Bigotry

My Culture is Not a Costume


I really Love these posters that speak out against cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and racism during Halloween. The campaign was launched this year by Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) and has been circulating throughout the blogosphere and social media networks.  I’m glad this campaign exists because every Halloween I’m disgusted by the (mostly white) people who choose to dress up as horribly offensive racial stereotypes.  “It’s no big deal,” they say, “it’s just for fun, stop being so sensitive!”

As the picture above depicts, racism isn’t hard to find during Halloween.  You’ll be walking through your local Halloween store and see costume packages depicting mostly white men and women dressed up in pathetic, westernized perversions of non-white cultures.  At Halloween parties, you might be having a good time with your friends when, suddenly, a group of white people wearing shoe polish on their faces burst into the room and, yeah, *record scratch.*

Even though I know racism is alive and well in society, I was a little surprised by the conversations surrounding this campaign.  Instead of listening to the people who are hurt by the way their ethnic and/or religious backgrounds are appropriated, mocked, and stereotyped, critics of this campaign have called anti-racist efforts “censorship,” “oversensitive,” and “overreacting.”  Several times, a friend and I were called “racist” or “anti-white” by white people who wanted to derail the conversation about racism by focusing on problematic “reverse racist” arguments.  Before we knew it, we were being accused of “denying” white people the “right” to perpetuate racist stereotypes about non-white cultures. Seriously?  You feel so “oppressed” because you’re being asked to not be racist and make a mockery of another culture?  Wow, that must be painful.

Perhaps what is most offensive to me is how concerns about people using other cultures as “costumes” is written off as “oversensitive” and accused of “dividing” people. There’s a “blaming-the-victim” tone in that argument, as if people of color offended by others using their cultures as “costumes” should “toughen up” and “stop being so darn sensitive!” Speaking out against racist stereotypes is about understanding people’s experiences, which includes making the effort to see realities from their perspective. That brings people together, generates dialogue, and works to establish understanding and respect. Arrogantly judging people’s feelings and experiences does not.

Imagine how damaging and injurious the experience would be for a Mexican student to see his/her white peers dressing up as Mexicans on Halloween, imitating Mexican “accents,” and acting in ways that mimic media stereotypes about Mexicans. Imagine how offensive and harmful it would be for a Muslim student to see his/her white peers dress up as “Muslim terrorists” and act accordingly to media stereotypes. Imagine how hurtful and terrible it would be for a black student to see his/her white peers shoe polishing their faces to look black, especially considering the loaded racist history blackface has in the US.  Think about how traumatizing all of these experiences can be.  Furthermore, the white people dressing up as Mexicans, Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, Native peoples, and so on, don’t have to deal with the marginalization, discrimination, stereotyping, demonization and other forms of oppression that those groups face on a daily basis.  When white people say people of color are “overreacting” or being “hypersensitive,” they are not only asserting their “authority” and “credibility” on what is to be deemed appropriate or offensive, but also defining the realities of people of color.  The dismissal of anti-racist concerns is an insult to their intelligence, which also reinforces the racist logic that the dominant group must speak for and define minority groups.

And when people say they’re “not racist” and actually “care” for the people they’re using as “costumes,” they should be informed about the struggles communities of color face.  If you say you care about people of color, then fight racism in education, law enforcement, politics, media, and so on.  Show solidarity with these communities and speak out against the stereotypes that have been normalized about them.  Solidarity in social justice struggles expresses more care for the community than using their culture(s) as “costumes.”  You say you care about Muslims?  Then when Muslims tell you that your “suicide bomber costume” is offensive, you should put your “costume” aside, along with your ego.

There are a lot of amazing posts on this subject and instead quoting from all of them, I will share a few links below.  Please take the time to read the posts, especially if, for whatever reason, you still don’t understand why cultural appropriation and using race and culture as “costumes” is offensive.

I hope everyone has a safe, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and bigotry-free Halloween!

Further reading:

1. Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes

2. Native Appropriations: Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween

3. Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

Orientalizing Pakistan in Cricket Commentaries

By now, every Pakistani and Indian knows about the epic Pakistan vs. India Cricket World Cup semi-final that will kick off Wednesday in Mohali, India.  Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has already accepted an invitation to join Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match and discuss India-Pakistan relations, while 5,000 visas have been authorized by the Indian home ministry for Pakistani fans to enter the country and cheer on their team (though a recent report claims that Pakistanis are having a hard time getting tickets for the match). Despite the friendly gestures from politicians and the peace messages I’ve seen Indians and Pakistanis alike post on their Facebook walls, a disturbingly popular and growing acceptability of anti-Pakistani rhetoric plagues online cricket commentaries.

Trash-talking, fierce debates, and impassioned displays of nationalism are expected, especially in the case of a Pakistan vs. India semi-final.  It isn’t unusual for Pakistani Captain Shahid Afridi to make competitive remarks about how Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century “will have to wait until after the World Cup to reach the landmark,” nor should it be of any surprise when Indian commentators say Tendulkar “sends shivers down Pakistani spines till date.”  Competition is an essential element of sport and from past cricket matches (which I will mention later in the post) we have seen how the sport can bring people together, regardless of the boasting heard on either side, but there’s a fine line between competitive spirit and super-patriotism fueled by jingoism and sheer bigotry.  The harmful anti-Pakistani rhetoric that I’ve found in some of the cricket commentaries are unsettling for a number of reasons.  For one, the articles seem to exploit tragedies in Pakistan to make it sound as if the nation is undeserving of a World Cup victory.  Secondly, the anti-Pakistani commentaries fit very neatly into the narrative used by the Obama administration to justify its Orientalist war in Afghanistan and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan.

Consider Soutik Biswas’ piece for BBC News where he took harsh, one-sided shots at the way Pakistanis reacted to cricket losses in the past.  What’s astonishing is how Biswas essentially tries to present Indian and Pakistani fans as polar opposites, i.e. the former are respectful, while the latter are violent and take the sport too seriously.  After expressing his hope for Indian fans to be generous to Pakistani fans, Biswas writes:

Who can forget the time when Pakistan lost to India during the 1996 World Cup? Fans in Pakistan smashed TV sets, a college student fired a hail of bullets from a Kalashnikov into his TV set and then on himself, another fan died of a heart attack, captain Wasim Akram received death threats, a fan filed a petition in the court against the “disappointing performance” and a cleric said Pakistan would never win at cricket so long as a woman – Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister – ruled the country.

While Biswas tries to sound unbiased and respectful by later saying, “surely such passions have abated with the passage of time,” the punch at Pakistan was clearly thrown. In fact, earlier in the article, Biswas oddly cited some random Indian scholar (oh snap, a scholar!) who stated the following: “Indians don’t take failure as national humiliation. Perhaps they consoled themselves that the country surpassed Pakistan in all spheres. It had better scientists, better writers, a more vigorous film industry, and was a democracy besides.”  Biswas’ point is clear: Indians have never overreacted to cricket losses in the same way Pakistanis have, therefore Indians must be better than Pakistanis!

No.  Fail.

Any honest cricket fan knows when Sri Lanka played India in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, sections of the Indian crowd was so furious over the loss of the 8th Indian wicket that they set fire to the stands and threw water-bottles on the field.  The outburst from the crowd prompted referee Clive Lloyd to stop the match and award Sri Lanka with an automatic victory.  If Biswas is going to mention the Pakistanis that smashed televisions after a 1996 World Cup loss, he should also mention how an Indian mob attacked Indian wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s house and burned effigies of Rahul Dravid in the streets after a loss against Bangladesh.  If Biswas wants to mention a Pakistani college student who shot himself, he should also tell us about the 25-year-old Indian farmer who committed suicide after India’s loss to Sri Lanka in 2007.  What about recent reports regarding Shiv Sena, an extremist Indian Hindu nationalist political party, making threats against the Pakistani cricket team and declaring that it “gets to decide if Pakistan can play in the final” ?  One could also point out that Shiv Sena killed a parrot that predicted Pakistan would win the World Cup.  Poor parrot. Killed for making a prediction.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Surely we belong to God, and to God we shall return).

Commentaries like Biswas’ are more than just one-sided jabs at Pakistan, they are part of an Orientalist depiction of Pakistan that has become increasingly and widely acceptable.  The Orientalist description of Pakistan is as follows: Pakistan is a country that “harbors terrorists;” Pakistanis are violent, backward, and uncivilized people; Pakistani women are veiled and oppressed; Pakistanis suffer from all of the above because of the religion of Islam.  Because Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, it is often perceived as a Middle Eastern nation, not a South Asian one.  Furthermore, all of the virulent Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric that continues to spread at rapid rates, particularly in the west, also runs parallel with the Orientalist attitude and perception of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A good example of how the above plays out can be found in a post titled “Why India-Pakistan World Cup Semifinal Will Belie the Hype.” The author, Sajid Huq, starts with usual trash-talking and says “India will school Pakistan” on Wednesday (interestingly, the author seems to have deleted the remark today).  I don’t have a problem with Huq’s opinion nor am I offended by it.  However, the commentary suffers from the same anti-Pakistani rhetoric found in Biswas’ piece.  I must say that it is interesting how Huq lists Edward Said as one of his favorite authors and yet presents Pakistan through the dirty lens of Orientalism.  Huq paints a glorified image of India while depicting Pakistan as a country “housing terrorists.”  No historical or political context is given on how turmoil and violence has escalated in Pakistan nor is there any mentioning of how US invasion, and occupation in Afghanistan continues to have a disastrous impact on Pakistan.  Huq goes on to boast about India’s scientific and artistic achievements:

India is perhaps at a stage when the international community is more bullish about its markets, more excited about its culture, and generally more pro-Indian than at any stage of the nation’s history. And of course, this has not been a result of plain luck. Indian businessmen have distinguished themselves at an international stage, and noticeably so in the last decade. Indian engineers, doctors, scientists, and even investment bankers have made news and brought tremendous glory to the nation. Bollywood is increasingly an industry that has caught international imagination, as have Indian philosophies, literature, music, and last but not least, the fortune of the cricket team, which has successfully held on to top rankings in most forms of the game.

In sharp contrast, this is all Huq has to say about Pakistan:

Pakistan, as has been said so often, is an embattled cricketing nation. More pertinently perhaps, it is an embattled nation, dealing with perhaps its most troubled phase in history, at a time when brand Pakistan has been muddied, sullied, and then some more – through domestic turmoil, political unrest, and visceral anger from the international community for housing terrorists that then spawn and attack nations near and far.

Ah ha, I get it, India = happy, friendly, advanced, mystical; Pakistan = gloomy, hostile, backwards, dangerous.  This very narrow and unfair representation of Pakistan not only polarizes Indians and Pakistanis, but also plays into the hands of a hurtful narrative that vilifies Pakistan for imperialist purposes (after all, vilifying Pakistan as a “haven” for terrorists makes it easy for US war crimes to go unchallenged).  If we choose to talk about India’s Bollywood industry, then why not also include the Pakistani musicians that are not only popular among Pakistanis, but also among Indians because of their contributions to Bollywood songs?  Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nouman Javaid, Kamran Ahmed, and other Pakistanis have produced popular Bollywood songs.  I would take it a little further and acknowledge Pakistanis in the west who have made creative and artistic contributions, such as Pakistani-Canadian filmmakers like Zarqa Nawaz, Pakistani-Canadian actors like Zaib Shaikh, or Pakistani-American singers like Nadia Ali. Canadian actress Sitara Hewitt and British lead singer of “Bat for Lashes,” Natasha Khan, are of Pakistani descent as well.  Surely anyone who has seen the Pakistan-based Coke Studio sessions would recognize the immense amount of talent in Pakistan.

The point is not to gloss over the serious problems that confront Pakistan.  Indeed, it is important to address the country’s struggles on so many issues. However, presenting a singular and Orientalist image of Pakistan as dark, violent, and brutal in contrast to a bright and blooming India, almost to taunt Pakistanis, does very little to help us recognize Pakistan’s diversity, as well as its very complex history and contemporary challenges.  It also overlooks India’s struggles and makes it very easy for us to lose sight of the Pakistani activists, leaders, and organizations that are making strong efforts on so many levels by speaking out against injustices, standing up for human rights, improving education, helping those in need, etc.

Instead of hearing about these Pakistanis, mainstream western media depicts Pakistan solely as the aggressor and India as the victim.  Most of the cricket commentaries I’ve read, including the two I critiqued above, have mentioned the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and point out that the upcoming match is the first time the two teams have met since the attacks.  Other articles argue 26/11 is still the “biggest hurdle” for India and Pakistan talks, characterizing Pakistan as suspicious and untrustworthy.  As horrible as the attacks were in Mumbai, what continues to alarm me is how mainstream discourse on India and Pakistan seem to forget that Pakistanis suffer from terrorists attacks, too.  The bombing of the Islamabad hotel, the bombing of Sufi shrines, the bombing of girls’ schools, sporadic bombings in Lahore and other parts of the country – all of these attacks were made against Pakistanis by militants and extremists.  However, where are the dates for these events and why aren’t we expected to remember them?

26/11, like the 9/11 attacks, is treated as an epoch-making event.  The Indian government’s former Secretary of Security Shyam Mehra stated in October, “The events of 9/11 in the U.S. and 26/11 in India mark defining moments with epoch-making consequences. Implicit in these attacks is an assault on the larger idea and essence of free societies. Both countries need to work in a common endeavor to meet these challenges.”  Establishing this link with the US has significant strategic and political purposes.  Not only is 26/11 considered “India’s 9/11,” but it also identifies a common enemy for the US and India and strengthens their alliance.  Even though it was reported last year by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) that a total of 3,021 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2009, a 48% increase from 2008, media coverage on these attacks have never characterized them as “Pakistan’s 9/11.”

One must ask why the US, England, and India use calendar dates to commemorate the attacks on their nations and then expect these events to be universally known throughout the world.  What about the millions of murdered Iraqis and Afghans?  What about the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002?  What about Israel’s bombing of over 1,400 Palestinians in December-January 2008-2009?  What about the drone attacks in Pakistan?   What about the violence, oppression, and Indian military occupation in Kashmir?  What are the dates of these events, what are the casualties, what are the names of the victims, what are their stories?  Why aren’t these attacks expected to be universally known as attacks on non-Muslim majority countries like America, England, India, and Israel?  If we’re taught that all human life has value, then why these double standards?  Excluding the atrocities in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations only perpetuates the construction of Muslims as antithetical “others” and “enemies” of “the free world.”

Cricket commentaries shouldn’t participate in continuing the vilification and misrepresentation of Pakistan and Pakistanis.  As mentioned earlier, cricket matches between Pakistan and India have shown us inspiring displays of friendship and respect for both nation. One article makes note of how Indian journalist and author M.J. Akbar recalled:  “one of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship.”  I also remember watching those matches and seeing Pakistanis give standing ovations to the Indian players, Indians and Pakistanis holding signs that read “India-Pakistan friendship” and wearing face-paintings with the flags of both nations.

No doubt that Pakistanis and Indians will be cheering on their cricket teams on Wednesday.  Cricket has a way of boosting the morale of the general public.  As my cousin pointed out in an online discussion, amidst the political turmoil, the stereotypes, the exclusion from IPL and hosting in the World Cup, and being so “broken and dejected over the country’s pathetic state of affairs,” a victory for Pakistan would give the people something to smile about.  Perhaps it could also help break the Orientalist stereotypes that continue to tarnish the nation’s image and fuel western imperialist projects.

Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins Scapegoat Islam

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It seems that Bill Maher likes to change his opinions on US foreign policy depending on who he has on the guest panel.  Friday night (October 2nd, 2009) was a perfect example of his inconsistency when he started to engage in juvenile Bushspeak (clip embedded below).

Richard Dawkins appeared on the show to promote his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution,” and as usual, Maher and Dawkins took some playful jabs at the Christian Right and how “superstitious” the West is becoming.  This wasn’t a surprise to me because both Dawkins and Maher aren’t shy when it comes to ridiculing religion.

I don’t argue against their points simply because they’re offensive, but also because they fuel a false notion that “religion” and “science” are “incompatible.”  This is not to deny the fact that there is an actual debate between creationists and evolutionists.  Rather, the point is that both sides of the argument tend to isolate the many who don’t believe religion and science are antithetical to one another.  Instead, we see Dawkins and Maher use ad hominem fallacies to insult and discredit alternative arguments and perspectives.  For instance, labeling people who believe in God as “superstitious,” “schizophrenic,” and/or “delusional” only dodges opportunities to engage in productive dialogue.

But this post isn’t about evolution or Dawkins’ new book.  It’s about the discussion Maher, Dawkins, and the rest of the guest panel have about Muslims and Islam.  Maher initiates the discussion with a recent report of two young Muslim men who had serious intentions to attack locations in the United States, and then makes an absolutely ridiculous assertion that they “don’t hate America, they Love America and feel guilty about it, I think.”  During the day, he continues, “they’re eating at Chili’s, going to the titty bar, and then they get on the internet at night and want to atone for the guilt they feel for embracing the West in cyberspace.”

Um, what?!

Maher, who has argued many times on his show that violence against the West occurs because of US foreign policy, suddenly transformed into George W. Bush.  Like Bush, Maher is essentially arguing that “they hate us because of our values” or “because we’re a democracy”  Muslims feeling guilty about enjoying American culture?  What kind of “logic” is Maher using?

After Janeane Garofalo brilliantly exposed how irrational Maher was being and argued that US foreign policy was the main issue, Dawkins chimed in with a lazy and predictable remark, “Why don’t you just say it’s religion, it’s so obvious.”  Once again, Dawkins uses religion (in this case, Islam) as a convenient scapegoat to simplify complex realities.  Any honest scholar, especially historians who have dedicated their lives to studying so-called “religious wars” or “holy wars,” acknowledge the fact that religion is not the “one and only” cause of war.  The fact that Crusaders, for instance, slaughtered and subjugated other Christians (namely the Greek Orthodox Christians and Arab Christians) is one of many examples on how flawed the argument of “holy war” is.

Thomas Friedman, an American journalist who supported the invasion of Iraq, entered the discussion with his sheer arrogance and pompous pseudo-intellectualism, behaving as if he had full credibility to discuss Islam, its theology, its history, and its people.  His incredibly flawed and ethnocentric prejudices of Muslims reek in his colossally stupid remarks about the Muslim male psyche and how young Muslim men “hate America” because “their countries” (i.e. Muslim countries) are “behind” in economics and education. Shamelessly, Friedman relies on his own conjectures and then paints Muslims as the “Other.”

And that’s exactly what we get out of this episode:  Otherizing Muslims and Islamophobia.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, the panelists speak about Muslims as if Islam is not part of America.  Although Barack Obama has defended Islam and Muslims on many occasions (and even went as far as saying Islam is part of America), it seems that this message is not resonating with many people.  I get the feeling that Bill Maher was afraid to invite Reza Aslan, Naomi Klein, and Jeremy Scahill (who have all been on his show before) for this episode because either one of them would have blasted Maher, Friedman, and Dawkins on their ignorance and childish generalizations.

I’m hoping Reza Aslan appears on the show soon.  Maybe he can help correct Maher’s Bushspeak and elementary school logic.