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

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

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

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

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

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

Fassbender replied in agreement, “Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (sidenote: the writers demonstrated they clearly don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs in that book).

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.

Silence Hurts

The other day I was reading a brilliant article on “People of Color Organize!” and this part stood out to me especially:

Silence – You are in a group of people, you’ve just heard someone say something racist. Not full blown N-Word racist just run of the mill racist (we’ll get to this in a minute) and you stay silent. You are a piece of shit.

I don’t expect anyone to go out and call out each and every racist thing they hear from each and every human being. Not only because you’d have no time to eat, sleep or breathe but in some cases, it could actually be dangerous to do so.

I am talking about that one time when you and your black friend were out with a group of people and someone said something racist. The black person was left to defend themselves while you stayed silent. Later, when you and said black friend were alone, you let them know how wrong you thought that person was and how much you agreed with everything the black person said.

You are a piece of shit.

If being friends with a black person is too much for you, don’t do it. If you are going to sit and silently agree that something was racist and wrong, keep walking. You are not a friend.

Being an ally behind closed doors and only behind closed doors is not being an ally at all. It is being a coward. Be a coward with someone else. You are not a friend.

Unfortunately, a lot of people of color can relate to this. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.  Many of us are already familiar with the phrase “silence is complicity” and how it is commonly written on signs at social justice demonstrations.  The statement is directed at governments, political leaders, and society in general for remaining quiet and not taking action against war crimes, colonial occupation, sexual violence, and other oppressions. As the excerpt above demonstrates, we can also look at how racism and silent complicity operates in the realm of personal relationships, such as friendships.

I’ve lost count of how many times certain white “friends” would remain quiet while someone else relentlessly demonized my culture and faith.  One awful memory was in my early twenties when someone I once respected lashed out on my research on Islamophobia and made utterly racist remarks against Muslims.  The silence from my “friends,” who sat as quiet observers during the whole tirade, was devastating.  It was more difficult to deal with when this happened on numerous occasions.

It took several years for me to realize that these people are not my friends. It took time to realize that their assertions of “colorblindness” is a fantasy and that there is too much at stake for people of color to ignore the reality of racism. In the process, I also had to confront my own internalized racism and the way I perceived myself, my culture, my religion, my community, etc. I couldn’t simply pretend that I wasn’t brown or that racism didn’t exist.

No one should have to tolerate situations where their friends suddenly fall silent during unwanted encounters with racism. No one should be left alone to defend themselves in the presence of friends.  It amazes me how people of color hear excuses like, “I was going to say something, but I didn’t want to get involved,” or receive advice like, “Just ignore it, that person says homophobic things all the time around my gay friends.”  While the people making these remarks may have good intentions, they are actually making matters worse and not being supportive at all.

Leaving someone unaccountable places the burden and expectation upon the victim to “get over it.” While the victim is told to “forget” about the damage that has already been done, the perpetrator’s behavior is normalized and allowed to carry on.  This is not how it should be. When you leave your friend to defend him/herself and then tell him/her to “ignore it,” you are participating in that abuse.  You are complicit because you allow the perpetrator to go unchallenged while your friend is hurt. That is not being a friend.

The disturbing part is that these experiences are not “isolated incidents.” They reflect a larger problem in society, particularly in the way we are taught to discuss (and not discuss) racism.  Throughout high school, I remember assemblies that would address bullying, but rarely was racism ever mentioned. We were constantly taught that “sticks and bones break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What my school and other schools fail to understand is that words do hurt. They do cause damage. Telling someone to ignore name-calling is to simultaneously excuse the bully of harassing that person.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between calling someone “four eyes” or “nerd” for wearing glasses and calling someone “Apu” or “Osama” for having brown skin.  There is a huge difference between calling someone a “loser” for being shy and attributing a sexist, degrading word to a woman because of the way she dresses. A white student being bullied for having blue hair cannot say he knows what racism feels like. This is not to negate his challenges, but rather to stress that his experiences are not the same as victims of racism. I bring this up because various forms of bullying often get lumped together when developing anti-bullying strategies.  Such strategies assume victims of bullying “share” the “same” oppression when, in fact, bullying has very distinct forms. The problem with the assumption of  “shared oppression” is that it has potential to trivialize racism (as well as sexism and homophobia) when people say things like, “Hey, I was called a nerd in high school and I was able to ignore it; why couldn’t you ignore the people who called you ‘Osama’?”

Verbal bullying is harmful, most especially when racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and ableist language is used, and it needs to be addressed more effectively in schools. When people are socialized to think insults “can’t” and “shouldn’t” hurt anyone, they end up telling their friends to “ignore” the racist remarks they hear. Such attitudes result in conflict and have serious potential to break friendships, particularly when white people get defensive after their friends of color call them out on their silence.

Interestingly, while I was writing this entry, I came across another blog post that also discusses silent complicity. The author cites recent video clips of white women who used violently racist language to verbally assault people of color on trains. Commenting on one of the videos, she writes:

So let me get this straight: It’s alright to let a raging racist White woman say sh*t about immigration and people of color but a Black man is not allowed to stand up for himself and express his anger at verbal violence explicitly directed at him? And can someone please tell me why the Black woman was the only person on the train who was left to defend herself? Where are the White people? Where are our White allies who should have told the Raging Racist to stop? Staring into space or playing on their phones.  At this point, Whiteness conveniently shrinks into the background as the people of color in the train are forced to listen to Raging Racist and forced to defend ourselves.

To make matters worse, we see people of color internalizing and perpetuating the same racist logic used to oppress marginalized communities.  The author terms these people as “white defenders.” They give excuses for the racism of white people and point fingers at people of color.  I cannot begin to describe the frustration that one feels when fellow people of color blame the victim for discrimination, sexual assault, and other abuses. When anger is expressed towards white supremacy, whether in rallies, in academic papers, or in general conversation, white defenders resort to “reverse racism” arguments. They say, “Not all white people are like that,” or “We shouldn’t stereotype white people,” or “I have really amazing white friends who I really love and care about.”  The conversation suddenly shifts from challenging institutionalized white supremacy to making people of color “anti-white,” as if they have the same power to dominate over and oppress white people.  The blogger of the aforementioned post articulates this much better than I can:

When we engage in ‘White defending’ and make excuses for individual acts of racism, we are supporting and furthering the agenda of White supremacy. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question. Engaging in ‘White defending’ gives Whiteness a free pass – White people can continue to ignore the historical and present wrongs committed against people of color. White defenders are White man’s best friend. This is the thinking and these are the people that people with privilege turn to and point towards as proof that ‘Things are better now’ when some shit-disturber like myself decides to call out their bullshit.

And, yes, this:

And when we come to realize that everyone is in one way or another complicit in racism, we realize that racism is not just about individuals saying some racist things this ONE TIME. Racism is not just an individual’s actions upon another individual. Racism is everywhere – it is in our culture, it is in our everyday interactions, it is in our systems and institutions. And when we shine a light on this bigger picture, we realize that racism is not just about one person doing something bad to another person. It is about centuries upon centuries of groups of people doing bad things to other groups of people and then, those groups of people punishing themselves, defending their bullies and saying they deserve the violence in the first place. Racism is a BIG OL’ GIANT ROCK THAT JUST WON’T SEEM TO BUDGE.

I know some people are thinking, “Well, if you would explain it nicer, then maybe we’d be more willing to listen.”  This goes back to attacking the tone of the victim.  For white friends and allies, you must understand the anger about racism.  You must.  If you sincerely care about ending racist oppression, you need to stop getting defensive when people of color express their anger about racism and stop being condescending with comments like, “You need to love more, just show people compassion and they’ll understand.”  If you try to make this about “tone” or “reverse racism,” then you are not being an ally or a friend.

White allies who do anti-racist work understand that there are times when they should speak and times when they shouldn’t. I remember during a social justice meeting, people of color wanted to have their own space to discuss certain issues and some white people objected to it because they thought they were being “discriminated against” (precisely the reason why people of color requested for safe space).  White allies interjected and told the other white activists that they should respect the decision made by people of color. Similarly, I recall women of color feminists making decisions for women-only spaces for certain discussions. No matter what a man’s feminist politics are, he should not go around complaining about “reverse sexism” or whine about about how he was “excluded” by women and how he “should have” been part of the discussions because “he is a feminist, too.”  If he makes these complaints, he is not an ally.  Sometimes, not interfering is the best thing you can do as an ally.  In the case of speaking up when your friend of color is being chewed out by a racist bigot right in front of you, you need to speak up – not to speak for your friend, but to speak out of support and solidarity.  People of color can defend themselves, but when we have our friends around, we don’t want to be abandoned and take further abuse from your silence.

I refuse to be in situations where I would be left alone to defend myself. I refuse to allow myself to be silent when my friends are on receiving ends of racist, sexist, homophobic, or any kind of discriminatory or derogatory remark.  There is a lot of responsibility that all of us have in the struggle to end oppression and that includes holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes, especially when our complicity hurts the people we deeply care about.

Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions


As 2011 comes to an end, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.  Due to the dangerous intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other positionalities, it is important to stress on being conscious of these interlocking oppressions.  The term “intersectionality” is invoked a lot, but there is a huge difference between writing about it and understanding it.

Recently, someone who self-identifies as an “activist” exercised his misogyny by taking a paparazzi-style photo of a woman’s body part and shared it with his friends on Facebook.  Over a hundred perverted and horribly sexist comments were made under the image.  All of this happened without the woman knowing that a zoomed-in photo of her body was publicly on display for a bunch of perverts to gawk at and sexually objectify.

Confrontations with the police does not excuse a male activist of being held accountable for his misogyny and violation of a woman’s privacy.  Those who commented in favor of the photo are also complicit in sexist oppression and objectification.  You cannot fight state violence while participating in another form of oppression and not acknowledging how the two are interconnected.  It undermines everything you claim to stand for.

I know there are a lot of men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are outraged by sexism and misogyny.  However, many of us make the mistake in seeing ourselves as being “outside of patriarchy.”  That is, because we have feminist politics and speak out against sexual violence, sexist exploitation, and patriarchal domination, there is no way we can be sexist.  On the contrary, I am not outside of it and neither are you.  None of us are.  I have read several posts written by men (some of which were recently pointed out to me) who tell this narrative: “I used to be sexist, but after reading feminist literature and making feminist friends, I am cured and better now!”  I have made this mistake as well and I accept that I will make more mistakes in the future. Being called out on your sexism is not always easy, but that is how you learn to unlearn.

Instead of congratulating ourselves or rushing to claim that “we are good men” and “not like those misogynists out there,” we need to understand our responsibility in constantly unlearning the sexist socialization we have internalized. We live in societies where sexist and racist oppression is so deeply engrained and even foundational to the established order, so saying “I’m not sexist” is not enough (likewise, saying “I’m not racist” is not enough for white people). Asserting this claim only puts us on the defensive and overlooks how we benefit from oppressive power structures. We cannot dismantle patriarchy externally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our complicities and actively confront sexism within ourselves, not just once, but every day, for the rest of our lives.

When a woman is addressing the awful reality of sexual assaults against women that occur in anti-racist spaces, we should not center our attention on thinking that she is only talking about “those men,” i.e. the assailants, the misogynists, the rapists, etc. Such an outlook only makes us perceive ourselves as “innocent” and “not sexist.”  We have to be conscious of the sexism we have internalized and how we exercise sexism in our everyday lives.  We have to take action to ensure we will not maintain and reproduce those power dynamics.  This is not about demonizing men or saying that all of us are monstrous at the core.  This is not about implying that all men will assault women in social justice spaces either.  This is about understanding our responsibility in challenging and eliminating sexism externally and internally.  In movements that are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., if there are people being abused, assaulted, discriminated against, beaten, or excluded, we must work to eliminate that violence.  When you are called out on your sexism, apologize, listen, and hold yourself accountable.   Take responsibility for it and accept the consequences, even if that means you cannot be part of the group anymore or that some people will never be able to trust you again.  Do not get defensive and say that what you did “wasn’t sexist” or “wasn’t patriarchal.”  Don’t make this about you “being a good man” or that “you had good intentions” or that you have women friends who “don’t see you as sexist.”  Don’t attack the “tone” of the people calling you out on it either. Denying your complicity only exposes the sexist masculine power you exercise.

Furthermore, we have to move beyond “accepting” sexist and racist socialization.  Accepting that white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy has programmed us to uphold these interlocking structures of oppression is important, but it does not at all give us an excuse to normalize our sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.  I have come across individuals who say, “Yes, I admit I’m racist, I accept it.” There’s a huge difference between understanding your responsibility in unlearning racism and simply asserting that “everyone is racist,” as if that makes everything “ok.” No, it is not “ok.” We live in a racist society and all us are impacted by it differently (and if you are white, you benefit a great deal from white supremacy). Instead of just sitting back and saying, “I admit I’m racist,” you should be challenging yourself on a daily basis and actively doing something about your racism. Don’t use racist socialization as an excuse to normalize your racism.

Some people, to my own astonishment, have told me to my face that they hate Indians and Pakistanis.  They have told me things like, “I hate Pakistanis. I hope you don’t take offense to that.”  Of course I take offense to it; it is racist and against me, in particular. Others have told me they “hate Indians” and then say, “I admit I’m prejudice against them, but everyone is racist, right?”  What makes them think this is acceptable to say to me or to anyone else is the real indicator of how deeply entrenched racism is. Accepting that we are socialized to be racist and sexist does not make things “ok” because these oppressions have serious effects in the real world.  “I am racist” or “I am sexist” is not something to boast about or repeat shamelessly.  Move beyond accepting the status quo and be responsible.   Apologize for the damage you have caused and do something about it.  Don’t expect your South Asian friend to continue talking to you when you’ve demonized his/her culture and never held yourself accountable for it.  Don’t expect your Arab friends to return your calls when you “jokingly” referred to them as “terrorists” and thought that was cool.  You may have “accepted” your racism or sexism, but your friend may not accept how your racism or sexism targeted him/her, so if you care about preserving that friendship, do something about it.

Challenge yourself in your daily interactions with people.  Challenge yourself when you use racist, sexist, colonial, and/or ableist language.  Challenge the stereotypes you have of certain groups of people when you see/meet them.  Critique yourself and analyze every aspect of your life.   We all make mistakes and we are going to continue making them.  It’s how we respond to those mistakes and actively work to correct them that matters.  Listen to the people you have offended, hurt, discriminated against, marginalized, etc.  Don’t accuse them of being “too angry” or “too mean”  when they condemn what you said or did.  Deconstructing and unlearning racism, sexism, and other oppressions is not something you can accomplish overnight; it is something all of us have to do for our entire lives.  Read the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has already been done, if you have access to the books and discourses.  Write about your resisting oppressive socialization, speak about it, teach about it, educate others about it, call yourself out on it, implement it into your life and work on it everyday. Never excuse yourself of your complicity, never be “ok” with it, but always assume the responsibility to struggle against it.

“Planet of the Apes” and How Racism, Sexism Hurts Science Fiction

Honestly, as a brown Muslim who takes his science fiction seriously, I wish I could like the “Planet of the Apes” films. I really do. I’m always a sucker for mind-boggling time travel paradoxes, and “Planet of the Apes,” especially Tim Burton’s remake, gives sci-fi aficionados plenty to discuss/debate in that regard. However, as I recently revisited the films after several years, I am disheartened by what I found.

I vividly remember watching the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes,” starring Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, when I was a kid. I also remember being frightened by the apes. They were strange and scary-looking “monkey people” as far as my childhood brain was concerned. Interestingly, I recall feeling an odd sense of satisfaction when Heston, the White male protagonist, shouted the infamous line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I cheered for Heston because I hated the apes. They were animals.

Hairy. Ugly. Dark.

Throughout the film, I was waiting for Heston to find a machine gun and plow them all down like Rambo. That scene never came though; the movie just ended with Heston in front of a ruined Statue of Liberty and screaming in despair about something that my young self couldn’t understand. Many years later, when I was 17, Tim Burton’s remake in the summer of 2001 sparked my interest in the “Apes” franchise. I watched the original again and became an instant fan. I even enjoyed Burton’s remake (aside from some of my friends, not many people liked his version, but I’ll get to that later).

About a week ago, I was speaking with a friend about the bizarre ending to Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” and our discussion prompted me to revisit the movies yet again. This time around, at 26, it was upsetting to discover overt sexism and disturbing commentary on race in both films. Let’s begin with the original 1968 film: it is essentially space porn in its treatment of women. Out of the four American astronauts traveling thousands of years into the future in hopes to start a new civilization on another planet, only one is a woman. Without a single word of dialogue, she has about 3 or 4 seconds of screen time before being killed off by a lame air leak in her hibernation vessel. In other words, she doesn’t even survive the voyage! Furthermore, after the spaceship unexpectedly crash-lands in a river on an unknown planet (which we find out to be earth in the famous twist ending), the three male characters abandon ship without the woman’s body, completely denying her at least a proper burial.

As Heston gives some exposition about why he left earth, he reflects on the female character, Stewart, and how she was supposed to be “our new Eve.” Stewart is reduced to a reproduction machine and, were she to survive the expedition, her sole purpose would be to mate with one of the three males. Or, given the competitiveness of the male characters and the sexual frustration subtly expressed by Heston’s character later in the film, she would probably have to mate with all three men. I simply find it illogical for a small group of astronauts to embark on an enormous one-way journey and only bring one woman along to serve as their “Eve.” But the objectification of women and space porn fantasy doesn’t stop there.

When Heston and his two fellow astronauts stumble upon a tribe of humans living in the wild like animals, a scantily-clad female native catches Heston’s eyes. Like the other humans on this future earth, she is mute and primitive. When Heston is paired to mate with her, he does not complain, nor does she. And why should Heston complain? He is a heterosexual space traveler in an unknown world and has a beautiful woman at his side – a woman who is only a body; she does not speak, challenge his actions, or resist his authority. Heston can do anything he wants with her. He even names her like a pet; never mind whether or not she had a name of her own or didn’t like to be called “Nova.” It is easy to argue that traveling into a distant future where a primitive and beautiful woman looks up to you as the superior male figure is nothing short of exotic, highly sexualized hetero-male fantasy. The only female character with speaking parts is Zira, the ape who, with the help of her fiancé Cornelius, defends Heston and human rights. However, she is consistently treated as an “other,” making it very easy, I would argue, for the audience to perceive her exclusively as an ape and not an empowered female.

The “otherness” of the apes and its correlation with people of color, specifically African-Americans, has been much discussed in other critiques of the film. As Gregory P. Kane of Black America Web comments:

The apes in the films have names, but they also have something else: A racial hierarchy. The blonde-haired orangutans are at the top, ruling the roost. Next in line are the chimpanzees, depicted in the films as having brown hair and light-skinned faces. At the bottom are the gorillas, who have black hair and – yes, you guessed right – black-skinned faces.

While one of the American astronauts is Black, he is quickly killed when the apes round up the humans in their first on-screen appearance. The humans on this future earth, by the way, are all White. As Kane remarks, “All those Black folks in New York today, and NOT ONE survived in the future? Oh, and there are no Latinos or Asians either. Every one of the future humans – the ones who survived – is White.”

One could make a counter-argument that the film condemns racism and actually blames “man” for essentially nuking humanity into extinction.  The argument would continue and point out that the experiences African-Americans have with racism in White supremacist heteropatriachy is exemplified in Heston’s character. That is, although Heston is a White man surrounded by an “other” majority, the role reversal is meant to allegorically teach White people how it feels to be enslaved and discriminated against.

I can see some aspects of this perspective, specifically the way the film regularly criticizes the destructive nature of “man,” but it does not excuse the stereotypical representations of apes that are meant to stand in for African-Americans and people of color. To be “human” in the film is to be “White,” and to be “Ape” is to be of color. Even if the message was about denouncing racism, the film’s ending – with Heston realizing that humanity (read: White people) blew up the world – sends an ominous and cynical warning: White people are going to destroy the world and make way for the genetically and technologically “inferior” races and civilizations to rule the planet.

Sadly, this racist theme is even more pronounced in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Like the original, the protagonist, played by Mark Wahlberg, represents the White man as a minority. In order for Wahlberg to return to earth, he has to fight an epic and violent battle against the apes, which only reinforces the White and “other” divide. What we see new in Burton’s film is the influx of Orientalism. The apes carry scimitars and wear pointed helmets, floral-patterned clothing and ornaments which all look like an odd fusion of Arabian, Ottoman, and South Asian art. Even when we are first introduced to an ape village, we see the apes playing sitars and smoking hookah. These images call for an important analysis on how representations of the non-human species in popular science fiction compares to the way people of color are depicted in mainstream media and perceived in society. Metaphilm alludes to this point in its commentary on Burton’s film, describing the attitude as: “Damn, look what’s happening to America! The White man is getting screwed. If we don’t do something, the Black man is going to take over our whole, f***ing planet!”

The author elaborates:

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” fuels this exact kind of racial defensiveness. The connection between the domineering apes and the growing Black (and ethnic) culture in America is striking. Almost every human represented in the film is played by a White actor: an insignificant Black man ends up getting killed, and a submissive Asian woman is virtually invisible. If humanity is represented as being White in the film, then apeness is understood as being colored. The Black man and Asian woman represent minorities that have chosen to blend into Whiteness: cultural sell-outs. And, according to the film, they too will suffer under ape domination.

In addition to these Black and Asian “sell-outs,” there are also the ape “sell-outs,” notably the female ape, Ari (played by Helena Bonham Carter). She is a passionate human rights activist and actually a very well-developed character. I mentioned earlier that not many people liked Burton’s remake, mostly because they didn’t believe it felt like a Burton film. True, I believe the studio tried to transform the original into an action movie, but if there is one aspect of the film, aside from the aesthetic, that has Burton’s signature written all over it, it is the romantic and sexual tension between the female ape and the male human. One could argue that the romance here is tainted with White hetero (earth) male space fantasy and exoticism.

Ari is an empowered female ape and perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the entire film, but since she is so devoted to her human rights activism, she immediately falls in Love with one of them – a complete stranger from another planet – and loses all sense of her own identity. Whenever Ari is around Wahlberg’s character, she is deeply fascinated by him, by how intelligent he is and how he comes from somewhere else, a more technologically advanced, superior civilization where the humans – the White man – rules and dominates. Furthermore, the inter-species Love is only one-way. Wahlberg never shows any interest in her or in the female human character who also swoons over him. The latter is scantily-clad like the original film’s “Nova” and is played by supermodel Estella Warren. She hardly has any dialogue because, quite obviously, she serves only as eye-candy. But Wahlberg doesn’t care about them. Throughout the movie, he just cares about getting the heck off the planet!

The inter-species romance can easily be read as an inter-racial relationship. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but what we need to pay attention to is social status and how the characters are being depicted. Although Ari is played by a White woman, her ape character’s representation is consistent with the way women of color are often portrayed in mainstream media: exoticized, animalistic (and that is obvious here), oppressed by the men of her own race/species, and must be rescued by the White man (this isn’t the first time to appear in science fiction either, you can find it in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar” film). Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the film’s sexism is how Wahlberg gets to kiss both Ari and the female human at the end of the movie! And neither of the women have any objection to that! Why should they – he is the White Messiah figure, they should feel honored he bothered to show them some attention in the first place, right?!

In closing, it is discouraging for me to reject these films that I once enjoyed. I’ve always appreciated how science fiction could convey important social (see “1984”), political (see “V for Vendetta”), and even spiritual (see “Star Wars”) messages in fantastical or futuristic settings, but throughout the history of the genre, at least in Western literature, non-human species have been used as substitutes for people of color. Though the intention is not always to be racist, the perception of the “other” is always reinforced, just as “otherness” is stressed when people of color are portrayed. This makes it quite challenging for people of color like myself to enjoy science fiction classics like “Planet of the Apes.” Women, especially women of color, are relegated to the background, and whenever they are given significant roles, they are almost always hyper-sexualized and exoticized. I really believe they could have made a “Planet of the Apes” film without the racism and sexism. For instance, why couldn’t the protagonist be Brown or Black or Yellow? Or why couldn’t the protagonist be a woman? Why not a woman of color? Why always a White man?

For women and people of color, I only see one solution to this: we need to start promoting and writing our own science fiction stories.