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.

“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.

Remembering Malcolm X


Malcolm X was assassinated on this day, February 21st, in 1965.  Like so many people in the world, Malcolm X’s life and commitment to social justice has had a profound impact on my life.  Although Malcolm’s legacy has received recognition in the mainstream, including a 1992 film directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, there is still a great misunderstanding about who he was.

There are still many who go as far as to vilify and demonize him.  Mainstream narratives about the civil rights movement still persist in creating a simplified dichotomy between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr.  The former is regarded as a “black supremacist” and “extremist,” whereas the latter is commemorated as the “peaceful” and “moderate” civil rights leader.  This distortion of history not only vilifies Malcolm, but also de-radicalizes Martin Luther King Jr. and co-opts his legacy for the ruling class.  It is very telling when you see white supremacists quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to justify discriminatory policies that work to silence and criminalize anti-racism.

One of the things that always bothered me about the “X-Men” was how the writers describe the relationship between Magneto and Professor Xavier as analogous to the relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  The first “X-Men” film put Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” quote in the mouth of Magneto, the villain mutant, and most recently, Michael Fassbender admitted that the lives of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the story of “X-Men: First Class.”  As much as I could relate to the struggle of the mutants in “X-Men” and saw parallels with Islamophobia (especially in “X-Men 2″), the comic book writers and filmmakers constantly make the mistake in comparing Malcolm X to Magneto, a murderous mutant who wants to violently exterminate all humans.  Many have criticized this offensive allegory and rightfully so.  Anyone who delves into the biography of Malcolm X will know that he never killed anyone nor called for the “annihilation” of “white people.”  Advocating for self-defense, perhaps where Malcolm was misunderstood the most, does not mean one advocates violence.

Even in narratives that commemorate and revere Malcolm X, there are problematic “universalist” statements made about his life. He was a racist, they say, but then he went to Mecca and “saw the light,” i.e. he realized he shouldn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  Indeed, when Malcolm went to the holy city of Mecca to perform his hajj, the experience had a profound impact on him. In his famous letter from Mecca, he admitted with humility and sincerity that his interactions with white Muslims, as well as the spiritual knowledge he learned, caused him to “re-arrange” his thoughts. Malcolm still recognized the system of white supremacy and reality of institutionalized racism against African-Americans and other people of color.  To accuse Malcolm of being a “racist” is irresponsible, as it erases the history and reality of racism in the United States, which Malcolm writes about in the letter, too.  Others choose to “water down” Malcolm in this narrative and many have argued that the Spike Lee film didn’t go far enough.  Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture stresses on how the film didn’t depict Malcolm’s visit in Africa and the Middle East, his meetings with African, Arab, and South American leaders, or his anti-Zionist politics.  She also points out that Lee received pressure from Hollywood producers because they were particularly concerned about showing Malcolm’s support of the Palestinians.

Being selective about Malcolm’s life and only focusing on his “post-Hajj” years is to overlook Malcolm’s complexities and how his life journey carries such a meaningful message about self-criticism, among other things. He was committed to learning and, unlike the political “leaders” in the world today, was not afraid to admit his mistakes.  There are still things we need to be critical of, however.  Similar to how bell hooks critiqued Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Aime Cesaire on their male-centered language, the same needs to be said about Malcolm X.   Writing only about male experiences with oppression perpetuates sexism, as it ignores and erases the experiences of women. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Such a strategy not only borrows ideological capital from the white patriarchy that has historically demeaned black America, but blunts awareness of how the practice of patriarchy of black men has created another class of victims within black communities.”

I remember when I took an entire class on Malcolm X, the professor, an African-American woman, critiqued Malcolm’s sexist logic throughout the semester and reminded us that much of Malcolm’s legacy has been shaped and defined by men. Malcolm was a strong advocate of women’s education, but many of his  attitudes towards women were also restrictive and rooted in distrust. My professor also spoke a lot about the women who played a significant role in Malcolm’s life, including his wife Betty Shabazz and his mother and sisters who taught him “the importance of race pride and self identity.”

I do find Malcolm’s sexist logic to be in line with traditional patriarchal attitudes that we can find in all communities. In his autobiography, Malcolm explains that Islam teaches true Love because the beauty of the person is found within, not on the outside.  I believe this is true, but the stereotypical gender roles were also present in Malcolm’s interpretation.  As a young Muslim man, I saw Malcolm’s leadership, politics, and courage as an example that was exclusive to men.  I viewed Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a similar way. That is, men alone needed to be leaders and role models, whereas women were “followers” and “looked up to us.”

Critiques about masculinity and sexism in Malcolm’s life are important; they have been and are addressed by black feminists and activists. In other narratives, a lot of non-black Muslims try to isolate Malcolm as a Muslim and only a Muslim while ignoring African-American struggle. Through this process, Malcolm’s racial identity gets erased and he becomes an appropriated icon – this appropriation, under the assumption that all marginalized communities “share” the “same” oppression, only contributes to anti-black racism. Although I am not African-American, Malcolm’s speeches about not being ashamed of your skin color or where you come from resonated with me very strongly at a young age. My experiences as a South Asian-American are not the same as African-Americans, but Malcolm’s words helped me see important parallels of internalized racism within my community and, most of all, within myself.

There is a lot to appreciate, admire, and respect about Malcolm. Unlike so many today, he was not afraid to speak his mind and speak truth to power.  He didn’t worry about the way others perceived him and he didn’t change his words to please political parties or the white mainstream. He told it like it is.  Criticizing some of his sexist attitudes does not negate his anti-racist work or his advocacy for women’s rights, but rather keeps us critical of social justice struggles and how we can learn to strengthen efforts for liberation.   It is Malcolm’s self-criticism that has always inspired me and this is something all of us must do.  We must criticize the racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other oppressive norms that we have internalized.  Self-criticism reminds us about the importance of holding ourselves responsible and being mindful of the justice we seek for all communities.  As I have written on this blog so many times, racism and sexism are inseparable – there cannot be any true liberation while oppression still exists.

In closing, I wanted to share this excerpt from one of Malcolm’s final speeches that is so relevant today.  Malcolm comments on the multiple arms of racism and how dangerous the grasp of oppression can be when it transforms the victim into the oppressor, and the oppressor into the victim. An intersectional approach to the speech can help us connect Malcolm’s fierce criticism of victim-blaming racism to the way victims of sexual violence are blamed for oppression as well.  The speech was delivered five days before he was assassinated.  May Allah be pleased with Malcolm and may all of our communities work together to end oppression in all of its forms. Ameen.

We’re not against people because they’re white. But we’re against those who practice racism. We’re against those who drop bombs on people because their color happens to be of a different shade than yours. And because we’re against it, the press says we’re violent. We’re not for violence. We’re for peace.

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.

- Malcolm X, February 16th, 1965.

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.