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.

Challenging the Performance of Masculinity

“Women are dumb,” Bryan* said, “they already have a thousand things going on in their mind about you, so when you ask her out, set a specific date and time; don’t leave it open-ended.” I think I almost choked on my dinner as I heard him advise my friend, Dave.* I did not want to get into an argument since I had not seen Bryan since high school, but his sexist remarks needed to be challenged.

Bryan, who is engaged himself, did not participate in a dialogue with me. Instead, he resorted to personal attacks, profanity and high school “humor.” Every point I made about sexism, male privilege and socialization was twisted into mockery and dismissed as “bullshit.” Dave, on the other hand, was still stressing about how he was going to ask the waitress out. I said to Bryan, “You don’t think there are a thousand things going on in Dave’s mind right now?” Dave nodded and admitted that I was right. Bryan shook his head, “Stop being a pussy, Dave. Be a man, that’s what women want; women want a man, just go and ask her out.”

I always find it disturbing nowadays when I hear someone, female or male, say, “Be a man.” It is an expression that is not only commonly used in our language, but also rarely confronted. Before I delve deeper into social expectations of masculinity, I want to point out what is occurring in the situation I briefly described above.

I am convinced that gender is a performance – something that we do at specific times and in specific circumstances as opposed to something that we have. While our performances are acted upon individually, they are also collaborative, meaning that they are heavily influenced and stylized by the socially constructed norms we and others accept about gender. A lot of the messages we receive about masculinity and femininity, for instance, is shaped, established, and standardized mostly by mainstream media, namely television – our society’s most powerful storyteller, as George Gerbner and other cultivation theorists argue – and also by family, friends, schools, religious institutions, and so on.

When Bryan challenged my friend’s masculinity or “manhood,” the response was reactionary. However conflicted Dave was, whether about his confidence, the time and place of his possible date, or the general anxiety that comes along with expressing romantic interest in someone, it did not matter. His masculinity was being challenged and even jeopardized in front of his friends. In order to demonstrate and prove his “manliness,” he needed to perform it. Of course, this is not to conclude that this was the conscious reasoning in my friend’s mind. My argument is that many of our performances, especially in situations like Dave’s, result from processes of internalization.

For instance, where does this singular idea about what it means to be a “real man” come from? Who is telling us to “man up” and “be a man?” What happens to those of us who do not “man up?” What images and messages are young men receiving and/or internalizing about “masculinity?” How does it surface in their language, behavior, appearance, social interactions, and other aspects of cultural life? In what ways does the model for “masculinity” in White heteropatriarchy affect men of color? These are several questions I have been reflecting on for a while and I recognize that I may not address or answer all of them in this post alone. However, I do find importance in at least putting the questions forth.

If we look at the way boys are raised, we find an unwritten rule about masculinity that is immensely widespread in contemporary American society: Don’t be feminine. As Dr. Julia T. Wood writes:

Early in life, most boys learn they must not think, act, or feel like girls and women. Any male who shows sensitivity or vulnerability is likely to be called a sissy, a crybaby, a mama’s boy, or a wimp. Peer groups pressure males to be tough, aggressive, and not feminine.

It is easy to see the anti-female directive in the way Bryan told my friend to “stop being a pussy.” Whenever men want to degrade, insult, and/or challenge other men, attacks are often made on their masculinity. The insults may be very direct with words like “girlie” or indirect with words like “sissy.” The model of masculinity does not actually teach us what it means to “be a man,” but rather says, “To be a man means to not be female.” Men must do the opposite of what women are stereotypically thought to do: men should suppress their emotions; they must be muscular, strong – physically and emotionally – and confident at all times; and they must not deviate from what society deems as “masculine. It would be irresponsible to ignore the homophobia that strongly accompanies this model as well. That is, one is not only “sissy” and “girlie,” but also “gay,” “homo,” or a “fag.” I remember from my own experience in high school, a lot of young heterosexual men, including myself, were afraid of receiving homosexual labels from our peers because we knew how damaging it was. I even had a friend who was always called “faggot” and eventually got beaten up in the locker room. I was spared because I was good at floor hockey and the only one who scored a goal against our gym teacher. I did not stand up for my friend because I didn’t want to be “faggot,” too.

Being brown, South Asian, and Muslim in a predominately White Judeo-Christian suburban town wasn’t easy for me despite earning some respect based on the talents I displayed in gym, art, and filmmaking classes. During high school and at an age where I was not thinking so deeply or consciously about masculinity, I felt the pressures of doing things that broke from the values I was taught at home. I understand that the South Asian and Muslim communities are not monolithic, therefore anything I say about my experiences and personal decisions should not be interpreted as generalizations about all South Asians and/or Muslims, but my refusal to date and go to the prom was grounded in my personal cultural and religious beliefs. In retrospect, I can interpret how my resistance to dating and school dances were treated as “unmanly” – since having a girlfriend showed other young men that you were, first and foremost, heterosexual and worthy of respect and admiration – and “non-Western.” The attitude I got from many peers was, “He’s not one of us anyway.” Plus, he’s a “faggot.” I remember being laughed at a lot of times when I wore my shalwar kameez to school during “cultural appreciation” days. Young men would ask, “Why are you wearing a dress?” Because White men don’t wear dresses, but apparently South Asian men do.

Within the Muslim community – and I speak from my experiences in my college years since I did not have enough exposure to other Muslims in my childhood – I take note on how financial success is stressed upon for men. The goal is to emulate the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, but I find it interesting how some Muslim men (but not all) I have encountered discourage what would be classified as “feminine” traits such as showing compassion or writing romantic poetry. Loving, compassionate, and merciful – these were the characteristics of the Prophet, but when we challenge the strict gender segregation practices in Mosques, we hear harsh condemnations from scholars and others who dismiss it as un-Islamic. Men are traditionally taught to control their sexual desires, while women are taught that they are the cause of male sexual desires, hence justifying gender segregation. Men are taught that they represent the community; they are at the forefront; and they play an active role in marriages, while women are passive and pushed to the background. This is not only an example of our male unearned privilege, where we are oblivious to the advantages we have over women, but also an example of stereotypical roles we are expected to fulfill as men. In other words, if a man is not assertive in his community or not the dominant partner in a heterosexual relationship, he will be criticized and stigmatized for it.

The mainstream Muslim community also places pressure on men to focus mostly on establishing a career and being financially independent. Success, on these terms, means men are qualified to get married and support a family. The mufti at my local Mosque once taught young men that their goal should be about pursuing careers in fields that would earn them money and respect. The arts were completely discouraged because, according to him, “no one will marry you.” I wonder how this affects other Muslim men who are artists at heart, but are pressured to study in fields they have no passion for. As a result of these pressures, I believe a lot of Muslim men project an image of content, displaying to others that they are secure and comfortable with their circumstances, no matter how dissatisfied they really are.

I do not deny or exclude the Muslim men who are passionate about their career or ambitions in non-artistic fields, but I still think it is significant to examine how societal and community pressures on men relates to the idealized “strong man” or “tough guy” image, which, in many cases, must be projected to prove one’s “manhood,” not just to other men, but to women as well. It behaves as a shield to hide “cracks in the armor,” so to speak. If a heterosexual man believes his sensitive and/or emotional side will stigmatize him among other men, and subsequently be seen as a “turn off” to women, his defense mechanism is to suppress those traits and replace it with the guise of “toughness” (which I will discuss further in the next paragraph). Especially in the Muslim community, if women are socialized to be caretakers and homemakers, therefore conditioned to seek men who are confident decision makers, career-oriented, and financially independent, why would they want to marry a man who shows his weaknesses and doubts? This leads me to the conclusion that all men, not just Muslim men, are taught to be machines, not human beings. The latter are three-dimensional, flawed, and complex, while the former are programmed to conform to socially constructed codes of one-dimensional and rigid prototypes of masculinity.

Conforming to the “Tough Guise” model is not exclusive or unique to Muslim men at all. This is very prominent in Western society among men in general. Anti-sexist male activist, Jackson Katz, writes about masculinity being a “projection, a pose, a guise, an act, a mask that men often wear to shield our vulnerability and hide our humanity.” In his documentary, “Tough Guise,” he elaborates about the mask men wear:

This mask can take a lot of forms but one that’s really important for us to look at in our culture at the millennium is what I call the Tough Guise. The front that many men put up that’s based on an extreme notion of masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength and gaining the respect and admiration of others through violence or the implicit threat of it.

Recently, I noticed the celebration of the “Tough Guise” in the Muslim community when Amir Khan, a British-Muslim boxer of Pakistani descent won the world boxing association light-welterweight title in New York. Interesting enough, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese Muslim-American from Michigan, won the Miss USA beauty pageant around the same time. While much has been said about Rima Fakih – some arguing that her victory was worthy of celebration, despite acknowledging the sexist history of beauty pageants, while others found it exploitative and objectifying altogether – I heard no criticism about Amir Khan and what his victory said about masculinity.

The silence comes as no surprise to me. In fact, whenever we discuss gender issues, most of us think exclusively about women instead of both women and men. The same applies when we discuss race; we think about people of color and leave White people unexamined. Men and what it means to be White, in respect to gender and race, are “invisible” and unchallenged by the mainstream. Elan magazine, an online publication on global Muslim youth, published an article, “Amir Khan Crosses the Pond and Dominates,” which wrote the following about Khan’s victory:

Good news, adolescent American Muslim boys – you have a new role model and he looks just like you except with a much better physique! Someone put his name on a kufi for kids to wear to the mosque or give him his own PS3 title, because I think he’s just about to be the next big thing in worldwide boxing. At least, I hope so.

Not only does the author glorify traits that are typically associated with what society and the dominant culture has defined as “manly,” but he also encourages young Muslims to see Amir Khan has a “role model.” Do we really want to teach boys (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) to look up to someone who is simply known for his physical strength and ability to knock someone out? Is that what constitutes a role model or a “real man?” Do we expect Muslim fathers to hold their palms open for their sons and tell them, “Hit my hand as hard as you can?” If Muslim boys experience Islamophobia and racism in high school, should they behave like Amir Khan, throw on the “Tough Guise,” and try to beat up bullies? Is this really “good news” for adolescent Muslim-Americans or is a perpetuation of everything that is wrong with the way boys and men are socialized? I strongly argue the latter.

I am not trying to make this a religious discussion, but there is a famous Hadith (saying of the Prophet) that says the strongest person is not the strongest wrestler, but rather the one who can control his/her anger. The Prophet condemned all forms of violence and only permitted self-defense (and even that had strict rules). I am not making this point to say boxing is “haram” or to “infidelize” anyone, but rather I’m encouraging us to question the stereotypical messages that boxing sends out about “masculinity” and what it means to be a “real man,” mostly because such messages are immensely popular and prevalent. Why do we praise a man for his toughness and physical strength over a man who is sensitive, tender, and compassionate?

Without doubt there is more to discuss about masculinity and I admit that I am exploring this topic myself. I know I cannot deny how boys and men have been insulted, ostracized, and abused for behaving in ways that exist outside of the tight, suffocating box we call “masculinity.” I know that when boys and men express their doubts, uncertainties, and needs for companionship, Love, affection, and even protection, they are discouraged, ridiculed and forced to suppress their emotions and conceal their humanity. This is a danger to men as much as it is to women because, as Jackson Katz argues in “Tough Guise,” much of the violence in the world, whether against other men or women, is committed by men. We just don’t pay enough attention to gender when we talk about violence. When men are taught to “man up” and get physical to solve conflicts instead of communicating, the correlation between masculinity and violence is unsurprising.

The phrases we use for each other are hurtful and even traumatizing for those of us who are very sensitive beneath the “Tough Guise.” Labels like “sissy,” “pussy,” and “faggot” easily train us to become homophobic and hostile towards anyone who doesn’t fit the “right” model of masculinity. I would also argue that phrases like “nice guys finish last” and “mama’s boy” are also hurtful because they can potentially generate insecurity. The sad part is that we don’t ask ourselves: what is wrong with being a “nice guy,” and opposed to what, a “mean” guy? What is wrong with someone having a positive and healthy relationship with his mother? Does that make him less “manly?”

This box is suffocating. I believe many men feel it too, but may not be able to express it. I also believe a lot of men are convinced that they have to be “tough” and that there is no way out of it; it’s simply how they should be. Maybe, as Robert Jensen writes, it’s best for us to throw this whole idea of what it means to be a “real man” out of our minds. We have to break out of this small box and search for something “deeper, richer, and more satisfying.” We certainly need the help of women, but more importantly, we need help from other men, too.

As I watched my male friend Dave hide how conflicted he was about asking someone on a date and then hearing the “stop being a pussy” remark, it made me think about how some deep part of us must be calling for a new model to embrace our humanity. At least, I know this is true for me. There is a longing to be free and not confined to rigid labels or limited by boundaries. To be whole human beings and not the one-dimensional, unemotional machines that society and culture demands of us to be.

* Names changed for confidentiality.

This Prince is Not Persian

It makes sense that I am seeing “Prince of Persia” posters at bus stops and malls. The movie is set for release later this month. It does not make sense, however, that I am expected to believe Jake Gyllenhaal is Persian. He is not. In fact, I will not even address his character as “The Prince” in this article (or anywhere else for that matter). I will just call him Jake.

“Hey, look, ‘Prince of Persia,’” my brother said, pointing at the movie poster.

“You aren’t going to see that, are you?” I asked.

“Pfft, yeah right, I’m not going to watch that racist s&#%!!”

Jake and Disney, the studio responsible for this racebending/whitewashed atrocity (surprise, surprise), seem to have their fair share of fans and supporters. On internet forums and threads, I see fans writing things like, “Ooh Jake is so hot,” or “I Love Jake Gyllenhaal,” or “I’m so glad they chose him to play the prince!” I saw one comment where someone called the casting racist and the response was, “Get over it! He’s hot!”

As I wrote in last year’s post about the film, the level of ignorance is disturbing. It reminds me when the film “300” – a White supremacist’s wet dream – was released and many viewers spoke about the “hotness” of Gerard Butler as a way of covering up the film’s disgusting racism. In that film, which I have written extensively about, you may recall that the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the “good guys,” they are played by lovely White people.

The first insult is that people of color, in this case Persians and South Asians, are not attractive people. They cannot be “hot.” I know I am not the only person who has heard White people say, directly or indirectly, that dark skin is not attractive as light skin. The second insult is that heroic Persian and South Asian characters cannot be played by real Persians and South Asians. They don’t know what it means to be “heroic.” Only White people do.

This is blatant Orientalism. Jake is the Orientalist, he is not the Persian. He embodies the West’s history of domination in the East, where the “Oriental,” the “other,” must be spoken for, must be represented by the West, by the White man, and must be feared or even hated. The “Oriental” is obliterated into non-existence and not granted the freedom or access to represent him/herself. This is an example of what the late Edward Said called “positional superiority,” i.e. the White Westerner can exploit the East in such a manner simply because it can.

But, as some fans complain, Hollywood needs to sell tickets. It needs to make money. Poor Hollywood. Oh, then I guess that makes everything “ok.” So what if there was a missed opportunity to break rising stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners and South Asians. I’m sure brown people and real Persians understand that Jake and Disney need the money, right?

No. While some fans and viewers drool over Jake’s fake prince, I propose that protesters join forces with Racebending.com, which has been raising awareness about the whitewashing in “The Last Airbender, “ and boycott this film. We shouldn’t give money to a greedy industry that does not even allow minorities to represent themselves.

Be sure to read the post I wrote about the film last year.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  The only reason I say “brown” is because the character is depicted as brown in the first three video games. My argument, like Dean Obeidallah’s, is that talented Persian and South Asian actors (the female lead from the video game is Indian) should be allowed to play protagonists in box office hits (Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, plays the role of a villain, similar to how Dev Patel, another Indian actor, is playing the villain in “The Last Airbender.”)  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine.  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.

Racial Profiling of Shahrukh Khan Is Nothing New to Many Muslim-Americans

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The immensely popular Bollywood actor (read: superstar) and global icon, Shahrukh Khan/King Khan/SRK, recently told the press that he felt angry and humiliated after he was detained and “questioned” at a US airport for over two hours.  In a text message to reporters in India, Khan said, “I was really hassled perhaps because of my name being Khan. These guys just wouldn’t let me through.”  Khan, who is a Muslim, also called the incident “absolutely uncalled for” and pointed out that he was only released after he contacted the Indian Consulate.

Much is being said about the SRK’s encounter with Islamophobia, especially since he is promoting his upcoming film, “My Name is Khan,” which, ironically,  is about the racial profiling of Muslims.  Much is also being said about fans being outraged and how fellow Bollywood superstars are expressing their disapproval.  However, very little to nothing is being said about how many Muslim-Americans have been experiencing discrimination, hate crimes, racial profiling, vandalism, and negative stigma ever since 9/11.

There’s no doubt that SRK’s experience at least puts racial profiling of Muslims in the spotlight, but what if he wasn’t a Bollywood star?  What if, in the eyes of society, he was just an “ordinary” Indian Muslim man visiting the United States?  How long would he have been detained and questioned for?  His story would be left untold and unheard, just like the countless stories of many Muslims, as well as non-Muslim South Asians and Middle-Easterners (since they “look Muslim” according to Orientalist stereotypes), who have experienced similar, if not worse, encounters with Islamophobia and discrimination.

The reality is that Islamophobia is hardly even recognized as a real social problem within the United States.  The term “Islamophobia” is scarcely used by the mainstream media, let alone by most American politicians, despite all of the shameless anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred we saw during the presidential campaigns (and still see from racist right-wing extremists).  There are many who argue that Islamophobia “does not really exist,” and while most of this is heard from the likes of Michael Savage, Daniel Pipes, and Salman Rushdie, there are many others, including social justice academics, who have not implemented the subject of Islamophobia in their universities.  To put it simply, the failure to recognize Islamophobia as a real social problem diminishes how serious and prevalent it truly is.

In light of Shahrukh Khan’s experience with racial profiling in the US, let’s take a moment to reflect on the stories that we have not heard before — stories from Muslim-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and Middle-Eastern-Americans (and others as well), who are not movie stars or celebrities, and do not have the “starpower” to capture media and public attention.

Along with the Human Rights Watch, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) observed that prior to 9/11, forty-eight hate crimes against Muslim-Americas were reported in the United States, but in the days following the attacks, that figure skyrocketed to 481.  Reported incidents of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims amounted to 602 in 2002, 1,019 in 2004, 1,522 in 2004, 1,972 in 2005, and 2,467 in 2006.  The context of these hate crimes and incidents consist of murders, physical and verbal assaults, and numerous cases of vandalism directed towards Mosques, convenience stores owned by Muslims, and homes.  Many reports included these same hate crimes and discriminatory acts towards non-Muslim South Asians and Middle-Easterners as well.

Four days after 9/11, Mark Stroman entered a grocery store in Dallas, Texas, and shot and killed Waquar Hassan, a forty-six-year-old Pakistani father of four.  Unfounded by the police, Stroman entered a convenience store in Mesquite, Texas less than a month later, and murdered Vasudev Patel, a non-Muslim Indian father of two.  Stroman was finally arrested, and before being convicted and sentenced to death, he stated in an interview:  “We’re at war.  I did what I had to do.  I did it to retaliate against those who retaliated against us.”

Also, a man named Frank Roque boasted at a local bar that he was going to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11th.” A few days later he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodi, a forty-nine-year old father of three.  When arrested for murder, Roque declared: “I stand for America all the way!  I’m an American.  Go ahead.  Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.”  Little did Roque know that the turbaned man he killed was not an Arab or a Muslim, but an Indian Sikh.

Other incidents in the immediate days and months following 9/11 included attempted murder upon a Palestinian male who was shot at after leaving his Mosque in Seattle, a Pakistani woman who was nearly run over by a car in the parking lot of a New York mall, and an American Muslim women who was nearly choked to death by her attacker in Texas.

An Islamic Center in Irving, Texas, was fired upon, leaving thirteen to fourteen bullet holes on the building, while another Mosque in Central Ohio was severely vandalized:  the bathroom pipe was broken, the sink was clogged, causing it to overflow for hours and eventually leaking into the second floor prayer hall; frames of religious verses were torn, a chandelier in the prayer hall was destroyed, high-mounted speakers and amplifiers were thrown to the ground, Islamic posters were torn from classroom walls, curtains and drapes were pulled down, bookcases and file cabinets were tipped over, approximately one hundred copies of the Qur’an was thrown to the floor; one of them was torn and placed in the parking lot.  The damage to the Mosque was estimated at $379,000.

In April of 2006, a Muslim woman and college student was followed, beaten, and stripped of her headscarf while her male perpetrator shouted anti-Muslim slurs.  She was hospitalized for contusions and a dislocated shoulder.  Also in 2006, a Muslim man in New York was beaten with brass knuckles by a group of five teenagers after exiting “Dunkin’ Donuts”; he was called a “terrorist” by the assailants and was later hospitalized for a broken nose and severely bruised ribs.

In September of 2007, Zohreh Assemi, an Iranian Muslim-American and owner of a nail salon in New York, was robbed, brutally beaten, and called a “terrorist.” The report describes the details:

Assemi was kicked, sliced with a boxcutter, and had her hand smashed with a hammer. The perpatrators, who forcibly removed $2,000 from the saloon and scrawled anti-Muslim slurs on the mirrors, also told Assemi to “get out of town” and that her kind were not “welcomed” in the area. The attack followed two weeks of phone calls in which Iranian-American Zohreh Assemi was called a “terrorist” and told to “get out of town,” friends and family said.

In 2009, AirTran Airways “removed nine Muslim passengers, including three children, from a flight and turned them over to the FBI after one of the men commented to another that they were sitting right next to the engines and wondered aloud where the safest place to sit on the plane was.”  Also this year, a Muslim woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, was stabbed to death in a courtroom in Germany while being three months pregnant.  The attacker, Alex W., was a non-Muslim man that El-Sherbini was testifying against because of his Islamophobic remarks towards her.  In other words, she was killed for standing up for herself.

Are these reports new to you?  For many readers, I’m sure they are.  More details on the reports mentioned above, along with countless others, can be read in the following document by the Human Rights Watch:  “We Are Not The Enemy:  Hate Crimes Against Arabs, Muslims, and Those Perceived to be Arab or Muslim after September 11.” These reports do not even cover the number of innocent Muslims who have been abducted and detained in detention centers like Guantanamo bay.

The truth is that Islamophobia has an immense impact on many Muslims in the West, no matter what kind of discrimination they may or may not have experienced.  Harsh stares, verbal abuse, or even ignorant questions also need to be factored in to understand the Muslim experience in the post 9/11 world.  From a journal I studied a year ago titled, “The Effects of Discrimination and Constraints Negotiation on Leisure Behavior of American Muslims in the Post-September 11 America” by Jennifer S. Livengood and Monika Stodolska, all 25 Muslim participants (from diverse ethnic backgrounds) reported that their lifestyles and leisure activities (praying in public, jogging, traveling, outings with or without families, experiences in workplaces and school, etc.) was significantly affected and reduced by Islamophobia.  Some shared how they felt “otherized” after seeing signs that read, “Kill all the Arabs,” and others shared how they couldn’t jog through the park anymore without someone calling them a “terrorist” or telling them to “go back home.”  Some Muslims even expressed reluctance to share their Muslim identity or even pray in public because of their fear of Islamophobia.  Just recently, Al-Jazeera confirmed a report that FBI spies infiltrated Mosques to monitor Muslim-Americans.  At the end of the video clip, a young Muslim man shares how many Muslims are terrified to attend the Mosque because of this.

I have seen this fear with my own interactions with Muslims, including my own family.  Some in my family do not like disclosing their ethnic and religious identity to people because they want to avoid the prejudice and stereotypes.  These are stories that are not even known by most non-Muslims and never addressed by the mainstream media.

Shahrukh Khan may have encountered Islamophobia at the Newark airport, but will his status as a celebrity put the issue of Islamophobia in the spotlight?  As mentioned above, his upcoming film, “My Name is Khan,” is about racial profiling against Muslims, but only time will tell to see what kind of impact that will have on the general public’s attitude and perception of Muslims and Islam.  Regardless of SRK’s experiences, the fact of the matter remains that the Muslim lifestyle is very politicized, and has been ever since 9/11, even if the individual does not wish to discuss politics or social issues.  Muslims are still asked to answer for crimes that they never committed, they still face the daily vilification of their way of life in the mainstream media, they are still stereotyped, discriminated against, and victims of hate crimes, vandalism, and verbal abuse.

If Islamophobia is not taken more seriously or spoken out against, more stories will be forgotten, more people will suffer, and the next generation of Muslims will be born into societies that already have negative, hateful, and/or insensitive attitudes towards Muslims and Islam.  By ignoring Islamophobia, we are ignoring the struggle of our fellow human beings, as well as our own responsibility to speak out against injustice wherever it occurs.