Fear Leads to Anger: Race, Gender, and the Reactions to John Boyega in Star Wars

john-boyega
“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
– Jedi Master Yoda, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

As my close friends know, I have been a huge Star Wars fan since childhood. I grew up on the original trilogy – first on VHS and then re-watched them in the theater when the Special Editions were released. I was 15 years-old when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 and I went to the midnight premieres for all three prequel films.

The way I viewed the Star Wars Saga changed as I grew older. When I picked up on the spiritual and political themes in the films, I began to think of Star Wars as more than just escapist entertainment. Commenting on his first film, the much overlooked THX 1138, George Lucas explained that the film was set in the future, but not about the future. Like many science fiction stories about dystopian futures, the movie was meant to reflect the kind of society we live in today. Star Wars is more space fantasy than science fiction, but Lucas’ social and political commentaries on contemporary issues are evident in his work, including in the prequels and “The Clone Wars” TV series.

However, I feel that the commercialization and status of Star Wars as a marketing brand have, unfortunately, depoliticized the important political themes of the films. Furthermore, as much as I appreciate the anti-imperialist and anti-war messages, there is a lot of race and gender fail that cannot be overlooked. In the 6 films, there is a serious lack of people of color and women characters. This criticism isn’t just about numbers, but also about how the characters are portrayed and tokenized. For example, the inclusion of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back appeared to be an attempt to add “diversity” to the series. However, as Wyatt Cenac expressed in one of his stand-up performances about the lack of black people in science fiction and fantasy, “There’s Lando Calrissian, whose cool till he betrays everybody.” Although the Empire forced Lando to betray his longtime friend, Han Solo, along with Leia and Chewbacca, the message that gets communicated is that black people are traitors and untrustworthy. In Return of the Jedi, we see Lando help rescue Han and later become a General for the Rebel Alliance. He also leads an attack on the second Death Star and destroys it. Adilifu Nama, the author of “Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film,” argues that Lando is more complex than a one-dimensional token black character, but also states that even though Lando is “situated with the ‘good guys'” in Return of the Jedi, the “broader racial message remained: whites must be guarded toward blacks, and blacks must be evaluated according to their degree of allegiance to white interests.”

Across the 6 films, there are only two prominent women characters: Padmé Amidala from the prequels, and Leia Organa from the original trilogy (for an excellent analysis of these characters, check out Amanda Rodriguez’s article, “The Very Few Women of ‘Star Wars': Queen Amidala and Princess Leia”). The Star Wars Expanded Universe (i.e. the Star Wars novels, comic books, and video games) seemed to make a conscious attempt of creating more women characters in the Star Wars universe. Jaina Solo and Mara Jade are perhaps the most popular characters who do not appear in the films or TV shows (a comic book mentions that Mara was at Jabba’s palace during the events of Return of the Jedi, but she still can’t be seen in the actual film). Mara Jade was so popular that Lucasfilm hired model Shannon McRandle to represent the character in photos for Star Wars card games. Sadly, after Disney bought Lucasfilm and declared that the Expanded Universe is no longer canon, there is speculation about whether or not Jaina and Mara will be in the upcoming sequel trilogy.

NBail_Organaone of the women characters mentioned above are women of color. Although people of color are slightly more visible in the prequel trilogy, their roles are mostly relegated to the background. Indian actress Ayesha Dharker appears in a very short scene in Attack of the Clones as Queen Jamillia and is never seen again. Fans know the important role Bail Organa (pictured left, and portrayed by Jimmy Smits) plays in the saga, but he isn’t given much to do in the prequels. There are two politically charged scenes in Revenge of the Sith where he, along with other people of color and women characters (including Mon Mothma), are given more dialogue and screen time, but both of these scenes were deleted (you can watch them here and here). One troubling detail is that Chinese actress Bai Ling, who plays Senator Bana Breemu in one of the scenes, states that Lucas cut her role from the film due to her Star Wars-themed photoshoot for Playboy magazine.

SteelaIt is true we see more women characters in “The Clone Wars” TV series (which is still canon), like Ahsoka Tano, Asajj Ventress, Barriss OffeeSatine Kryze, and more screen time for Aayla Secura, but there are a few points that need to be addressed. First, since these characters exist in a timeline between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, they must eventually disappear, be pushed to the background, or get killed off. Second, women of color rarely make an appearance. I have mentioned Steela Gerrera (pictured right, and voiced by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) in a previous post and (SPOILERS) how her death reinforced the trope of women of color being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire the revolution led by white protagonists (Rue from The Hunger Games is another example). In prozacpark’s post about (SPOILERS) the horrible death of Dualla/Dee (another woman of color) in the TV show “Battlestar Galactica,” she mentions how Edgar Allen Poe once wrote that the “death of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” In response to this violent, misogynist trope and the death of Dualla/Dee, she writes:

But would Dee, arguably the strongest person this show has, kill herself? Dee, who told Lee that she was going to marry him despite believing he loved Kara better because she was willing to take whatever she could get and it was going to be enough? No, Dee would’ve gone on… She would’ve survived. And been more beautiful in her strength than she could ever be in death.

Because death – always beautiful for women – redeems them, restores them to their beauty, happiness, and honor or what the fuck ever. Because in death, they become a blank text that can be written upon – having nothing but the body that patriarchy finds so interesting, that the male gaze finds easy to objectify – just as Dee became a text to be written on (just as Cally was, before her, ‘vacant,’ as Tyrol said), so the writers could impart some message using her. She’s not a person to them; women rarely are in fiction, right? She’s a symbol. Of everything humanity has lost, and everything it continues to lose. But I’m sick of symbolism. Sick of women dying so they can be symbols of some man’s revolution or some writer’s narrative journey. Sick, in general, of this metanarrative that I hate with a burning passion and that just won’t go away.

You know what’s better than that proverbial beautiful death? SURVIVING.

I believe this applies similarly to Steela Gerrera in “The Clone Wars.” Here, we see a woman of color resistance leader fighting against a brutal droid occupation of her planet, Onderon (it’s hard not to think about a possible allegory with occupied Palestine when the characters demand, “End the droid occupation”). When she and Lux Bonteri, a young white politician-turned-rebel fighter, were nearly falling off a cliff, Ahsoka Tano used the Force in attempt to save them. Ahsoka managed to float Lux to safety, but her efforts to save Steela failed. Steela’s death was not necessary and served no other purpose but to transform her into a symbol and have her remembered as a martyr. Meanwhile, the young white man, Lux, survives and is re-appointed as senator of Onderon and rejoins the planet with the Republic. His survival was important for larger political purposes, whereas Steela’s purpose was to die for Onderon’s independence so that white men could lead. The “death of a beautiful woman” trope also victimizes Duchess Satine Kryze, whom Obi-Wan Kenobi is in love with. Since Obi-Wan doesn’t mention anything about a romantic interest in the films, the writers must have figured that the easiest way to keep continuity was by killing off Satine (who is murdered by Darth Maul).

Then there are issuEwokses concerning cultural appropriation, Orientalism (e.g. Tatooine, Tusken Raiders/Sand People, Jabba the Hutt smoking hookah and keeping a harem of female dancers), and the racialization of non-human characters (especially Jar Jar Binks) in Star Wars. Lucas named the Ewoks (pictured left) in Return of the Jedi after the Miwok, a Native American tribe who are indigenous to San Rafael, California (which is also where Lucas built his Skywalker Ranch). In the Battle of Endor, where Ewoks help the Rebels fight the Empire, Lucas wanted to portray a “primitive” and “technologically-inferior” society of creatures (Ewoks) defeat the technologically-advanced imperial forces (not too different from how the Na’vi in Avatar are “thinly veiled representations” of Native Americans). As Gabriel S. Estrada states in his chapter, “Star Wars episodes I-VI: Coyote and the force of white narrative,” Lucas’ Ewoks “play into historical racism against California Indians and Miwoks in particular. Historical California Indian technological differences were unethically used to justify Indian genocide as State and Federal policy, especially after the 1849 Gold Rush.” Furthermore, he writes: “Even though the teddy bear Ewoks fight off Empire soldiers and side with the good guys, they are more like the ‘lovable’ loyal sports mascots that so many Native Americans ridicule.”

These topics on racializaiton and racist appropriation would be better discussed in a separate blog post, but I recommend clicking on the links I’ve provided above (also, much of my thoughts about white people appropriating the struggles of people of color are similar to what I’ve said in previous posts here and here). What I want to focus on below are the reactions to John Boyega being a potential lead character in the upcoming 2015 Star Wars film, Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I say “potential lead character” because we don’t know what his role is yet. However, based on numerous rumors and reports, including quotes from Mark Hamill (who says the upcoming Star Wars films are about the “new generation of characters”), it is believed that Boyega’s character is most likely part of this new generation.

According to how the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens is structured, it does not seem to be insignificant that the first shot we see of Episode 7 is one of John Boyega entering the frame. The second person we see is a young white woman (Daisy Ridley’s character) on a speeder bike, followed by a male X-wing pilot (played by Latino actor Oscar Isaac). Both of the latter characters are thought to share leading roles with Boyega. After the trailer was released, the racist tweets/posts/comments flooded the internet. Below are a few screenshots: swcomment1swcomment2swcomment3 swcomment5swcomment4comment6There are countless comments like these and the disturbing part is that they are not hard to find. One look at the comment threads on YouTube or message boards will be enough to see the white rage expressed against John Boyega. In fact, the racist remarks were so common that Boyega took a moment on his instagram account to (1) thank fans for the support and (2) tell the racists to “get used to it.” His instagram post can be viewed here.

It is good to see that there has been a lot of coverage on social media about these racist posts. Most of the articles and commentaries I’ve read rightfully condemn these reactions, but they unfortunately don’t get at the heart of the problem. That is, most of the articles frame these reactions as having everything to do with Boyega playing a “black stormtrooper,” instead of having more to do with him being black and a potential lead character in a film series that has always centered on white male characters. There are articles out there that are pointing this out as well, so I’m not the first to address this. However, I still notice posts, articles, YouTube videos, and news programs that ask, “Can stormtroopers be black?” when they should be asking, “Can Star Wars have a black lead character?”

jangofettHere’s the problem with the question about the race of stormtroopers: you’ll find a lot of posts and comments from people (who, to my astonishment, call themselves Star Wars fans) who believe that stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett (pictured right, and played by Temuera Morrison, who is of Maori descent) and therefore cannot be black. Within the internal logic of the Star Wars universe, this is factually incorrect. It seems like a common mistake that a significant number of people are making, but I also believe a lot of people are using it as an excuse to hide their racism and fear of a black lead character (I’ll get to this in a minute). In the prequels, Clone troopers were clones of Jango Fett, but the imperial stormtroopers we see in the original trilogy are no longer clones. After the formation of the Galactic Empire, humans were recruited to enlist as stormtroopers. This is indicated by the different heights and voices of the stormtroopers in the original trilogy (for the Blu-ray release of the Star Wars Saga, Lucas replaced Boba Fett’s voice with Temuera Morrison’s voice, but the voices of the stormtroopers were not changed). The recruitment of humans in the post-prequel era is also being explained and depicted in the new Star Wars Rebels TV show. So, the “black stormtrooper problem” is one that can be solved simply with a Google search.

Yet it’s amazing when I still see people on YouTube, Facebook threads (including on the official Star Wars page), and message boards persist in making this argument that “stormtroopers can’t be black because they are clones of Jango Fett.” When well-intentioned articles put forth the question, “Can stormtroopers be black?” they are working within a false framework that assumes all stormtroopers are clones. On a larger scale, their question raises concerns about whether black people and other people of color have a place in white male-dominated sci-fi/fantasy stories. I recently saw a comment that said, “Stormtoopers can’t be black because it changes the canon of the story,” and then the person went on about how Superman, James Bond, and Johnny Storm should always be white. When I pay attention to the tone, length, and persistence of these comments (mostly coming from white people in fandom), the more I believe there is more going on. How could casting a person of color as Superman, for example, be an issue about “canon” when the character is an extra-terrestrial from a fictional planet? What “rule” says his character (or any fictional character for that matter) must be white? As one can see in some of the comments I shared above about John Boyega, the complaints go beyond “canon” and are more about him being black. The “stormtroopers can’t be black” arguments are not only inaccurate, but also used as an excuse by white fans who are not comfortable with a black lead character disrupting their white universe. As one commenter, Grace_Omega, wrote on a message board:

[L]ook at the reaction to John Boyega in Star Wars. Some people are getting mad over accusations of infidelity to the previous movies (or they’re claiming to be, at least), but judging by the comments I’m seeing [it’s] clear that others just can’t accept a black Star Wars lead (assuming Boyega is actually the lead, as has been strongly rumoured). They’re used to Star Wars being almost entirely white, with black characters only included in supporting roles, and Boyega being the first character on screen in that trailer triggered the same reaction as the students I mentioned above.

It should be obvious that racism is the real issue here. As the comment mentions, there have been black characters in Star Wars before like the aforementioned Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, but the films never centered on them. Having black actors is more acceptable when they are playing supporting roles (though not always the case, especially if they’re playing characters that were imagined as white – see racist reactions to Rue and Idris Elba’s Heimdall). Even if stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, Star Wars is a fictional world with fictional characters. Do people really believe the writers wouldn’t be able to create an explanation?  These same individuals most likely will agree that sci-fi and fantasy stories/films encourages them to broaden their imaginations, but when it becomes about having people of color in these stories, suddenly there are limits. It’s called “political correctness” or a “diversity agenda.” Since we haven’t seen the film, isn’t there also the possibility that Boyega’s character disguised himself as a stormtrooper (in the same way Luke and Han did in A New Hope)? These possibilities are not taken into consideration because their racist imaginations refuse to accept a black main character in Star Wars.

Racism in fandom is nothing new and it’s something that’s still being addressed and challenged. It’s the fear of black people and other people of color “invading” that white-dominated space that leads to anger and hatred from white fans (not too different from how white America fears people of color outnumbering them in the near future). While most of the hatred here is directed at Boyega, you’ll find other comments that also complain about the film having a possible woman lead, a Latino male character, and (according to rumors) women playing stormtroopers. Lupita Nyong’o did not appear in the trailer, but is set to be in the film, too. The complaints (again, coming from mostly white male fans) accuse the film of pushing “political correctness” that is apparently threatening their white male-dominated fandom. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Nyong’o was shown as the lead character.

The message these racist reactions send are that black people cannot be seen as heroes. They reflect the dangerous anti-blackness that is rooted in white supremacy. As I mentioned in a previous post, anti-black racism is global. In the United States, we shouldn’t have to be reminded about the country’s long history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, police and state violence against black people. One of the comments above compared Boyega to Trayvon Martin, a horribly insensitive and racist sentiment that demonstrates how black lives are constantly devalued. A 2013 study conducted by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that “one black man is killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes.” Adam Hudson adds:

These killings come on top of other forms of oppression black people face. Mass incarceration of nonwhites is one of them. While African-Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though African-Americans use or sell drugs about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites. Most offenders are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

Mainstream media, including film and television, help fuel racist attitudes, policies, and violence through victim-blaming commentaries on the murders of black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people (who are criminalized and vilified as “thugs” after their deaths, cruelly implying that their deaths were justified and that their lives do not matter). The dehumanization is reinforced over and over again through racist stereotyping of black people in films and TV shows, which no doubt influence and fuel the racist reactions we see towards John Boyega. The shameful media coverage of Ferguson wanted to focus more on blaming Mike Brown and demonizing him as a “thug” rather than addressing and challenging the violence of white supremacy (some news networks tried to show “balanced” coverage, which is a horrible cop-out because it legitimizes the narratives that blame black people for their own murders and oppression). When the larger structures of violence in society views black men and women as “criminals” and “inferior,” it isn’t surprising that angry tweets and posts treat Boyega’s presence as a criminal act.

As I have articulated in previous posts, I believe images in media matter. The media plays a significant role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes about race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, body image, ideas about freedom, and so on. It is good to see John Boyega being in the new Star Wars (and even better if he is playing the lead role), but then there are questions that still remain about how his character will be portrayed. I also think it’s important to be conscious of how “diversity” in mainstream media (especially in franchises like Star Wars) has a terrible habit of reinforcing myths about a “post-racial and post-gender” world. These myths uphold white supremacy as they focus more on showing how “diverse” and “multicultural” our society is rather than dismantling systems of oppression. It is not difficult to imagine people saying, “Stop whining about racism, the new Star Wars hero is black” (similar to how people say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore because we have a black president”).

The Star Wars universe has touched upon speciesism within its stories, but never racism, sexism, and homophobia. I don’t expect Star Wars to address these issues (at least, not directly) and I don’t believe it intends to bring about radical change against racism. People of color have been (and are) leading that charge for a long time. I’ve heard some people dismiss the racist reactions to John Boyega as being a “non-issue,” but the reality is, the reactions reflect the disturbing anti-blackness (and its acceptability) that dangerously persists. There is no doubt that the film will be a huge success (and it is predicted to break records at the box office) and there will be a lot of people who will praise the film’s diversity. I personally believe it’s important to see people of color in heroic, complex, and non-stereotypical roles. At the same time, I have seen the ways “diversity” has been used to advocate “colorblindness” and distract us from real problems in society (these are some concerns I have about Muslim-American superheroes too, but that’s for another post!). It would be awful if Boyega, along with Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o were used to promote the idea that we live in a “post-racial and post-gender” world. Because if there is one thing that’s clear from the outrage about Boyega, it’s that we are very far from that fictional world.

Why I’m Not Down With #MuslimLivesMatter

B9mhAGACMAAu64h I don’t have a twitter account, but I’m well aware of how hashtags can be used as tools to express solidarity, speak out, and mobilize against injustice. Almost immediately after the Chapel Hill murders, I noticed a lot of Muslims on Facebook using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. It was heartbreaking to hear the news and I understood the grief Muslims were expressing online. However, I cringed when I saw the hashtag because I recalled all of the critiques of #AllLivesMatter, which was used online and in activist rallies/spaces as a response to #BlackLivesMatter. Though #MuslimLivesMatter is not exactly the same as #AllLivesMatter, it still co-opts the movement against police brutality and racism that systematically targets, terrorizes, and devalues black people.

It became more unsettling when I watched South Asian, Arab, white, and other non-black Muslims posting up both #MuslimLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. While there are many people who mean well when they post these hashtags, I still see a disturbing amount of people getting very defensive (and even make racist remarks) when they are informed about how these hashtags co-opt and appropriate #BlackLivesMatter (and this is yet another example of how we cannot make it about people’s “intentions”). When they persist in posting these hashtags, it seems like they are doing it out of defiance against #BlackLivesMatter, as if the latter is “ethnocentric” and supposedly doesn’t value the lives of non-black people. The persistence and refusal to listen also reflects the anti-blackness that exists in our communities.

I know this is an issue that needs to be addressed sensitively. We know the lives of brown Muslims are not valued in this society and I know there are lot of Muslims who are shaken up or feel triggered after the brutal murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. Hashtags may seem trivial to some, but they become more than hashtags when we see them used to organize protests and movements. #BlackLivesMatter was created by three self-identified Black queer women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. As Garza writes:

Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression […]

When we deploy “All Lives Matter” as to correct an intervention specifically created to address anti-blackness,, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people—beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor—and then adapted it to control, murder, and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities.   We perpetuate a level of White supremacist domination by reproducing a tired trope that we are all the same, rather than acknowledging that non-Black oppressed people in this country are both impacted by racism and domination, and simultaneously, BENEFIT from anti-black racism.

When you drop “Black” from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy. And consider whether or not when dropping the Black you are, intentionally or unintentionally, erasing Black folks from the conversation or homogenizing very different experiences.  The legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero-patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy.  And that’s not an accidental analogy.

There are excellent critiques that I will quote and share below about #MuslimLivesMatter (because I believe they do a better job at explaining the problems of this hashtag), but I’ll just share a few thoughts here. Yes, the lives of Muslims are not valued in white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. We know how the media and Hollywood has demonized Muslims and Islam for a very long time. We know that Islamophobia isn’t something that “only started after 9/11,” but existed well before that. We know how the massacres against Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis show us how brown people are not seen as human beings, especially if they are Muslim. At the same time, we also cannot deny that when we talk about Islamophobia, it is often centered on the experiences of Arab and South Asian men. African/black Muslim men and women are frequently left out of the narrative, marginalized in mosques, otherized, and vilified by Arab, South Asian, white, and other non-black Muslims.

Anti-black racism is global. We cannot be preaching Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) or the Qur’an’s teachings about diversity and how no one is superior to another person on the basis of race if we are not practicing it in the community. Yeah, we’ll hear Arab, South Asian, and white imams quote Malcolm X whenever it is convenient or boast about Muhammad Ali, but then they’ll marginalize black Muslims or make racist remarks about the black people (Muslim and non-Muslim) in their neighborhood. There is also a colorblind narrative that accompanies the sermons about Malcolm X. I remember a white imam in one of my local mosques giving a speech about how Malcolm used to be a “racist black supremacist” until he went for Hajj and started to accept all Muslims (he liked to emphasize on how Malcolm started to accept white people). The conclusion the imam drew from this was that Islam advocates colorblindness or that “race doesn’t exist in Islam.” This narrative not only ignores Malcolm’s post-Hajj speeches against white supremacy, imperialism, and the western power structure, but also erases his blackness (side note: I’ll be writing a post one of these days on how religious and community leaders, especially those in the west, use Islam to silence anti-racism).

We’ll hear non-black Muslims speak highly of hazrat Bilal, the Abyssinian companion of the Prophet, and how he was chosen specifically by the Prophet to be Islam’s first muezzin. We’ll hear them talk about how beautiful his voice must have been and how he was one of the most trusted companions of the Prophet. We’ll also hear talk about how Islam doesn’t tolerate racism and point to hazrat Bilal as proof. Yet, when it comes to the way we treat black people or talk about black people, whether Muslim or not, there is no denying that anti-black racism exists and needs to be actively addressed and challenged. We’ll still hear Arab, South Asian, white, and other non-black Muslims use the n-word (and even argue that they can “reclaim” the term) and use derogatory, anti-black words in Arabic, Urdu/Hindi, and other languages.

When two Somali Muslims, Mustafa Mattan and Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, were recently murdered (Mattan was murdered a day before the Chapel Hill murders), we didn’t see the same outrage from Muslims in North America nor did we see the start of “Muslim Lives Matter.” It was necessary and important that Muslims spoke out against the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, so I am by no means saying that anything was wrong with this. The only thing that is wrong is how non-black Muslims tend to devalue the lives of black Muslims and non-Muslims. Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was 15 years-old and deliberately hit by an SUV that had a message reading “Islam is worse than Ebola” on the rear-view mirror. The Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence was frighteningly explicit in this case, but why wasn’t there a national outcry about his murder from Muslim communities and national organizations? As Khaled A. Beydoun and Margari Hill recently wrote in their article, “The Colour of Muslim Mourning”:

The curious case of Mustafa Mattan is as much a story of intra-racial division and anti-black racism within the Muslim population as it is a narrative about the neglected death of a young man seeking a better life far from home… The outpouring of support and eulogies that followed their deaths revealed that Deah, Yusor and Razan were, in life and in death, archetypes of young, Muslim Americans. Lives neglected by the media, but ones that mattered greatly for Muslims inside and outside of the US. […] Despite a few vocal critics, Mattan’s erasure in the discussion of Islamophobia in North America is evident. The exclusion of Mattan and Sheikh-Hussein perpetuates a harmful hierarchy that privileges Arab narratives and excludes black/African Muslims. This racial stratification relegating black Muslim lives is evident as much in death as it is in life.

In order to understand the critiques of #MuslimLivesMatter, we need to acknowledge that anti-black racism exists in our communities. We also need to understand that these critiques are more than just about hashtags. Because #BlackLivesMatter is not “just a hashtag,” it represents a movement. We can create our own hashtag and call for justice and solidarity for all Muslims without co-opting, appropriating, and/or stepping upon the rights of other communities. #JusticeForMuslims and #OurThreeWinners (the latter was started by the victims’ family) should be used instead. Below is an excerpt from Anas White’s excellent article, A Black Muslim Response To #MuslimLivesMatter:

#BlackLivesMatter began as a statement to an establishment – an overall system if you will, declaring the seeming unrecognized value of black lives. It continues to hold that same meaning, even as it moves to become an expression of the movement itself. A movement against deep rooted systemic racism, high rates of police brutality, extra-judicial executions, media smearing and vitriol, and the failure of the justice system to actually hold anyone accountable for dead black men, except dead black men. It is important to remember, that #BlackLivesMatter was not born of an occurrence, but of an atmosphere wrought with repeat occurrence. […] A 12 year old black boy was shot and killed for playing with a BB gun, his sister then handcuffed to watch him bleed. A black father was killed in a Walmart, holding a toy gun sold at that very Walmart, in a state where it is legal to carry guns. A black father was shot in the back, while handcuffed. A black father was essentially choked to death in high definition. A black protest was met with a para-military, and national guard troops. A black woman was shot seeking help. A black man was literally lynched. Where were you then? My respect to every single one of you that ever attended a protest, and to every Imam that ever gave mention, but I mean this on a deeper level. Where was the Muslim community in response to these egregious civil rights violations? Where is the Muslim community in solidarity with a movement against these civil, and even human rights issues?

And an excerpt from Sabah’s article, “Stop Using #MuslimLivesMatter”:

#BlackLivesMatter represents an entire movement and its history. It’s not “just” a hashtag, it’s a powerful outcry born from a racial injustice felt by a people. It cannot, and should not, be molded to fit another people’s struggle. And solidarity, while important (and in fact, essential), never involves co-opting another movement. […] There is obviously nothing inherently wrong with saying that “Muslim lives matter,” but contextually, it’s being used parallel to #BlackLivesMatter — it’s meant to evoke the same concepts, using the same kind of language. This appropriation of a movement is counterproductive and frankly unfair to both the Black and Muslim communities. We should not be blending together two complex, multifaceted issues for the sake of convenience. It’s a reductive move that simplifies both struggles, and it only contributes to erasing the very real, very dangerous implications that Islamophobia specifically holds for Muslims.

Stop Calling It a “Parking Dispute”

Image:The mainstream media’s insistence that the massacre in Chapel Hill was the result of a “parking dispute” is utterly appalling and shameful. The victim-blaming here is nothing new, sadly, nor is it surprising. Even in news programs that seem to be expressing more sympathy for the victims and their family, their framework is about “balance.” In other words, they want to “consider all possibilities” rather than speaking specifically about Islamophobia.

Suzanne Barakat, the sister of Deah Barakat, has been speaking on MSNBC, CNN, and other news networks, emphasizing that the murder should be treated as a hate crime and terrorism. Her words speak for themselves:

I think it’s absolutely insulting, insensitive, and outrageous that the first thing they come and say and issue a statement that this is a parking dispute. I’m not sure who they spoke to because it took me all of 5 minutes of talking to his former roommate – who they had not reached out to – to give me details, information, text messages… I have been here since the morning after the shooting and police have still not reached out to my family… To call it a parking dispute when, in fact, no one was parked in even that visitor’s parking spot that does not belong to him, is outrageous to me, and it’s insulting, and it trivializes their murders.

From the segment on CNN:

The day of the murders, an assemblywoman from the state I live in used the hashtag “stand up against Islam” and it’s currently an open season, a time where it’s an open season against Islam, Muslims in Washington, Muslims in the general media dehumanizing Muslims in movies like ‘American Sniper,’ it’s incredibly inspiring right now to see that Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s love for their country is being reciprocated.

Had roles been reversed, and no one is talking about this, but had roles been reversed and the man was Muslim, was of Arab descent, was of South Asian descent, this would have immediately been labeled an act of terror. I haven’t heard anyone use the term ‘terrorist’ here but it– why the double standard? He has terrorized our families, he has terrorized our lives, he has terrorized our community, locally, nationally, and internationally and it’s time that people call it for what it is.

During an interview with RT, Yusor and Razan’s brother, Yousef Abu-Salha, added:

The main message would be that, first of all, we are peaceful and that’s what our faith preaches. We don’t seek vengeance, we treat our enemies with kindness. But we would like this crime to be labeled as it should be because that’s the only way we can seek justice and solitude and everything that’s happened. It’s what they deserve. We stand in solidarity and we sympathized with all the minorities recently and all that’s going on in the world. We call an injustice when we see it, we call an oppression when we see it, so we really need this right now.

When the family of the victims are calling on authorities and the media to treat this murder as a hate crime and terrorism, it is shameful, disrespectful, and insulting every time the media argues otherwise or makes the speculation about “balance.” You’ll notice how Jake Tapper constantly asked Suzanne Barakat if there was a specific moment when Craig Stephen Hicks said or did something explicitly anti-Muslim. Even though the family members and friends have referenced Yusor as once saying, “He hates us for what we are and how we look,” reporters like Jake Tapper have the nerve to continue pressing for “evidence” of anti-Muslim sentiment.

I cannot speak for the family or the victims. I’m sure there are still more details that have yet to surface about Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s encounters with their hostile neighbor. However, I know that many Muslims, as well as people of color, don’t need “evidence” or “proof” in the form of an explicit Islamophobic statement from the neighbor to know this was motivated by racist, anti-Muslim sentiment. I know my experiences and encounters with Islamophobia and racism are nothing compared to this violence. What I do know is that many Muslims and people of color have experienced (and continue to experience) horrible situations where blatant racial slurs don’t need to be said in order to determine that the discrimination and hostility they’re facing is due to racism.

We take note of how we are singled out. We notice it in the way people look at us. We see it in their eyes. We hear it in their tone of voice. We hear it in the way they talk to us. We feel it in the actions they take against us. As a Pakistani Muslim man, I am aware of how my brown skin makes me a target for racism. However, in the presence of Muslim women who wear hijab, I have only witnessed how the stares, hostile looks, and racist comments and attitudes are more pronounced towards them. I can never fully know what it must feel like to experience that directly on a daily basis. To say the harassment and murder of the three Muslim students, two of whom were Muslim women who wore hijab, had nothing to do with them being Muslim is disingenuous and insulting.

These daily aggressions are overlooked and ignored, not just by the media, but every day in society. They’re dismissed as “isolated incidents” rather than being connected to the larger forces of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Media has no language, no nuance, and no analysis to discuss and address these experiences of Muslim women, women of color, and people of color. It will not make the connections between the demonization of Muslims and Islam in the media, including in films like American Sniper or in TV shows like “Homeland,” and the deadly impact these images have on our community. For a few minutes, they’ll do a report on Chapel Hill, but the rest of the time, the media is back to depicting Islam and Muslim as terrorists and barbarians.

These connections need to be made, not only for the sake of challenging the dehumanization of Muslims in the media, but also the dehumanization of black men and women and other people of color. We know how differently the media’s reaction would have been if a black man murdered three white non-Muslim people, or if it had been a brown Muslim man. Suzanne Barakat’s words about the media’s double-standards and complicity is something society needs to pay more attention to. The “parking dispute” excuse is rooted in the same racism that refuses to talk about Islamophobia and would rather treat this as an “isolated incident,” something to “forget” about.

The need to challenge these irresponsible narratives, the media’s demonization of Muslims, and the Islamophobic hate speech from hate groups, politicians, filmmakers, celebrities like Bill Maher, “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and other influential figures are urgent and serious. They are matters of life and death.

Prayers for the 3 Muslim Students Murdered in Chapel Hill

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All day, my Facebook news feed was filled with reports and updates about the horrible murder of 3 Muslim students in North Carolina yesterday. Their names are Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19. They were murdered by their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year-old white man who identified as “anti-theist” and frequently posted his anti-religious views on Facebook. He often cited Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, both of whom are notoriously known for their Islamophobic attitudes and statements.

It is difficult for me to put my feelings about this into words, but my deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and their friends. I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through. A lot of Muslims have posted about their grief, anger, and heartbreak over this atrocious act of terrorism, and my reaction isn’t any different. The mainstream media’s lack of coverage/awful coverage was utterly shameful, especially when headlines on media outlets, including the CNN website, read that “parking disputes” led to this murder. It was an obvious indication that the media refuses, yet again, to acknowledge Islamophobia; that Islamophobia is still not recognized as a serious problem in society.

There are a lot more thoughts I have, but I will save them for another post. I just wanted to share the articles and video clips that were released today. May Allah bless their souls, grant them Jannat-ul-Firdous, and bring healing and strength to their families and loved ones. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

Victims’ father says Chapel Hill triple homicide was a hate crime:

‘It was execution style, a bullet in every head,’ Abu-Salha said Wednesday morning. ‘This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.’

Abu-Salha said his daughter who lived next door to Hicks wore a Muslim head scarf and told her family a week ago that she had ‘a hateful neighbor.’

‘Honest to God, she said, “He hates us for what we are and how we look,”‘ he said.”

Raw Video: Family of Chapel Hill shooting victims speaks:

Deah Barakat’s sister Suzanne Barakat appealed to authorities on behalf of her family, saying “we ask that the authorities investigate these senseless and heinous murders as a hate crime.”

Suzanne Barakat speaking to Anderson Cooper about Chapel Hill Shooting:

“There had been issues of some disrespect and harassment from the neighbor’s standpoint. It’s basically incomprehensible to me that you can murder 3 people by shooting a bullet into their head and killing them over a parking spot.”

Beyond “Free Speech” and Towards an Anti-Oppressive Future

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Since my last blog post about the attacks in Paris, there have been a few comments asking about “the solutions” and “where we go from here.” I have also noticed how most of the articles and media coverage have been focused on discussions and debates about “free speech” and “freedom of expression.” Though not surprising, it is still very concerning when I read commentaries, including those written by Muslims in the west, that argue Muslims need to learn how to “respect other people’s views or opinions.”

These commentaries are not only inaccurate and play into “the clash of civilizations,” they distract us from a more important conversation we should be having. Mainstream media, as well as liberal political commentators (both non-Muslim and Muslim-identified individuals), have been locked in too much talk about “free speech” and debate over whether people should have the “right to be racist,” but there hasn’t been enough talk about how we move towards an anti-racist, anti-oppressive future. Little attention is given to the movements that are challenging and confronting white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

As I wrote before, the decontextualized and depoliticized narratives about the attacks in Paris reduce the issue to being about mere “cartoons” and results in the racist pathologizing of Muslims. When so-called “world leaders,” which included Benjamin Netanyahu, hypocritically marched in Paris, their demonstration had nothing to do with “free speech,” especially since many of these “leaders” have their own record of horrible violations against human rights and freedom of expression. The “unity march” was really about the west asserting its dominance and power over Muslims and other people of color. One of the ways this domination is expressed is through a narrative of the west being “under constant attack” from the “dark Other.”

Stacey Patton recently wrote about the dangerous prevalence of white supremacy, anti-black racism and violence, and the media’s silence whenever black communities and other communities of color are attacked. As she put it, #JeSuisCharlie is “the French version of #WhiteLivesMatter,” and the reaction from “world leaders,” Hollywood celebrities, and media was a reminder “that white lives matter, that white voices matter, and that white humanity is the only humanity worth protecting and respecting.” This reflects a major problem with conversations about “free speech”: these “rights” were never meant for people of color in white supremacist societies. We have seen countless examples of this, including the Patriot Act, the criminalization of students who speak out against Israel, the deportation of Muslims for criticizing U.S. support for Israel, or the bans against Gaza solidarity rallies in France. In fact, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist for drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon. This is by no means an endorsement of the cartoon or anti-Semitism, but just an example of the hypocrisy about “free speech.” When anti-Semitic cartoons are drawn, Charlie Hebdo treated it as “inciting racial hatred,” but when Muslims and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are mocked and demonized, it is considered “free speech.”

It is disturbing when I hear people, including some Muslims, say, “Yeah, people should have the right to draw those cartoons.” To those people, I simply ask, “Do you support Nazis for having the right to draw anti-Semitic cartoons or produce anti-Semitic films?” We all know where those propaganda cartoons and films led to, but why has it become difficult for politically conscious people to not see Charlie Hebdo as propaganda that fuels racism, Islamophobia, police brutality, and imperialist violence?

If we are seeking to work towards equity, towards a better world, where all people are treated equally and justly, where there is true liberation for all, then what place does allowing racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression have? If we think about the ongoing settler-colonialism and genocide against Indigenous Peoples, the police brutality and violence against black youth, the brutal wars against Muslims, the violence and unjust laws against undocumented immigrants and their families, do we want these oppressions to remain “norms” in the world? Are we ok with people using “free speech” as a cover for their Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia? Do we want to tolerate racist and sexist high school teachers or college professors who make students of color unsafe in classrooms? Are we ok with radio talk show hosts saying racist, misogynist things on the air without being held accountable for it? Is this the kind of society and world we want to live in?

I imagine that someone may view this post as advocating laws against demonizing Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m arguing that we go beyond laws and radically imagine a future where such demonization wouldn’t occur because of the acceptance and respect we have developed for each other. We sometimes see white celebrities having to apologize for the racist things they have said (and this only happens when their behavior reaches public attention), but there is a genuineness missing from most of these apologies. Most of the time, these apologies are superficial, empty, and done for the purpose of “saving face.” What if we lived in a society where people apologized, took responsibility, and held themselves accountable out of sincere love and concern for the people and/or communities they hurt with their words or actions?

History is filled with examples of western Christian societies fearing, ridiculing, and demonizing Prophet Muhammad. Since the advent of Islam, Muhammad became a target. Chapati Mystery recently featured a fantastic article that documents much of this history. Whether viewed as a corruption, an imposter, a heretic, a demon, sexually perverse, or even compared to an “African monster,” these depictions of the Prophet have a long history in the west and are ongoing. They go beyond sentiment and are connected to the oppressive laws and violence that target Muslims.

If we center our politics on abolishing oppression, then perhaps rather than ask if people should have the right to demonize the Prophet, we might be asking why is there a desire to demonize him (and Muslims in general)? What is the purpose? What “freedom” is being achieved when the freedoms of Muslims are violated on a daily basis? If you want to demonize the Prophet, first ask yourself what do you know about the Prophet and his life? Have you ever read about him? Have you ever read the impassioned poems that Muslims have dedicated to him over the centuries? Have you ever listened to the way Muslims sing out of praise and devotion for him? Have you ever spent time with Muslim families and listened to how they speak about him.

Could you imagine a cartoonist pulling a racist cartoon of the Prophet – not because of a law or to save face – but because he/she listened to the Muslim community and learned how harmful such images were to them? The Holy Qur’an acknowledges human diversity as a blessing and advocates for all communities – Muslim or non-Muslim – to build respectful relations with one another: “And among Allah’s signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. There truly are signs in this for those who know. […] O humankind, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (30:22; 49:13). As mentioned above, the “unity marches” had nothing to do with building positive relations with other human beings, but everything to do with valuing white lives and voices over people of color. To “know one another” would mean France and other “world leaders” taking responsibility and action against the racism and Islamophobia in French society. If we are truly seeking “freedom” for all people, then we need to abolish the systems of oppression that deny certain peoples their freedom. The dismantling of these systems also means unlearning the way we have been socialized, re-imagining ourselves, and deconstructing our understanding of what “freedom” and “free speech” really means to the State.

Will hate speech always exist? Maybe. But I believe we can work towards a future where racist and sexist hatred no longer comes from the powerful and real accountability is practiced. Instead of trying to integrate ourselves into conversations, debates, and spaces that are dictated by hypocritical laws and ideas about “free speech,” our focus and solidarity should be with the social justice movements against white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, setter-colonialism, and imperialism. Our solidarity should be with #BlackLivesMatter, with the Dream Defenders, with Idle No More and Indigenous activists, with the people and the resistance movements in Palestine and Kashmir, with victims and resistors against oppressive governments, with decolonial activists around the world.

Image credit: “Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy” by Sana Naveed
Translation: “We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all Worlds” (Qur’an 21:107)

It’s Not Just About “Cartoons”

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In addition to several mosques, a Kebab shop located near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone was bombed in a revenge attack.

I posted this message on my Facebook wall this morning and upon the request of some friends, I decided to share it on my blog. I’ve expanded on it a little here and included links to some of the references I made.

I did not want to comment or write anything about the shootings in Paris yesterday morning. I have been wanting to write about the attacks in Peshawar on my blog and I remember what my reaction was upon hearing the news on that day. I grieved for the victims, who were mostly children, and then later, after seeing mainstream media coverage, the Islamophobic narratives, and the jingoistic responses from the Pakistani government and certain Pakistanis (particularly the privileged class Pakistanis living in the west and arrogantly proclaiming they know what’s best for the country and speaking as if there aren’t people in Pakistan with a conscious for justice), I felt angry and exhausted. Most of all, I worried about the escalation of Islamophobia — not just in the form of interpersonal racism and bigotry, but also in its institutionalized forms — and the continued military operations, violence, and displacement against people in Waziristan (please read Orbala’s important post about the Peshawar attacks here).

After the shootings in Paris, I worried again about the increase of Islamophobia. I have said this countless times on my blog (and I know so many Muslims have said it too), but I am just fed up with the expectation that Muslims have to answer for violence that was carried out by other Muslims. The problematic and apologetic responses from western-based Muslim organizations continue to be frustrating, as they play into the assumption that Muslims must take collective responsibility for these attacks. Muslims are considered “guilty,” “suspicious,” and “enemies” by default until they “prove” to the west that they are “civilized,” i.e. that they will swear allegiance to the state first and foremost, even if that means supporting the surveillance of their communities, racial profiling, imperialist wars, etc.

The condemnations from imams, religious leaders, and Muslim organizations never do anything in the eyes of Islamophobes, the state, and the general public. Instead, Muslims are demanded to “do more” than condemn (as Fareed Zakaria recently stated in his awful CNN video). Of course, this demand to “do more” is never made to white non-Muslims whenever other white non-Muslims commit acts of terrorism. For Muslims, the call for “doing more” constitutes turning on their communities and, if necessary, fighting against other Muslims, as if every Muslim, including the children, must be drafted into a war to exert greater violence against the “extremists.” Because when Muslims kill other Muslims, it’s never a loss for “western civilization.” Our lives are disposable after all.

But we must grieve the lives of white people, we are told, especially when they are murdered by darker-skinned people. The world, not just one country, must mourn their deaths. Furthermore, we see simplistic narratives that perpetuate the nationalist, racist discourse that Muslims and communities of color need to be policed, profiled, and spied upon. I wrote this on Facebook to express the frustration and concern I had about these narratives that were reducing this issue to being about “free speech” and Muslims being “offended” by “cartoons.” The post is pasted below:

I’ve been really bothered by all of the posts that are framing the shooting in Paris as being about “oversensitive Muslims” being “offended” by “free speech” and a “cartoon.” This is reductive and terribly misleading, to say the least. Weren’t we just posting Jesse Williams’ video where he explains why Exodus is NOT “just a movie” and how racist, anti-black imagery in media is powerful and interconnected with white supremacist violence? I only mention his video here because some people on the Left seemingly forgot the importance of critiquing and challenging images in media and, instead, defended the cartoons as “free speech” and “just cartoons.”

I do find those racist cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) offensive and I’m not ashamed of admitting that. But I’m not offended by them simply because they are “just cartoons” or because I’m “insecure” about my faith. I find them offensive because the images are harmful in the same way TV shows like “24” and “Homeland,” and films like American Sniper (which glorifies a racist murderer who declared that Iraqis “weren’t human beings”) and Zero Dark Thirty are harmful. We challenge those images because we recognize the significant role they play in perpetuating the demonization of Muslims and Islam, racist laws, policies, and surveillance programs, drone strikes and wars, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, apathy and victim-blaming towards Muslims murdered by the US and western nations, etc., but how can we now decontextualize and depoliticize these racist cartoons as if they don’t serve as propaganda to fuel Islamophobia, state racism, police brutality – specifically against North African Muslims in France – and imperialism?

Too many people are defending these cartoons as “satire” and arguing that Muslims “need to learn how to take a joke” (which is another way of narrating that Muslims are “uncivilized” and “backwards” people). No – Muslims, like everyone else, know what jokes are. We even tell them, too (gasp). But those cartoons are not “satire,” they are racist propaganda. And racism is racism; not a “joke.” Nazi Germany produced anti-semitic cartoons and films as propaganda to dehumanize Jews (and we know where it led to) — should we defend those images as “free speech”? Or what about the racist minstrel shows and blackface cartoons that dehumanize black people (caricatures that still surface – e.g. the horrifying cake in Sweden, in the Transformers 2 movie, and basically seen every Halloween, etc.)? Mainstream media never talks about how dangerous these images are and how they directly impact communities and shape nationalist discourse and norms, including our understanding of “freedom” and “free speech.”

Muslims are expected to “prove” they are “not terrorists” and condemn violence whenever other Muslims are involved, but we don’t hear about the Islamophobia Muslims experience and we don’t see white people condemning the frightening Islamophobia that is widespread in the west (e.g. the anti-Muslim rallies in Germany, the attacks on mosques in Sweden and in France today). If white people do not need to prove that they don’t support murderers like Elliot Rodger, Anders Breivik, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Darren Wilson, and Timothy McVeigh, then why should Muslims? No one deserved to die, but the west never says the same for the Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Somalis, and countless other communities who have been oppressed, tortured, raped, murdered, and bombed in the name of the very “freedom” and “democracy” people are defending.

It’s sad and absurd that I’m expected to write a disclaimer about how I condemn the shootings (and there it is), but before you defend a racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic magazine, look at the images you are defending and learn about the ways in which they perpetuate racism, hate speech, and violence.

Because it’s never “just a movie,” “just a TV show,” or “just a cartoon.”

Racist Casting and the Politics of “Practicality”

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This post has been sitting in my draft folder for a long time now, but I haven’t been able to get to it until now! We put together a teaser poster for the feature film I’ve been working on and will be uploading it on a website soon, insha’Allah. We are nearly finished and have been making great progress! There is a lot to discuss about the film, including the production process, working on a low-budget, and collaborating with wonderful people, so I plan on writing more about it in future posts.

During lunch breaks and/or rehearsals, a topic that continues to be raised is how racist and sexist the casting decisions are in Hollywood. I’ve heard many stories from black and brown actors I’ve been working with about the struggle to find complex, non-stereotypical, and leading roles. When there are films that should feature a people of color-majority cast, we see Hollywood and even independent filmmakers resorting to whitewashing the cast. By now, we’ve all heard about the atrocious casting decisions for Ridley Scott’s Exodus. Actor Jesse Williams recently spoke on the interconnectedness of white supremacy and Hollywood in this powerful video:

… [A]nd why we think that it’s ok to have a movie like fucking Exodus where white people look ridiculous dressed like Africans. They look ridiculous. Because we know it’s make-believe… It ain’t just a movie, that’s the shit that gets Mike Brown killed and all you people think it’s ok because he’s a fucking ‘animal.’ All of this stuff is connected. That’s what you learn especially when you’re out there in Hollywood… You know how many fucking jobs I have to turn down and how many people I have to fire because of the racist shit that I get offered? And I’m as white as you can get being a black person. I have a fucking struggle. Imagine him trying to get those jobs. You got to decide whether wear a do-rag, rob some white person on a TV show or pay your mortgage and raise your family. And that’s no fucking joke, those are 5 of my closest friends, who have to decide every 3 days whether they want to chip away at their own soul, and chip away a piece of themselves to dance and shuck and jive for white America.

In addition to racist casting, the stories of black and brown people are marginalized, vilified, and/or silenced by mainstream media. When we see science fiction films that take place in dystopian futures, we either see the erasure of people of color, or we see a “post-racial” and “post-gender” world where racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia don’t exist. Also, if people of color are present in these stories, we see a common and disturbing trope where they are killed off to serve as martyrs to spark the revolution and inspire the white protagonist(s). Additionally, as Imran Siddique wrote in an excellent article, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” we not only see racism and sexism “magically disappear” in these films, but also see the “old sci-fi tradition of imagining the subjugation of white people, essentially saying ‘Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!'” I wrote about this previously in my post on X-Men and how it centers on a white-majority cast and appropriates the struggles of marginalized groups.

What I wanted to discuss in this post is how anti-oppression advocacy and calls for better opportunities for people of color actors, especially women of color, are dismissed by Hollywood, but also by some on the Left. In Hollywood, the excuses for the racist casting of Exodus were absurd, to say the least. So absurd that people making the excuses didn’t realize they were contradicting themselves or make paradoxical statements. For instance, Ridley Scott made an offensive comment about how he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so” to play the lead role because he wouldn’t get funding to produce the movie. People who rushed to Scott’s defense made the argument of “practicality,” i.e. they argued, “People don’t get it! Scott wouldn’t get funding if he cast a black man to play Moses. He was being practical! People need to shut up about racism and get over themselves!” What’s ridiculous about this argument is that it acknowledges that racism exists (the subtext being, “Studios won’t fund a movie with a people of color-majority cast because producers are racist”), but then, paradoxically, argues that people should shut up about racism.

Later, Christian Bale defended Scott in an interview with a rather pathetic statement. Instead of protesting, Bale said, people should support “Middle Eastern and North African actors and filmmakers.” I call this response “pathetic” because Bale doesn’t seem to realize that one of the major reasons why people were protesting Exodus is because they do support black and brown actors. They are protesting because they wanted to see Middle Eastern and North African actors in those roles. Bale continues and says that there will be a film about Moses (peace be upon him) with a people of color-majority cast “in a few decades” and that it will mark a day of “celebration” for both film and humankind. Again, what Bale doesn’t seem to recognize is that his statement admits that the film’s casting is wrong and racist (otherwise why say that an accurately cast Moses film would mark a day of celebration?). Of course, Bale refused to see his complicity because he benefits from racist casting. Once again, people of color are told to “wait” and just deal with the fact that only white actors can play roles that should have gone to people of color. They are told they are not being “practical.” Instead of pointing fingers at protestors, Bale should tell Hollywood (and himself) to support actors of color. If he did, then he would have turned down the role and told Ridley Scott to look for actors of color instead. I’m not singling Bale out either – all of the white actors should have said something (including Joel Edgerton who had to darken his skin and also had the sphinx molded after his European features!).

At the center of Bale’s argument was that people needed to help create a “market” for Middle Eastern and North African actors. That is, by supporting those actors, studios will see there’s a market for producing films that feature them in leading roles. This is something I don’t buy at all. The excuse that films won’t sell unless they are centered on white male actors is one rooted in white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist-thinking. It’s a shame that film is not really seen as an art form (no matter how many times certain filmmakers or producers in Hollywood claim otherwise), so equating success with financial success is something that has long been normalized in the entertainment industry. Many people are convinced that in order for a film to perform well at the box office, they need to have mostly white male actors. First off, I don’t believe in the notion that a film with a people of color-majority cast would not make money. I believe the real issue is that producers and Hollywood studios simply do not care and do not want to cast people of color most of the time in leading roles. Second, I think we need to move beyond this paradigm of monetary gain to determine whether or not a film should be made.

Moses is a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the story is essentially about speaking truth to power and freedom from oppression. Ironically, a film about fighting against oppression became one that perpetuates oppression. White supremacist patriarchal capitalism drains meaning out of everything in society, including society’s spiritual well-being. Scott treated a story that is held scared by millions of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups, as a “fictional” story that could be adapted (as if it were Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). We saw Darren Aronofsky do this as well with his film, Noah.  White supremacist patriarchal capitalism doesn’t hold anything sacred. The message of the film is less concerned about emphasis on God, spirituality, and fighting oppression, but rather more interested in making money and telling an “entertaining” story where white people are, once again, heroes/saviors in stories that they weren’t apart of. And yet, it continues to amaze me when I hear/read comments from mostly white anti-racist “allies” who say that criticizing the casting of the film is “pointless” because, according to them, “the Bible is just fiction anyway.” David Dennis Jr. wrote an excellent response to these reactions, which I will quote here:

I know the initial reactions to articles about movies based on Bible stories is to do that cool Internet thing where you say how the Bible is fiction and it’s not important because fish weren’t even discovered when Jesus was alive or whatever cool nugget you read on Mental Floss. And why should people even care about a book that you think is as fictitious as Harry Potter, anyway? Just take into account that regardless of what any of you may think about religion, it’s a source of self-worth, inspiration and intense love for millions of people who dedicate their lives to whatever school of spiritual thought they choose. So while some may give a dismissive “lulz parting the sea” as an initial reaction, the idea of creating a race-based hierarchy with these figures isn’t an offense that should be taken lightly.

And he’s absolutely right, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. When children, especially children of color, only see religious leaders and prophets depicted as white men, there are serious concerns about internalizing white supremacy. Are white parents comfortable with their white children seeing the prophets they learn about in Church depicted as they really were: black and brown people?

But it’s not just about films like Exodus and Noah. It’s also about the industry in general and how people of color are marginalized, tokenized, vilified, and/or completely erased. I recently raised a critique of a white activist’s praise for the latest Hunger Games film and its apparent parallels with Palestine. I started my comment by writing that I totally support reading radical themes in science fiction films, but I also mentioned that one thing that continues to frustrate me is how these stories are almost always centered on white people. It’s difficult for me to read about a dystopian future where we see white people not only taking center stage, but also being the “most victimized” by state oppression. I mentioned the common racist and sexist tropes where we see people of color characters, particularly women of color characters, often being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire resistance movements led by white people. One of several examples I brought up was a 4-part series on “The Clone Wars” animated show where I noticed strong parallels with occupied Palestine, well-developed people of color characters, but (SPOILERS) then watched Steela Gerrera, the lead woman of color character, killed off to inspire the revolution. “Her sacrifice gave Onderon its freedom,” eulogized the white male character. This trope fuels the notion that women of color in particular must die or sacrifice themselves so that white people can get their freedom. The trope also denies one of the greatest strengths of communities of color: their survival. I also mentioned movies like Avatar, which appropriate Indigenous People’s resistance against colonialism and genocide, and use non-human species to stand-in for people of color (a trope we see far too often in sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows, novels, etc.).

Unfortunately, after presenting my critique, I got whitesplained.

He implied, condescendingly, that my “tactics” were not practical. He argued that the Left is too weak to be “overly purist,” so instead of “rejecting” movies “on the basis of racism, sexism, orientalism,” and so on, we should be encouraging people to engage these films with radicalized readings. There was a lot to unpack from his response. First, I never said in my initial comment to “reject” the movies altogether, but this is a common response I hear from white people, whether they are anti-racist activists or not. It’s common because whenever people of color critique or criticize something, we’re seen as the enemies of “free speech.” This is especially true when Muslims speak out against something. “Oh, you’re trying to ban free speech and/or freedom of expression!” “These Muslims need to learn how to respect freedom!” Whether or not this was his thought process when speaking to me, the impact of the words should have been taken into account.

Second, I very much agree that encouraging people to engage with films in radical ways is important, but what he didn’t seem to acknowledge was how advocating for the non-superficial presence and centering of people of color in these films is also part of those radicalized readings. Instead, it was dismissed, as if there is no space in the engagement/critique of these films to discuss people of color-centered stories and better opportunities for people of color actors.

Third, his response reinforced oppressive “practicality” politics. That is, we shouldn’t complain about people of color not being in these films because the Left is “too weak.” There are things we just need to let slide, especially when these issues are about racism, sexism, and appropriation. Yeah, those posts about how Katniss should have been a woman of color? Yeah, the Left is too weak, let’s not talk about that. Even beyond film and media, how many times have we heard people on the Left say that we should brush certain things aside “for the greater good”? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia in Leftist spaces? Yeah, we don’t want to risk being more divided, so let’s just ignore it. Imposing “practicality” politics on people of color reinforces an obvious racist attitude that people of color are not logical beings and therefore need the “guidance” of white people. It’s important that white people show their solidarity, but we don’t need paternalistic authority from them.

These are difficult conversations to have, no doubt, but we need to have them. Silencing these issues is not going to make things magically disappear. What kind of progress are we going to make if people are told they should suffer in silence? Something that I wish more Leftist activists, especially white male activists, would do is more privilege-checking and self-critique. All of us need to be conscious and aware of our privileges, myself included. Checking yourself isn’t just a one time thing and if you get published in a book, organize a protest, or lead a workshop, it doesn’t mean you get a free pass on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Being an ally is something you work to maintain everyday.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered too much arrogance from people on the Left. Most of the time, I see this “know-it-all,” authoritative, paternalistic arrogance come from white “allies” who think they know everything about racism (and your life and soul) just because they read Fanon, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and other writers and activists. Hey, you read books, that’s cool. You should be reading those texts. However, asserting that men and women of color need to be more “practical” doesn’t do anything but maintain the status quo. What else does it do other than tell people to “shut up” about racism and sexism? How does this not reproduce white supremacy and patriarchy? I remember when I was telling a white colleague about my film, he told me that I should make it about bullying rather than highlight on specifics like racism and sexism. He said it would appeal to a “wider audience” if I made it more about bullying (because there’s no such thing as racist and sexist bullying, or a combination of both, apparently). I know that he meant “white audiences” when he said “wider audience.” Now, when I hear a white “anti-racist ally” say that we shouldn’t be demand for people of color to play leading roles in movies, I can’t help but ask, “Why do I hear the same racist stuff from people who are supposed to be allies?”

Why isn’t it “practical” to demand for people of color-centered stories? When black actors like Jesse Williams talk about all the racist jobs he gets offered and the struggle that actors of color go through, why isn’t it “practical” to demand for something better? As he passionately articulated in the video mentioned above, dehumanizing and racist imagery have very real and serious consequences in the real world because “it’s all connected.” White “allies” who resort to “practicality” politics should take the time to re-examine themselves before they condescend to people of color and behave like they know what it’s like to experience racism on a daily basis. There needs to be solidarity, but it can’t be accomplished when white people assert themselves in the movement as authority figures or behave like they know how to “practically” dismantle systems of oppression. We need more people to humble themselves, recognize their privilege(s), check themselves, and listen more. Do this work before you enter a space and cause more harm and reproduce the oppression you claim to be fighting against.