Reflections on Wiscon 40


Although WisCon 40 ended on Monday, I didn’t make it back home until Wednesday because my Tuesday flight was cancelled due to the weather. Even on Wednesday, United Airlines sent me consecutive texts about how my flight kept getting delayed. My plan was not to miss my Wednesday night class, but due to the flight delays, I ended up being an hour late!

There is a lot I want to say about my first time attending WisCon, a self-described feminist science fiction and fantasy convention that advocates anti-racist and intersectional politics. Overall, it was a great experience and I loved how efforts were made to provide safe space for everyone. There were so many amazing panel topics and discussions, but some took place at the same time, so it was impossible to attend all of them! It was refreshing to hear feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic perspectives highlighted upon, particularly in the context of science fiction and fantasy. In more mainstream discussions, the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are mostly marginalized or excluded altogether.

A friend finally convinced me to join Twitter so that I could keep up with the conversations at the panels and also live tweet reactions that others could read. I remember people doing live tweets when I spoke at the Banana 2 conference back in 2011, but I missed all of the tweets because I didn’t have a Twitter account!

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed WisCon, it was not perfect. I had one experience with a racial microaggression that shook me up a little on Friday, where a White woman scolded me in the elevator for not moving, even though there were clearly two other people standing in front of me and I was waiting for them to walk out. Her anger may have been towards all of us, but it was directed at me. I was the darkest person in the elevator, so I figured that I was an easy target. I didn’t say anything to her and just walked out when I was able to, but as someone who experiences racism, Islamophobia, and microaggressions on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think, “I came here to get away from the dehumanizing treatment I get from White people. I have to deal with it here, too?” Thanks to a friend, I was able to move past it. I needed to, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood and I would have missed out on meeting wonderful people at the Con.

The first panel I went to was a Star Wars panel, which tweeted under the hashtag #TheFandomAwakens. As one can imagine, the discussion was full of praise for the latest Star Wars film, particularly for Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was nice to hear the panelists mention the Women of Color characters that we saw in the background of the film, but I was hoping for them to be a little more critical and talk about how Women of Color deserve to play significant roles, too. I mentioned this in my previous posts here and here about how it’s great we are seeing more prominent women characters in science fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies/TV shows, but the majority of them are White women. I have some friends, for example, who wished Rey was a woman of color. It would have been interesting to discuss and ask, “Could a woman of color ever be the main character in a Star Wars movie?” This is not a diss on the panel because I totally understand wanting to talk about all the positive things in The Force Awakens. I wasn’t bothered by this, until a White woman referred to John Boyega’s skin color as “dark chocolate.” I was sitting there, thinking, whoa, did I just hear that?

Let me take a minute here to say: NO. Do NOT compare Black people and other People of Color to food. JUST DON’T. I remember classmates in school likening my skin color to Hershey chocolate after they told me I couldn’t dress up as Batman for Halloween because I’m not White. The panelist initially said that she appreciated how a dark skinned Black man was chosen to play Finn. There was nothing wrong about that statement because, yes, we see colorism a lot in Hollywood where People of Color, especially Women of Color, with darker skin are excluded and discriminated against, but the “dark chocolate” comment was completely unnecessary.

Later that day, I decided to go to the Safer Space for People of Color room. I cannot express how grateful I am that such a space exists for People of Color. Everyone in the room was friendly, welcoming, and supportive. People use the space to vent about anything, not just about the experiences they’re having at the Con. One night, I was talking to a couple of people about the “dark chocolate” remark I heard at the Star Wars panel. I also expressed how I often get worried about being critical of Star Wars (which is my favorite movie series of all time, by the way) because there’s a perception that if you critique something, then it must mean you hate it. One person in the room immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a White attitude.” And I was like, “Yes! It so is.” We had discussions about the metaphorical minorities panel and all of the sci-fi/fantasy movies that appropriate the struggles of People of Color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, and depict White people as being the most persecuted group. Someone in the space also mentioned how she felt Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road should have been an Indigenous woman due to how disappearances of Indigenous women and other Women of Color are still prevalent today. All in all, it felt great to have these discussions with people who understand that just because you’re critical of something, it doesn’t mean you “hate” it (And of course, I did talk about certain movies and TV shows I hate too!). I think having such spaces where people can vent freely and not worry about being judged, silenced, or marginalized is a radical act.

Frequent readers of my blog may know this already, but I am not used to being around a lot of People of Color due to the demographics of where I live, work, and study. Being the only person of color and only Muslim in the workplace or classroom is a norm I’ve experienced all of my life. At the Safe Space for People of Color room, when I introduced myself to people, everyone made a genuine effort in learning how to pronounce my name correctly. That meant a lot to me. I’m so used to the opposite, where White people won’t make an effort to learn. I worked 5 years in a workplace where one of my White managers refused to address me by my name because, “It’s too hard!” (yet she knew how to pronounce “Hydrochlorothiazide”). Of course, there are White folks and People of Color that I meet in my everyday life that are better at this, but I didn’t have any anxiety about introducing myself at the Safer Space for PoC at WisCon.

There was also a dinner for People of Color on one of the nights. Across the PoC dinner room was the dinner provided by the main Con. As you can imagine, all of the White folks were lined up for that dinner, but as a friend and I were walking by, we heard a couple of White people complaining about how there was a PoC dinner. One of them even said, “I’m transparent, does that count as a color?” Ha Ha. Get it? Because transparent is… Yeah. My friend and I looked at each other and were like, “Did you just hear that?” As I mentioned earlier, this was my first WisCon, so I was unaware of the work that went into getting safe space for People of Color. My friend informed me about how WisCon has been changing and becoming more inclusive over the years, and how there has been resistance to these changes, especially from the older generation of White attendees. I heard more People of Color mention this in conversations.

Of course, WisCon isn’t the only place where I’ve heard White people complain about safe space for People of Color. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’ve lost count of how many times I have been excluded from workplace dinners or parties organized by classmates. The workplace dinners were the worst because there were multiple times when pork would be on the pizza they ordered or there was never any effort to order Halal meat. I don’t expect the latter, but you would think “holiday dinners” would have vegetarian options at least, but they didn’t until I complained about it. I became so used to being that one person who couldn’t eat anything at non-Muslim dinner events. So it felt nice, for once, that I could access a space that White people couldn’t and that there were food options available to me. In downtown Madison, we were looking for restaurants that served Halal meat and were able to find three. I am thinking about contacting the organizers at WisCon to let them know which restaurants. I think it would be nice if the WisCon app included Halal and Kosher meat categories under the restaurants they have listed.

It was awesome meeting all of the science fiction and fantasy authors at the Con. I was introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s work last year and read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she wasn’t at WisCon this year. I felt a little awkward getting my book signed by Sofia Samatar because I had not read any of her work before. Before I went to the Con, I bought a book where two of her short stories are featured, but I didn’t get a chance to read them in time! I bought her book, The Winged Histories, and told her that I was really looking forward to reading it.

One of the panels I really liked was about Social Media Exclusivity. It stood out to me on the schedule because I’ve deactivated from Facebook for about 7 months now. I have been thinking about writing a post about why I deactivated, but it was nice to hear other people express similar concerns and critiques about social media. The panelists spoke about how people tend to assume that everyone has access to social media and/or the internet in general. They mentioned how a lot of activist organizing and announcements are made on Twitter and Facebook, but there are also a lot of people, especially communities of color, who are excluded from these meetings and events because they don’t have access to social media. There was also a discussion about how people choose to stay off social media due to how unsafe it can be due to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. I appreciated this panel because it reminded me of how torn I feel about being off Facebook. On one hand, it was a space where I could meet and network with people (mainly other Muslims and people of color) who I would not have met otherwise, but on the other, there was also a lot of toxicity, ego battles, and oppressive behavior. The latter made Facebook extremely time consuming, but also exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on Twitter because I hear it can be worse than Facebook. Anyway, like I said before, I have been thinking about writing a post on this, so I’ll save all of the details for that post.

I was hoping to find a panel about Muslim characters and/or Islamophobia at WisCon, but there did not seem to be any. However, I was informed that panels about Islamophobia and Muslim characters were discussed in previous years. I didn’t register for WisCon in time to organize a panel, but I would like to in the future because there’s so much I want to vent about with regard to Islamophobia in mainstream science fiction and fantasy movies! Overall, I am glad I went to WisCon this year. I got to meet some really wonderful people and I hope to stay connected with them! I would definitely go to WisCon again, though probably not next year because memorial weekend falls on Ramadan.

If you went to WisCon 40, I would love to hear your thoughts or read any posts you’ve written about it!

The Erasure of Women of Color in Superhero Gender Politics

colbert villains

While this post will discuss the superhero genre in general, most of the attention will focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). No spoilers below.

This may as well be a continuation of my recent post about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, where I talked about how erasing Rey’s Whiteness subsequently erases women of color. As many women of color have already written and stated before, erasing women of color from mainstream feminism isn’t anything new. In the ever-rising popularity of western mainstream superhero films and TV shows, we see this erasure perpetuate.

I can’t remember where I saw this discussion on YouTube, but it involved the issue of racebending The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film. Originally an Asian character in the comic books, the film cast a White actress, Tilda Swinton, in the role instead. Someone on the panel criticized the casting as routine Hollywood whitewashing, while another person responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s a good thing they cast a woman because women aren’t getting enough opportunities in Hollywood either.” The former countered that argument and stated, “Why not have the best of both worlds and cast an Asian woman??

What was exposed in the counter argument was the erasure of women of color – Asian women in particular – from the conversation. It didn’t seem to cross the second person’s mind that, “Oh wow, yeah, a person can be Asian and a woman!” Unfortunately, the second person’s comments exemplify normalized attitudes and assumptions that we see far too often in society. That is, race and gender are seen as two separate categories. By extension, additional factors like class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability are also seen as separate categories. I remember reading a “scholarly” journal article once that said, “LGBTQ people experience more discrimination than ethnic minorities.” Aside from my aversion to the term “minorities,” my reaction was a sarcastic, “Oh right, because LGBTQ people of color don’t exist.” The prevailing assumption in society is that people are only “one thing,” as opposed to understanding that every person has intersecting social identities. The second person in the video talks about Tilda Swinton as being only a woman, not a White woman. This reflects how people are socialized to think of the “default man” or “default woman” as being White. There is no need to specify that Swinton is a White woman because we’ve been conditioned to believe “woman = White woman,” just as “man = White man,” or “person = White person.”

I saw something similar happen a couple of nights ago in a clip from Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Colbert commented on how male-dominated the MCU is, calling it “kind of a sausage fest.” While I agree it’s important that Colbert criticized Marvel’s lack of women characters and their sexist decision to gender swap characters that were originally written as women (on the basis that women villains don’t sell toys), his arguments were grounded in colorblind gender politics. Earlier in the segment, he listed some of the main characters in the MCU, emphasizing on the “Man” in their names: “Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther Man.” We know Black Panther doesn’t have “Man” in his superhero name, but we get the point. However, what’s problematic, and quite sad, is how Colbert completely ignores the fact that, unlike the other male heroes in the MCU, T’Challa/Black Panther is an African man. Not only that, but Black Panther is also the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books and will be the first Black character to lead an MCU film. Him finally showing up in a Marvel movie is actually a big deal. By grouping Black Panther with Marvel’s White male superheroes, his Blackness is erased and we are instructed to view him as not only being the “same” as the other men dominating the MCU, but also as being part of Marvel’s “male problem.”

I’m not denying that Marvel is male-dominated – it most definitely is. However, placing Black Panther in the same category as Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man is an oversimplification that dismisses race and intersectionality in general. As bell hooks emphasized in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure.” Yes, all of the MCU films thus far are led by male protagonists, but they are White male protagonists specifically. Black Panther being an African man is significant and he disrupts the nauseating tradition of White male-centered superhero films. Sure, one can argue that T’Challa possesses more power and influence than Tony Stark because he is the king of an entire country, but let’s not ignore for a second the very real and violent anti-Black racism that exists in our world. Let’s not forget that opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood are still extremely limited, especially for Black women. There is a disproportionate number of films that are centered on White men compared to the number of films centered on Black men and other men of color. That number is even smaller when looking at films led by Black women protagonists.

What is also overlooked in Colbert’s segment is how the upcoming Black Panther film, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler, will feature a cast that is “90% African or African American,” according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. This news sparked the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit on Twitter, where fans expressed their excitement about seeing a superhero film with a Black-majority cast. Selma director Ava DuVernay and Twitter user ReignofApril, who started #OscarsSoWhite, also chimed in to share their enthusiasm. The news of a 90% Black cast also means more opportunities for Black actresses to play significant roles in a superhero film. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o has been reportedly cast to star alongside Chadwick Boseman. Additionally, Captain America: Civil War seems to have introduced us to a Black woman character who may play a major role in Black Panther. Played by Ugandan-born German actress Florence Kasumba, the character was seen as one of T’Challa’s security chiefs, possibly a member of the Dora Milaje. Though only appearing briefly in Captain America: Civil War, fans on social media have been praising the character and hoping to see more of her.

None of the above is to excuse the fact that women of color superheroes are hard to find in the recent influx of comic book movies. The last superhero film I remember with a woman of color lead was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry (more on this later). In 2014, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a Captain Marvel film (set for a 2019 release), which will feature a White woman as the title character. As exciting as this news is, we see the exclusion of women of color yet again in the commentary surrounding the film. While Black Panther is described as a “Black character,” Captain Marvel is referred to as a “female character” or “woman character.” The former mentions the character’s race, but not gender, while the latter mentions the character’s gender, but not race. When we hear “Black character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a Black man, whereas when we hear “female character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a White woman. As a result of these assumptions, women of color are erased. I believe what we see reflected here is what Kimberle Crenshaw addressed in her article (PDF) on intersectionality:

Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.

Crenshaw wrote the above in 1991 and it’s sad that the marginalization of women of color and the either/or ways of thinking that she described is still so prevalent. When I think about the MCU films, it is difficult to find women of color characters in prominent roles, let alone portrayed as superheroes. However, I can name a lot of the White women characters: Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Hope van Dyne, Janet van Dyne, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Irani Rael, and Scarlet Witch (who should have been played by a woman of color because the character is Romani, though nothing about her Romani Jewish heritage is mentioned in the films). Avengers: Age of Ultron has an Asian woman character, Helen Cho, and Guardians of the Galaxy features Zoe Saldana in a leading role, but her skin is colored green as her character is of a non-human species.

In the MCU TV shows, we see a couple of women characters leading their own shows, namely Jessica Jones and Agent Carter (though the latter was recently cancelled after two seasons). We do see more women of color in the TV shows than the films. There’s Claire Temple and Elektra, who are not relegated to small roles, thankfully. I don’t watch Agents of Shield (I couldn’t get beyond the first season), but I know there are women of color characters like Melinda May and Skye. I have heard there are more women of color characters in the show, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. Outside the MCU, we do see more White women in leading roles in blockbuster films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, DC’s forthcoming Wonder Woman film, and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which has a racially diverse cast of men of color, but again, where are the women of color? White women can be found playing superheroes in popular TV shows like Supergirl and Arrow as well

I remember when Jessica Jones and Supergirl were being released around the same time, there were some on social media who debated about which one would be better. A third group argued that it didn’t matter which one was “better” because what really mattered was how revolutionary it was to have two TV shows with women superheroes. I don’t downplay the significance of seeing more women superheroes. But again, which women are we talking about? It’s not Black women or Latina women or South Asian women or Arab women we’re seeing in these roles. We continue to see the trend of White men dominating roles in mainstream film and television, and now it seems that movies and TV shows with women main characters must also be White. As if only White women can challenge the White male-centered industry, while women of color play supporting or tertiary roles, or are excluded altogether. It’s the pattern of Whiteness that we are seeing with women characters in these blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Jyn Erso, Black Widow, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel.

Women of color are not given the opportunity to lead superhero films and when they do, there are still restrictions. I mentioned Halle Berry’s Catwoman film earlier, which received terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. But the movie was doomed from the start because the film made every attempt to distance itself from the source material. For instance, there was no mentioning of Gotham City and Berry’s character wasn’t Selina Kyle, but a new character named Patience Phillips. There was no indication that Batman or anyone else in his universe existed in the film either. It was as if Halle Berry wasn’t allowed access to this character; as if the producers said, “Ok, we can make a Black Catwoman, but let’s not make her Selina Kyle. We don’t want people to think the real Catwoman is Black! This will be someone else!” Of course, much of the blame goes to the studio for the failure of Catwoman, but it’s hard not to overlook how a comic book film featuring a Black actress in the lead role was handled so irresponsibly.

The presence of women of color in superhero films can also lead to erasure of race. As much as I love CW’s The Flash, the way Iris is depicted has raised critiques about the show’s colorblindness. As Shannon Gibney writes in her article, “Color Blindness and the Black Girlfriend: The White Male Superhero’s Ability to Erase Race:”

I’ve gone and broken the unspoken rule for successfully creating interracial relationships on television and in pop culture: You can’t actually be Black, or have a Black consciousness in said union. Nope. You can be cute, in that hip Black way, but please don’t show your blackness, or God forbid, the often casual, everyday ways that race and racism affect your life and relationships. In this way, The Flash writers and producers have made a choice to embrace a color blindness narrative, for not only the Barry/Flash-Iris relationship, but also, for the Iris-Eddie, and Barry/Flash-Joe relationships.


One of the strongest things The Flash has going for it is its patient, layered character development, and complex storytelling. How might this be deepened even further if Barry/Flash and Iris had to truly reckon with how they move through the world very differently in their respective White male and Black female bodies?

The above is a great example of how visual diversity is not enough. In other words, improving the lack of women of color in film and television (both in front and behind the camera) isn’t simply, “Oh hey, let’s just fill up the screen with more women of color!” There are other issues involved, including colorismhow the characters are portrayed, the amount of screen time they have, how much creative license is granted to a woman of color director, etc. If Hollywood decides to make a film featuring a brown Muslim male or female character, but that character is used to reinforce an assimilationist, “U.S. versus immigrant,” or “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim” narrative, that doesn’t do anything to challenge Islamophobia. It merely reinforces the status quo and how the State wants Muslims to be.

To clarify, when I list all of the White women characters we see in comic book movies and TV shows, I’m not saying, “See, look, there’s no problem with sexism! There are plenty of women characters!” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have White women as lead characters either. My point is that liberal commentaries need to challenge simplistic understandings of social identity and center their advocacy on women of color in particular because not only do we see White women receive more opportunities to play heroic (and better paid) roles in sci-fi and comic book movies than women of color, but we also need to connect the media’s erasure of women of color to the racism, misogyny, and other oppressions they experience in the real world. Is it any surprise that Black women receive the least amount of opportunities in the entertainment industry when Black women and other women of color are over-represented in the low-wage workforce?

On this note, I find it concerning when I hear people defend the casting of Ghost in the Shell on the basis that Scarlett Johansson was needed to sell the movie because “an Asian actress wouldn’t be able to sell it.” These comments are paradoxical because on the one hand, they acknowledge the casting is wrong, but then they justify it by essentially saying, “Well, that’s how the industry works!” What I rarely hear from these defenses is outrage — outrage at how racist the film industry is. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo, that White people, whether man or woman, must be lead a film in order to be successful (and that success is measured by how much money it makes, of course). It is interesting that the very same people would rage against producers and say, “These people don’t know anything about adapting (insert comic book/video game/novel here)!” and go on about preserving the “source material,” but when they defend the casting of a White woman in a Japanese role, they suddenly side with the producers!

I don’t believe Ghost in the Shell would be a box office failure if a Japanese actress was cast in the lead role. The movie already has a strong fan base of the original Anime, it is bound to make money. What’s more concerning than how much the movie makes is the acceptability of studios and movie producers conveying the message that people of color, in this case, women of color, cannot play main characters, even if the original character was written as a woman of color. At the end of the day, it’s another White actress getting paid for a role that a woman of color actress should have played.

Hopefully, with the recent casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarak and Rosario Dawson returning in Marvel’s Luke Cage, we’ll see producers of superhero movies and TV shows cast more women of color in prominent roles. I don’t expect anything radical from Marvel or Hollywood for that matter, but I think it’s important that we challenge conversations and commentaries that pit race and gender against each other as if they are “two separate categories.” Advocating for a “woman character” should not be synonymous with “White woman,” yet we see it reinforced in movie talk shows and websites that act as if women of color don’t exist. Indeed, it is great that mainstream films are featuring more women characters and integrating feminist themes, but when the vast majority of these women are White, it reflects an oppressive manifestation of white feminism that has long attempted to marginalize, silence, and erase women of color.

Attending WisCon 2016


About a year ago, a friend told me about a feminist- and people of color-friendly science fiction convention called WisCon. Being a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued to learn about it, especially since I was always interested in going to a science fiction/comic book convention. WisCon sounded unique because it provided safe space for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

I am excited that I will be attending WisCon 40 this year in Madison, Wisconsin from May 27th to May 30th. I was disappointed to learn that I missed the opportunity to hear N.K. Jemisin — author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms speak last year, but I am hoping she will come this year, too! Also last year, admission tickets/memberships were free for Muslim-identified people or anyone of Arab descent. This was made possible through an anonymous donor who sponsored the Daisy Khan fund. Unfortunately, no such donations were received this year by WisCon, but I will still be attending (adult membership is $50). I’m not sure how many Muslims attend each year, but it would be cool to meet and network with other Muslim science fiction/fantasy/comic book fans, writers, artists, etc.

WisCon states that it is committed to intersectionality and is conscious of issues such as Islamophobia. I was just reading about how they withdrew their invitation to sci-fi/fantasy author Elizabeth Moon due to her Islamophobic comments. It is encouraging to hear about solidarity like this, especially when Muslims are often demonized and accused of being “enemies of free speech” when they speak out against anti-Muslim hate speech and Islamophobia in general. WisCon is very clear on their statement of principles and anti-harassment policy to ensure the convention is a safe space.

Since I registered late, I did not get a chance to organize any panels. However, a friend told me that we can do impromptu panels in case we wanted to discuss something that isn’t being highlighted in the other panels. I can’t imagine there not being a panel on the new Star Wars film, but in case there isn’t, I’ll try to set one up where we can talk about race and gender in the Star Wars films, animated shows, novels, graphic novels, video games, etc. You can read my commentary on the depictions of Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens here.

If any of my readers are going to WisCon this year, feel free to contact me! I will definitely write about my experience when I come back, insha’Allah.

Erasing Rey’s Whiteness in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey and Finn Star Wars
Image description: Two characters, Rey (a young White woman) and Finn (a young Black man), stand adjacent to each other under a tent on a desert planet called Jakku. They are looking off screen at approaching danger. Accompanying them is BB-8, a small white and orange droid shaped like a ball.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a huge Star Wars fan. I saw The Force Awakens on its first night (i.e. the Thursday night preview) right after my 7:30 to 10 pm class. It was the last day of the semester, but the class still ran till 10 pm! Didn’t my professor know Star Wars was coming out???

Spoilers for The Force Awakens below! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further!

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but I remember leaving and feeling like something was off about it. I’m not just talking in regard to its racial and gender politics, but also in terms of how you can really feel George Lucas’ absence. I know a lot of people will say that’s a good thing, but Lucas’ political commentary, especially in the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series, is something I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years (despite all of the problematic elements in those films/shows). I thought The Force Awakens was weak on the political and spiritual themes (aside from the obvious Nazi reference and Maz having a generic line about the Force). A common criticism of the film is that it was a rehash of A New Hope, which I can definitely see. I think this is, again, where we see Lucas’ absence because, as he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview, Disney wanted to go “retro” with The Force Awakens. Lucas, on the other hand, wanted to take it in a new direction.

However, I think something that is overlooked in this criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is the most diverse Star Wars film yet. Yes, there were Black men characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, and White women characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala, but The Force Awakens is the first time where we see the story centered on a White woman and a Black man. It’s also the first time we see a Latino male actor (Oscar Isaac) playing a supporting role in Star Wars. As readers on my blog know, I am very critical of movies, but I admit, when I first saw the movie, it was refreshing and pretty awesome to see a cast that wasn’t the usual all-white male ensemble. I definitely enjoyed this about the film, but like anything, it’s not perfect.

There are already some great critiques written about the way the film depicts Finn (John Boyega) and chooses to make Lupita Nyong’o a motion capture CGI character instead of having her appear in the movie. I’ll get to these critiques later in the post, but below are some of my thoughts about the way many blog posts, message boards, and fan sites are talking about Rey and Finn. As much as I liked most of the casting decisions, I expressed in my previous post that I was worried that White people would use The Force Awakens to argue that we live in a “post-racial” and “post-gender” society where racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression “don’t exist anymore.”

What’s problematic about the way fans/columnists/bloggers talk about Rey and Finn is that they either (1) erase Rey’s Whiteness and refer to her as just “a woman” (because we’ve been conditioned to think White women represent the “default” woman, therefore there’s no need to specify Rey is White), or (2) describe Finn as being Black, but fail to mention he’s also a man (because when we hear the term “Black character,” we assume that the “default” Black character is a Black man, therefore no need to specify Finn is a man), or (3) both of the above. What I’ve also noticed is (4) the erasure of Finn’s Blackness in certain conversations where he’s just referred to as a “male character” or just “a guy.” This is often done when Finn is discussed in relation to Rey and when the gender politics of the film are the only focus, as if race doesn’t matter or play a role.

For example, I’ll see people write, “The Force Awakens is so inclusive! The film has a Black lead and a female lead!” But why are people specifying Finn’s racial background, but not specifying Rey’s racial background, yet focusing on her gender? I’ve also read articles that praise the film for portraying “a male character” (Finn) who constantly “needs saving from a woman.” I definitely advocate challenging the prevalent “damsel in distress” trope where women need to be saved by men, but Finn is not just a male character and Rey is not just a woman. This is important because when we talk about Rey as a White woman, it complicates the racial and gender politics of the film. Because it’s not just Finn, a Black man, being saved “by a woman,” but rather by a White woman.

This is where I think the film gets problematic because Finn is not only frequently rescued by White characters (Rey and Han Solo), but he also, as Andre Seewood asserts, “lacks dramatic agency.” Unlike Rey, he cannot communicate with Wookies or droids nor does he know how to fly spaceships, despite being a trained stormtrooper and cleared for battle. The film later reveals that Finn worked in sanitation, which I found really stereotypical, but why would he be cleared for his first battle on Jakku if he wasn’t trained for combat? The argument can be made that Finn is Force sensitive (which I believe he is), but the end result is that he’s knocked unconscious quite brutally by the White antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Having a Black male character being constantly rescued by White characters reinforces the message that Black people need to be led/guided/saved by White people. Recognizing Rey’s Whiteness makes us think about the power dynamics. Is it sexist when women are portrayed as always needing to be saved by men? Yes, but we cannot just look at gender and ignore race, or vice versa. Rey is still White and we see her Whiteness reinforced in opposition to Finn through the way she has more dramatic agency.

I do like both Rey and Finn, don’t get me wrong (and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega delivered fantastic performances), but it is problematic when people fail to understand how race and gender intersect. In describing a screenshot for a Star Wars pinball table, an article on Kotaku states: “Here’s Rey instructing Finn to get his timid butt to cover while a real hero handles things.” This ridiculing of Finn and characterizing him as “timid” (or, as I’ve heard some people say, “a bumbling coward”) is something I’ve seen mostly from White commentators/fans. Yes, apparently it’s the White woman who needs to “instruct” the Black man on how a “real hero handles things.” Neither Rey nor Finn come from privileged backgrounds, but we know that White women can still oppress men of color. The author of the article may not have been thinking, “Rey is superior than Finn because she is White,” but the pattern in which White characters (whether men or women) are treated or perceived as more competent, skilled, and heroic than Black and other people of color characters is one that has existed for a long time. I don’t think Rey is portrayed as oppressing Finn, but the depiction of a White woman constantly saving a Black man reinforces a White savior narrative.

For the record, I don’t see Finn’s character as a “bumbling coward” nor do I think he is completely stereotypical. Finn standing up against the First Order and refusing to kill for them is heroic and hardly a “cowardly” thing to do. I read this act of resistance as being anti-establishment, especially when one considers how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. For those who don’t recall the Star Wars prequels, the Galactic Empire rose to power through votes, i.e. through the democratic process, not because of a military coup or external force. Lucas has stated in the commentary track for Revenge of the Sith that he wanted to portray how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, not from an outside force, but by being handed over from the inside (“This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause”). Revenge of the Sith featured heavy political themes and commentary about the Bush administration (the “you’re either with me or you’re my enemy” line being the most obvious), but it also attempted to shift people’s understanding of Palpatine’s Empire. Although Lucas expressed that the original trilogy was meant to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam, the Empire was mostly seen by audiences as far removed from the U.S. Say what you want about the prequels, but the politics of those films were meant to reflect and critique U.S. government corruption and imperialism. The formation of the Galactic Empire served as an analog for U.S. Empire. Through this lens, Finn resisting an Order that rose from the Empire can be read as resisting U.S. Empire, but I’m not going to pretend for a second that this is the message Disney is trying to promote! The foundations for a compelling and relevant narrative of a Black man rebelling against a predominately White imperialist Order (one that orders mass murder against villagers and obliterates entire planets) are there, but this narrative is not explored.

As much as I root for Finn, I notice that the more I watch the film (I’ve seen it four times… so far…), the more annoyed I become at how the narrative treats him. In many ways, it felt like his character was treated as serving the White protagonists. I thought Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan did a disservice to Finn’s character during his fight scene with the stormtrooper (who is equipped with a lightsaber-deflecting stun baton). When Finn used Luke’s lightsaber and fought against the very people that stole him from his family and attempted to brainwash him with their imperialist ideology, that was his moment. The sequence ended with Finn battling the stormtrooper and being knocked to the ground, only to be saved at the last second by Han Solo. Finn should have defeated that stormtrooper. Again, that was his moment. One of the basic rules of screenwriting is that you want your protagonist(s) to get out of situations on their own (there are exceptions, of course). If you have a movie where your character is stranded on an island and you solve it by having a random plane arrive out of nowhere and saving the day, that’s obviously very contrived and convenient. Granted, Han Solo was there on the battlefield, so it’s justified and not exactly deus ex machina, but it did not need to be written that way. Given how Finn turned his back on the First Order, overcoming and defeating that stormtrooper would have been so much more symbolic. In my opinion, having Han blast the stormtrooper from a distance took that moment away from Finn.

I’m not saying I think Finn should have been portrayed as a typical hyper-masculine character. I’m just saying that when you watch scenes like him getting zapped by BB-8, strangled by Chewbacca, almost eaten by a Rathar, almost killed by that stormtrooper, and almost beaten to death by Kylo Ren, I think erasing his Blackness becomes problematic because we know how Black bodies are often brutalized by police brutality (being assaulted, tazed, choked, shot at, and murdered). When Rey is suspicious about Finn and assumes he is a thief upon their first meeting, it’s hard not to draw parallels with how close that is to reality. I get people argue their points within the context of the story (i.e. it takes place in a galaxy far, far away), but the film is still released here on Earth and we need to understand the impact of these images within our sociocultural and political contexts. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to go “colorblind” on these issues (or go “colorblind” anywhere, really).

But perhaps the most important reason why all of this matters is because failing to identify Rey as a White woman and just referring to her as “a woman,” and failing to specify Finn’s gender and just referring to him as a “Black character” contributes to further marginalizing and erasing women of color. If Rey was Black, for example, I doubt promotional material would refer to her as simply a “woman lead,” they would say, “a Black woman lead.” Again, it’s because when we say “she is a woman lead,” we assume that “woman” means “White woman.” I remember being disappointed when I first heard about Lupita Nyong’o playing a motion capture character. It’s yet another example of people of color, especially Black women, being otherized as aliens or non-human characters in science fiction/fantasy films and TV shows. We saw this before with Zoe Saldana playing a motion capture CGI character in Avatar, as well as having her skin colored green in Guardians of the Galaxy. As Seewood writes, the primary reason why Nyong’o was hidden as a CG character is because the filmmakers did not want the “talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale.” Seewood cites Joseph Boston who writes:

“The casting of largely unknown Daisy Ridley as a central protagonist in the ‘Force Awakens’ therefore entrusting an inexperienced actress with a multi-billion dollar corporation while Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is relegated to a supporting CGI character named Maz Kanata is but the latest example of “Star Wars” and Hollywood’s misogynoir & its ‘problem’ with Black women writ large.”

It has been said many times before that leading roles for Black women and other women of color in Hollywood films are extremely limited. The Star Wars films are no exception (read my previous post for more on the few women of color characters in the Star Wars universe). During a press conference, J.J. Abrams mentioned that someone asked him why he cast “someone as beautiful as Lupita Nyong’o to play a motion-capture character?” Abrams’ response was, “Would it be ok if she were ugly?” The problem is that the wrong question was asked. What should have been asked is, “Why are you hiding a Black actress behind a motion-capture character when there are not any Black women or women of color characters in the film?” There have also been rumors that Abrams was not satisfied with her performance and decided to delete many of her scenes. Whether this is true, the reality is that Nyong’o, unlike Andy Serkis, does not specialize in playing CGI characters, so what was the purpose in having her playing a motion capture character? Why not have her play a human character?

Had Rey been Black (can you imagine that, a Star Wars film with both a Black woman and Black man in lead roles), I think the conversation about the racial and gender dynamics in the film would be much different. I remember when Mad Max: Fury Road was released, there were many critiques about the lack of people of color in the film. As much as I enjoyed it, I was still annoyed at how the two women of color in the film were relegated to limited roles or killed off so quickly. One blogger wrote in a very nuanced post, “If Furiosa had been black or brown, I feel like the reactions would have been very different. It would have not been hailed as the second coming of feminist films.” I feel the same holds true for Rey if she was played by a Black or Brown actress. In next year’s Star Wars spin-off film, Rogue One, we see another diverse cast, which includes Pakistani-British actor Rizwan Ahmed, but once again, we don’t see any women of color characters. For Episode 8, I heard rumors about Gugu Mbatha-Raw possibly being cast, but then I read an article saying she didn’t get the role? It would be really disappointing if the latter is true.

Hopefully, in Episode 8 and future films, we’ll see improvements, not just in terms of casting and diversity, but in how characters of color are portrayed. One can hope, right?

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

“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 people 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 (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 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 is dangerously prevalent. 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.

In Defense of Creating Safe Space on Social Media

tumblr_n2sum9iWod1rfwfq9o1_1280During the Occupy protests, I remember attending a meeting created by and for people of color. Their goals were many, including efforts to de-center white activists who failed (and refused) to address issues like racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. They also sought to change the name to “Decolonize” instead of “Occupy” because the land on which we walk in the United States is already stolen and occupied Indigenous land. As the first meeting began, we recognized that there were white people in attendance seeking to show solidarity and become allies. They were welcomed in the group, but most people of color also demanded that there be time for safe space, i.e. meetings for people of color only. As expected, the reaction from white folks was extremely defensive. I heard some even say that we were resorting to the very discrimination that we were fighting against (we’ve all heard this before, nothing new). Also not surprising was how there were some people of color in agreement with these white activists. As one could imagine, a lot of exhaustive arguing ensued, especially from people of color who were trying to explain the need for safe space. Ironic was how the white activists who kept complaining and crying “reverse racism” failed to recognize that their defensive reactions were precisely the reason why people of color ask for safe space — a space where our concerns don’t get derailed or where we don’t need to explain ourselves or worry about being labeled “reverse racists” or “anti-white.”

Recently, on my Facebook, a person of color (who I had recently added) accused me of “reverse racism” and “discriminating against white readers” when I shared my previous post on X-Men’s appropriation of anti-racist struggles. He also said that the answer to racism is not the “supremacy” of “another race group” just like the “the answer to patriarchy is not matriarchy.” After I replied to a private message of his and recommended some readings for him, he de-friended me and wrote a scathing message where he accused me of “playing the victim,” “isolating myself” and surrounding myself only with people who “agree with me.” It’s not important who this person is specifically. What’s more important and concerning is that there are far too many people like him who buy into the myths of “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism,” as well as the “multicultural” notion that respecting and accepting “all views” is a marker for being “progressive.”

I’m not going to address the “playing the victim” comments in-depth here, but I will quickly just say that regardless of how much I disagree with someone, I would never go as far as using victim-blaming attacks against someone, especially a person of color. I don’t know how anyone committed to anti-racism, feminism, and anti-oppression can accuse another stigmatized and marginalized individual of “playing the victim.” The vocabulary reminds me of “playing the race card” or “playing the gender card,” which imply that those who struggle against racism and sexism are “treacherous” and have the “advantage” over those who are more privileged in white supremacist heteropatriarchy. As Ann Anlin Cheng writes in her book, “The Melancholy of Race”:

Even in contemporary vernacular culture, we observe the increased frequency with which the ‘race card’ is displayed… Indeed, it has acquired the peculiar status of a game where what constitutes a winning hand has become identical with the handicap. Reappearing with the vagrancy of a Joker, the race card brings with it a host of haunting questions about the value and perception of race and racial matters in America. What does it mean that the deep wound of race in this country has come to be euphemized as a card, a metaphor that acknowledges the rhetoric as such yet simultaneously materializes race into a finite object that can be dealt out, withheld, or trumped? Why the singularity of a card? Who gets to play? And what would constitute a ‘full deck’?

Holding a ‘full deck’ may imply some idealized version of multisubjectivity (that is, the potential to play the race card, the gender card, the immigrant card, and so forth), but it also implies a state of mental health and completion that renders such playing unnecessary in the first place. One would ‘play’ a card only because one is already outside the larger game, for to play a card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset … [T]he vocabulary of the card also reveals a conceptualization of health and pathology that underlies our very perceptions of race and its abnormalities. Figuring the minority can be treacherous… [A]s the ‘race card’ rhetoric makes clear, there is more than a little irony, if not downright counterproductivity, in effort to relabel as healthy a condition that has been diagnosed, and kept, as sickly and aberrant.

Cheng calls attention to the paradox: “the one who plays with a full deck not only need not play at all but indeed has no such ‘card’ to play. Only those players with less than a full deck need apply.” I would go as far as describing such arguments (“playing the race card” or “playing the gender card”) as racist and sexist. Similarly, when it comes to people who make “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” arguments, I believe those assertions should be described as racist and sexist arguments as well, not merely flawed or problematic. Recently, a First Nations band, A Tribe Called Red, heard cries of “reverse racism” after one of their members wore a T-shirt mocking the Cleveland MLB baseball team: the word “Caucasians” instead of “Indians” was written across it. Far too often, claims of “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism” and any other type of “reverse” oppression are attempts to derail, vilify, and silence people resisting against these oppressions.

I’m not going to explain why “reverse racism” arguments are oppressive, mostly because so much work has been done on it already (watch Aamer Rahman explain it and read Mia McKenzie and A.D Song’s brilliant post). What I want to talk about is the flawed “multicultural” notion that if you don’t surround yourself with people who “have different views,” you are “close-minded.” I’m not talking about “different views” in the sense of having different perspectives that are non-oppressive. None of us think exactly the same, but there is a significant difference between having different perspectives and having views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. If you’re going to trivialize and/or justify drone attacks, rape, racism, racial slurs, gender slurs, Israeli occupation of Palestine, etc., then we are going to have issues. There is a difference between having a disagreement over, say, whether or not we are ready to see complex supervillains of color in western sci-fi/fantasy (I don’t think we are, but I know others who feel differently) and having a disagreement over use of the “i” word to describe undocumented immigrants. Use of the “i” word is not “up for debate,” as the term is dehumanizing. I’m not talking about people who are unaware of how this word is a racial slur; I’m talking about people who have already made up their mind and insist that this language is “appropriate” and “acceptable.” If you set boundaries for yourself and seek to avoid people who are perpetuating racist and sexist ideologies, then how is this “close-minded”?

In my personal life and on my Facebook page, I used to be ok with befriending people whose politics were profoundly different than mine. I spent the time and energy “dialoguing” with them and addressing their misconceptions about Islam, anti-racism, and other issues. However, a lot of times, these conversations would become quite heated and accusations of “reverse racism” were leveled at me and my friends.  After a while of going back and forth with these people, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted on people who were never interested in learning in the first place, but rather wanted to argue, insult me, and prove me “wrong.” I remember I would go to work on some days and then come home at night only to see ridiculously long comments posted on my wall that labeled Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a “terrorist” and “Jew-hater,” or comments that demanded Muslims to explain the “violent verses” (most of the time, I found that these comments were copied and pasted off of notorious Islamophobic websites). I remember spending hours responding to these people. I recall writing an 11 page e-mail to a friend (who I knew since 6th grade) who believed that the Qur’an didn’t permit friendships between Muslims and Christians. I would cite so many books on Islam and Islamic history to assure people who were important to me that my faith didn’t preach discrimination or violence against people due to their religion. In some cases, things worked out fine. Sometimes my messages to online non-Muslim friends (i.e. people I never met before) had better results than my conversations with friends who knew me for years. In many cases, no matter how “peaceful,” “polite,” or “respectful” my tone, the conversation would go nowhere. When some asked ridiculous questions like “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” it was never a sincere question most of the time. It’s an attempt to vilify Muslims unless they support racist U.S. policies (NYPD spying of Muslims, racial profiling, etc.) and violent U.S. wars in Muslim-majority countries.

A turning point came for me after I read Mia McKenzie’s post, “Read a Book! Or, Why I Don’t Talk to Strange White Folks About Race,” where she writes about why she refuses to respond to random white people whom she doesn’t know well or trust. She argues that, most of the time, when people of color spend the time and energy and exhaust ourselves in explaining racism to random white people, most of the time, nothing good comes out of it. She elaborates:

What happens, most of the time, is nothing good. Why? Because the person who posted the thing that offended us did so because it’s what they really think, it’s what they actually believe, it’s the conclusion that they have somehow come to after 25 or 30 or 40 years of living in this world. The ridiculous position they just laid down isn’t something they just came up with. It’s their fucking philosophy, and they mean that shit. And now here you come telling them, uh uh, nope, your analysis is flawed and this is why. And you are right. You really are. And guess what? It doesn’t matter… Nothing you say is going to change that. But you might spend a lot of time and energy trying.


More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?

I found myself relating to much of this and I soon began to remove offensive people from my Facebook. Some of these people were from interfaith groups I had joined and while I don’t doubt their intentions were initially good, they often would try to tone police me and other Muslims on my wall when we expressed outrage against Islamophobia and imperialism. Respectful and compassionate conversations with our friends and allies are important, especially when we make mistakes. However, when it comes to people who are insulting, condescending, and/or think they’re superior to you, what is to be gained from this “friendship”? What is the point of “friendships” when white people, and those who defend them, are constantly trying to police our thoughts, feelings, and experiences? I found these interactions quite unhealthy for me. I’m sure all of us have dealt with these people. The kind of people who NEVER comment on anything you post EXCEPT the times when they want to argue with you. Or, the people who lurk on your Facebook and click “like” on the comments written by someone else who is insulting you. And of course, there are the passive aggressive people who will just post a link on your wall (or under your post) without leaving a caption or explanation of why they’re posting it (and the linked article is often something in response to the views you’ve expressed on your wall).

Some people have come at me for deleting people with accusations of “censorship” and being “close-minded” or “intolerant.” There have been countless times on my blog, for instance, where I’ve responded to Islamophobic, racist, and sexist comments from random people, yet what seems to outrage certain people the most is when I decide I’m done responding and would rather delete comments. I cannot control who reads my blog, but the main reason I put comment moderation on is because responding to Islamophobic comments became exhausting and a waste of my time. On the same thread where several people were saying “all Muslims” should be “executed” or “evicted,” some chose to tone-police me and accuse me of “censorship” instead of addressing the violent, anti-Muslim comments. I have heard countless incidents from women bloggers/writers who have received rape threats, in addition to death threats, from men who disagreed with them. Why is it “censorship” or “close-minded” if someone wants to ban these comments or delete people who think and behave this way?

For people who think maintaining a safe space on Facebook is “close-minded,” I ask them to consider this: most people of color are already in spaces that are discriminatory, unsafe, and/or hostile to them in their everyday lives. One of the major problems with “multiculturalism” is that it legitimizes “all views,” including views that are racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and so on. If you challenge someone who holds such views, the blame is on you for not being “multiculturally competent.” That’s how messed up “multiculturalism” is. Whether it’s in the workplace, school, or any other public setting, hearing these “different views” are things we hear on a daily basis. How often do people of color have to deal with ignorant remarks, offensive questions, or stereotypical assumptions? Many students of color are verbally attacked in their classrooms for raising anti-racist critiques and disrupting the status quo. How many are attacked, either verbally or physically, just for their mere presence in a classroom or workplace? What about people of color who have to bite their tongues at work 90% of the time for the sake of keeping their jobs? Many do speak up and get suspended, fired, and vilified for standing up for themselves. What about how often women see and hear sexism and misogyny, especially women of color who face both racism and sexism?

“Different views and opinions” that perpetuate racism and sexism not only come from classmates, teachers, co-workers, bosses, lawyers, doctors, but sometimes even from members in our own families. Yes, sometimes they are not intentional, but white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are so normalized that people don’t need to be deliberate in order to carry out oppressive acts or behaviors. When there are so many oppressive forces in everyday life, why is one considered “close-minded” or “living in a bubble” if he/she chooses to maintain a safe space on their Facebook, in their circle of friends, at their club meetings, etc.? I know lots of people of color, including myself, who like to use Facebook not only to network with people and stay in touch with friends/family, but to also vent comfortably and safely without worrying about judgment (or accusations of “reverse racism/sexism”). If you are constantly arguing and insisting that people of color can somehow oppress white people institutionally, despite being told and informed over and over again about how these arguments perpetuate racism, re-center white people, and silence and vilify people of color, you’re not just being disrespectful. You’re making your unwillingness to listen and learn very clear. Telling someone that they should be “more open” by having to listen and accept racist views is oppressive, not a sign of “progress.” If we cannot feel comfortable venting to our friends, then who can we speak to?

I have to clarify that I’m not saying everyone should delete people in this way.  I know this is more complex than simply saying, “Oh, that person posted something racist on your wall? Just delete them!” It’s no one’s business to tell you who you should or shouldn’t have on your Facebook. I have seen that play out as well and how it perpetuates shaming and victim-blaming. I do believe there are times when it’s important to show solidarity on someone else’s wall if they’re being attacked with racist, sexist, and oppressive comments. A lot of times, these comments are inevitable, no matter how hard we try to filter them out. There are complex reasons why we choose to maintain friendships with certain people, despite them holding views that are quite different than ours. Also, I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in conversations with people. As a friend told me recently, it’s important that we don’t shut out friends and allies by being arrogant and condescending towards them.

My overall point isn’t about how people should use social media, but how we shouldn’t label people “close-minded” if they choose to delete people they don’t feel comfortable or safe having on their friend’s list. I don’t believe a safe space means that everyone thinks exactly the same or that people agree on everything. My friends and I disagree on a lot of things, but those disagreements occur in a space of trust, respect, compassion, and humility. When we are constantly surrounded by the images and messages that promote white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, etc., how can we blame people for seeking a safe space among their friends where they don’t have to deal with the headache, stress, and trauma of these oppressions? It is not “close-minded” or “censorship” – it’s the need, as McKenzie said, to protect our own psychological and emotional health and well-being.

UPDATE 12/13/14: A friend recently shared a similar article that was posted on Everyday Feminism. Definitely worth reading! Click here: 6 Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces

Totally Radical Muslims Volume 2: Karbala Fired Resistance Stories

Cover art for Volume 2.

Dear Readers,

I am grateful and honored to announce that a short essay of mine was published in the latest zine from “Totally Radical Muslims” (I especially love the title, “Karbala Fired Resistance Stories”). I have read some of the works published in their first zine, including a powerful poem that was featured on The Feminist Wire’s Forum on Muslim Feminisms last year, and I can’t wait to read the other pieces in their latest publication. Please visit their website, like them on Facebook, and support their radically awesome zine, if you can! I am so grateful that such a platform exists for many Muslims whose stories and experiences are often untold, marginalized, and/or vilified. Below is an excerpt from their website, which best describes their zine and efforts:

a group of oakland based muslims have started a zine to confront, share, name and re-imagine experiences of islamophobia.

surviving and being a muslim in this political moment is a constant struggle and political act.

this zine is to lift up the perspectives of often untold muslims – the radicals, queers, fabulous and fierce folks – through adding narratives of navigating the spectrum of practice, belief, ideology, sect, gender and islamophobia.

this zine is about resistance and resilience, and us telling the stories for ourselves with all their edges, contradictions, beauties and gems.

this is about saying no to islamophobia and being racialized and politiczed because of our muslim identity – regardless of how secular, radical, and culturally muslim we are.

this is about saying yes to the liberation of all people.
yes to being allied with, and an ally for others.
this is taking a step towards our collective healing.

If you are interested in buying the zine, you can purchase it through their website!🙂