the past 11 days. Please read it here: “Eight Attacks, 11 Days.”

For those who don’t know, a day after the Gurdwara massacre, in which six Sikhs were killed by a white supremacist terrorist, a Mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burnt to the ground (pictured above).  On Saturday night, I was volunteering again at my Mosque for Iftari time and a friend texted me about shots being fired at an Illinois Mosque.  David Conrad, a 51 year-old white man, shot pellets from his rifle at the wall of the Mosque while there were 500 people praying inside. No one was hurt, but it must be noted that these shots were fired a day after congressperson Joe Walsh shamelessly spewed out racist, Islamophobic statements about Muslims “infiltrating” Chicago suburbs and wanting to “kill Americans.” It needs to be understood that the acceptance and normalization of this type of hate speech has violent consequences, and the recent attacks on Mosques and the Wisconsin Gurdwara are proof of that.

The next few days saw more attacks on Mosques. Below is “(t)ranscribed data on the fate of some paintball gunshots, flames, hammers, pig’s legs, and bottles of acid in the first half of August 2012 in the United States of America” (Source: I Have No Memory of It):

ONTARIO, California. Worshippers said two women threw the three legs onto the driveway of the proposed Al-Nur Islamic Center in Ontario shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday and sped away in a white pickup.

NORTH SMITHFIELD, Rhode Island. Muslims from a North Smithfield mosque are asking for extra protection after a sign outside their place of worship was vandalized over the weekend. North Smithfield police confirmed they are studying surveillance video recorded around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. That’s when a person was seen driving into the mosque’s parking lot and smashing the sign with a hammer.

MORTON GROVE, Illinois. The shots were heard by worshipers who were outside the mosque and were powerful enough to damage the building’s brick wall.

LOMBARD, Illinois. The prepertrators hurled a 7-Up bottled filled with acid at the school during Ramadan prayers.

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma. Authorities are investigating after vandals fired paintballs at an Oklahoma City mosque. ‘A car pulled here in front of the main entrance and started shooting paintball guns, but at the time, I didn’t know it was that. I thought it was bullets they were shooting into the building.’

Three suspicious fires within four years at the mosque west of JOPLIN, Missouri. A mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground just over a month after an attempted arson at the Islamic center.

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee. They’d waited more than two years for the opening of their new Islamic center, delayed by legal wrangling and anti-Muslim sentiment that surfaced through protests, arson and vandalism.

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey didn’t mince words.

‘You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it,’ he said during his failed run for governor.

A sign announcing the new center was vandalized. The message said: ‘Not welcome.’

I don’t hear these stories in the mainstream media, do you?  Calling America “post-racial” is not only inaccurate, it is also dangerous. It denies the very existence of violence against communities of color and treats each crime as “isolated incidents” (if ever acknowledged at all). Some new readers of this blog have left comments here about how things aren’t “as bad” for Muslims as it was for the Irish.  Our community (and other marginalized communities) hear this all the time and it still amazes me how people don’t understand how that statement basically says, “Hey, it’s not that bad, just ignore the hate crimes against Muslims, it’s no big deal. Really!”  And some comments have no hesitation in pulling the flying carpet fallacy (follow the link for a detailed explanation). How many more hate crimes against people of color need to be committed before mainstream society actively confronts racism and white supremacy?

It’s about time people move beyond the “it’s worse over there” or “it’s not as bad” rhetoric and begin to show respect and concern for all of humanity.

The Violence of White Supremacy

Only 16 days after the horrific shooting in Colorado, an ex-army white supremacist male opened fire in a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and killed six people. Aside from having another “and they call me barbarian” moment, my deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. I pray that God gives them all the strength needed to heal through this difficult time. Ameen.

I don’t wish to appropriate the pain felt by the Sikh victims and families of Sunday’s shooting, but the attack on their house of worship angers and saddens me. On the same day of the attack, I was volunteering at my Mosque for iftari (Ramadan dinner) and it was quite troubling and upsetting that my father had to explain safety procedures to me in case a racist Islamophobe decided to open fire on us. We knew there was no doubt that the white man who murdered six Sikhs thought he was shooting Muslims — those who doubt this need to be reminded that, along with Muslims, Sikhs and other non-Muslim communities that fit white supremacy’s racialized profile for “Muslims/Islam” (brown skin, beards, turbans, headscarves, etc.) have been targeted in hate crimes motivated by Islamophobia for a long time, especially since 9/11.  As I have written several times on this blog, among the first victims of this violence was a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered just four days after 9/11 by a white man who mistook him for a Muslim. The murderer, Frank Roque, ranted in bars about how he wanted to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11th,” and upon his arrest declared, ““I stand for America all the way!  I’m an American.  Go ahead.  Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.” According to official reports, Roque also stated the reason why he killed Sodhi: “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”

Wade Michael Page, the white man who unleashed terror on Sikh worshipers, was part of a “White Power” band and sung lyrics that called for a “race war.” As usual, the media fails to emphasize that Page’s violent racism is not an “isolated incident,” but rather rooted in the established order of white supremacy. As Andrea Smith contends, the third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of Orientalism, in which Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and other communities of color are marked as “permanent foreign threats to empire.” As hate crimes, discriminatory acts, vandalism, and other forms of violence against these communities continue to increase annually (in fact, a day after the Gurdwara massacre, a Mosque in Missouri was burnt to the ground), we also see violence from the state: NYPD-CIA spying on Muslims and infiltrating their neighborhoods, mosques, and schools; Obama’s “kill list” and signing of the indefinite detention bill; Orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries and relentless backing of Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine.

It is violent, despicable, and utterly shameful how western mainstream media, including popular television and film, constantly vilifies and demonizes Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Over and over again, we see stereotypical, narrow, and racist depictions of these communities, and society fails to connect these gross misrepresentations to the harmful impact they have on real human beings. It is no wonder that the Gurdwara atrocity has not attracted as much media and national attention as other shootings – the media has already conditioned society to view “dark” and “turbaned” people as subhuman. Ali Abunimah reminds us about President Obama’s trip to India and how he “refused to visit the main shrine of Sikhism, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, because he did not want to be photographed wearing a Sikh headcovering and be confused for a Muslim.” How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed of themselves when they see the very people that they vilified and distanced themselves from attacked in such violent racist hatred? How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed when hate crimes and discriminatory acts show that a human being is marked as a target when wearing the turban or the hijab?

It was upsetting listening to CNN making it a point to differentiate between Sikhs and Muslims, asserting that the former are peaceful while implying that Muslims are “violent.” The distinctions also suggested that an attack on Muslims would have somehow made more sense or been “understandable.” As many writers have argued, the differences between Muslims and Sikhs “misses the point.”  Deepa Kumar elaborates:

This is how cultural racism operates: anyone who bears the markers of the “enemy” must necessarily be guilty. For members of the Sikh community, this bizarre attitude is baffling. Some have gone out of their way to insist that Sikhs are not Muslim and should therefore not be targeted in these ways.

Yet, the horrific murders in Wisconsin should teach us that racism is about the dehumanization of an entire group of people: It is the worst kind of guilt by association.  If the Sikh community is not to blame for the events of 9/11, neither is the Muslim community.

It’s infuriating how there are still forces that try to divide Muslims and Sikhs, despite the many similarities Punjabi Muslims in particular share with Punjabi Sikhs. When I watched interviews with the witnesses, I couldn’t help but think about my own Punjabi heritage. Although I am not Sikh, it is our South Asian culture that teaches us to address our elders as “Uncle” or “Aunty” out of respect,  regardless of what their faith is. Seeing Sikh elders – men and women I would call Uncle and Aunty – in tears brought me to tears. Hearing them speak in Punjabi made me think of my parents speaking in Punjabi, a language I read in poetry, a language I sing along to, a language that represents a cultural bond between Punjabi Muslim and Sikh communities.  It was a South Asian community, fellow members of our Desi community, that was attacked. Whether we’re Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.; whether we’re Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, etc., we shop with each other at the same Desi stores, we dine at the same Desi restaurants, we cook and eat similar foods, we listen to similar music, we watch the same Bollywood movies, etc. Although there is a history of Muslim oppression against Sikhs, South Asian Muslims and Sikhs share similarities, including names, language, culture, and reverence for the same poets and gurus (Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, etc.). When the media stresses on how Sikhs and Muslims are different, they fail to see these intersections.

Our differences are significant and important, but they do not pit our communities against each other. As Sony Singh writes in his article, “We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond”:

The roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Sikh community run deep in South Asia, from the days of the tyranny of Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb in the 17th century to the bloodshed in 1947 when our homeland of Punjab was sliced into two separate nation-states. Despite these historical realities, Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy.In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus.

[...]

What is it going to take for Sikhs and Muslims to join together in solidarity against the common enemies of racist harassment and violence, racial and religious profiling, and Islamophobic bigotry?… As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.

The Sikh musician, Sikh Knowledge, tweeted this important message after the Gurdwara massacre:

We cannot distance ourselves from each other and behave as if this is not “our problem.” We are all impacted by the systems of violence and oppression in many different ways, but our struggles are interconnected and we cannot afford to abandon anyone.Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – all South Asians and all peoples – need to stand united against the oppressive workings of white supremacy.

“And They Call Me Barbarian”


Remember this scene from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)*? After witnessing Robin deliberately lie to his own English folk about the number of enemies approaching them, the North African Muslim character Azeem reflects to himself and says, “And they call me barbarian.”  Here’s the clip for those who haven’t seen it or need their memories refreshed:

Yeah, that’s my reaction whenever white non-Muslims like James Holmes go around shooting and killing innocent people. “And they call us (Muslims) terrorists,” I say.

Of course James Holmes, who indiscriminately opened fire on moviegoers at the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado,  is not called a “terrorist” because that term is reserved for Muslims only. Instead, Holmes is pronounced “mentally ill,” an ableist and inaccurate narrative since most people struggling with mental illnesses do not act out violently. Dismissed in the stereotyping of disabled bodies are the serious societal and political factors that contribute to the culture of violence in the United States. Meanwhile, white non-Muslim and able-bodied people never have to worry about being collectively blamed, stigmatized, racially profiled, or subjected to racist laws that target their entire race/community due to the violent actions of one man.

Even if some media outlets like NPR refer to Holmes as a terrorist, the narrative is still very different than how stories about Muslims are covered. When Muslims do it, the term “terrorist” is assigned to not just one person, but the entire community and religion. It’s heavily racialized and presented as an organized, “foreign” problem that threatens the existence of western civilization. White non-Muslim bodies like Holmes are ultimately seen as individuals, as “lone wolves,” and as “mentally ill.” The consequences of a white non-Muslim person committing an act of terror like this does not, as I pointed out, result in widespread, societal, and institutionalized discrimination against all white people.

In other words, I highly doubt Sherlock Holmes is worried about his next movie not being a hit just because he shares the same last name as a white terrorist. I’m confident that people with the first name “James” won’t get harassed with offensive questions like, “Have you ever thought about changing your name after what happened in Colorado?” (in the same way men with the first name “Osama” are). Also, I’m pretty sure that people who dress up as the Joker for Halloween aren’t going to be stopped in the street by police officers and demanded to provide their photo IDs or an explanation of why they’re dressed as Batman’s arch-nemesis  (in case you didn’t know, Holmes told the police, “I am the Joker”).

And let’s be honest about white non-Muslim privilege and power: a Muslim person wouldn’t have been able to legally purchase vast amounts of firepower (4 guns, 6,000 rounds of ammunition) Holmes did without having a visit from the FBI. Are the NYPD-CIA spy teams considering to infiltrate white neighborhoods, Presbyterian churches (since Holmes was reported to have been highly involved with his church), and schools in the same way they violated the rights of countless Muslims in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania? Do World War II buffs who collect German military uniforms, firearms, and other weapons need to worry about their homes being searched without warrants?

White supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy easily tells us that the answer is “no,” white non-Muslims do not need to be profiled or spied upon. Forget that James Holmes’ terrorism reveals the failure of gun control in the US and forget that opening fire in a movie theater shows how vulnerable people are. The “real threat,” we are constantly reminded, is from the “illegal immigrants,” the racialized peoples, the Muslims from “over there” who have the “mission” to “destroy the west from within.” These “real threats” need to be monitored, but not the white people who buy guns, ballistics gear, and ridiculous amounts of ammunition.

Lastly, I came across articles on Gawker and the New York Daily News about people who identify themselves as “Holmies,” or fans of James Holmes. They have Tumblr blogs, Facebook group pages, and YouTube videos in tribute of James Holmes. It is noteworthy to point out that these fans are predominately white and even try to emulate his manner of dress.  As one article put it, James Holmes has inspired “an online legion of ‘fans’ who upload original artworks and photos of themselves sporting Holmes-inspired plaid shirts flannel and sipping Slurpees.”

And they call us barbarians.

* Just a few thoughts on “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” I agree with Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” that the character of Azeem represents one of the rare positive images we see of Muslims in Hollywood cinema. However, I also agree with Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of “The Muslim Next Door,” that while Azeem is a hero, he is still otherized. I find the “devout mystical dude” and “loyal white man’s servant” portrayal of him to be really problematic and stereotypical, for sure. There are some moments when I appreciate how his character serves as a (often humorous) critique of romanticized European history (especially the Crusades) and the white imagination’s negative perception of Muslims and Islam.

Racist “Hunger Games” Fans Only Care About White People

As many of you have already heard, some racist “Hunger Games” fans were quite angry when they learned black actors were cast for the roles of Rue (pictured above), Cinna, and Thresh.  Blogs and websites collected screenshots of Twitter pages and Facebook status messages where “fans” shamelessly posted racist comments like, “Sense [sic] when has Rue been a n*****” (and no, the racial slur is not bleeped out), or “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture.”

If you haven’t seen the screenshots, read these posts:

1. Why Racists are Upset with the ‘Hunger Games’ Casting

2. Yes, There Are Black People in Your “Hunger Games”: The Strange Case of Rue & Cinna

3. Hunger Games Tweets

4. Racism: Realer Than Fiction

The third link is a Tumblr page dedicated to exposing the racist “Hunger Game” fans. Aside from the fact that Rue is described as having dark skin in the book (the description is on page 45), what do the racist reactions from these fans say about the role people of color have in the realm of white fandom?  What does it say about the perception of real black people and other people of color in our own world? What really disturbed me was how these fans said they couldn’t develop an emotional connection with Rue simply because she was played by a black actor in the film.  In other words, if she was played by a white actor, those fans would actually care for her. I can’t help but think of how this racism and apathy reflects the larger society’s dehumanization and vilification of people of color, as well as the utter disregard for the lives of black youth.  If we are constantly being taught that only the lives of white people are valuable, then is it any wonder that there is such apathy towards the lives of young black men like Trayvon Martin or the countless other racialized youth who are unjustly murdered, not only in the United States, but in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Pakistan, etc.?

Anyway, that is another blog post altogether. In the meantime, check out this comic strip I drew the other night. It’s been a while since I’ve drawn something, so don’t expect a masterpiece, lol. It’s not meant to be perfect and I didn’t spend too much time on it (as my friends know, I have other sketches that are much better than this). I knew I had to draw this when I heard the very same people who say “I don’t see skin color” get angry about the casting of Rue. It just boggled my mind to listen to the hypocrisy, but it definitely reaffirmed how “colorblindness” is racism.