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Parvez Sharma Headshot

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

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"Michelle Obama scares me. Have you ever worked with a 'professional' black female?"

"Can you imagine those Negro girls running around in the White House?"

The first observation is thoughtfully supplied to me by a part-"Native American" friend of mine in DC, an avowed Democrat. The second is whispered from the mouth of one older blonde lady into another's ear, at a fundraiser I attend for Human Rights Campaign in Provo, Utah.

With deep apologies to Milan Kundera, the Czech writer who was my icon when I was an undergraduate, I am forced to (once again) misuse the title of his book about a Prague of 1968 (where a series of individuals face the profound dilemma of each life somehow being insignificant). I first co-opted Mr. Kundera's title when, in 2001 for an Indian gay magazine based in San Francisco, I used the phrase to write a satirical piece about my attraction to White men. I made an argument that part of such attraction was reverse colonialism and there was sweet revenge to be had through some "old-fashioned buggery," as I called it, if I would assume the role of the active partner with a White male. Clearly the rhythmic potential of the word play was most attractive to me as I had not then been able to define 'Whiteness' and why it might be 'Unbearable'.

I write as a Muslim. I write, as the Lou Dobb-isms spat out every night on CNN would paint me, "an alien" in America. I await my not so Green card in a nation where the very prospect of staying on sends many of my "liberal" friends into an epileptic fit. And I write as a person somewhere between "Black" and "White" in a nation that, as a probable result of some well-established and early immigration practices, has made sure that more than seventy percent of this nation would now classify themselves as "White". The 2000 census had indeed expanded the definition of 'White' to include 'A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "White" or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish." I have however never met an Arab in the US who would call themselves "White", within the US. The definition of 'Whiteness' therefore may still be elusive, but increasingly the discussion of race in this deeply divided nation has as at least two Black men put it-"the fierce urgency of now". I have often wondered if the raceless-ness of "Whiteness" is invisible to many Whites in this nation. For me and many other non-whites, the "Whiteness'" of others is sometimes the most visible and defining aspect of our own efforts at self-identification.

In the past year I have had the privilege of traveling the world and indeed this beautiful country with a film (A Jihad for Love, my first) that, at least in my opinion, challenges every single stereotype of my religion, Islam that has been created or regurgitated post-September 11, 2001. In fact, I arrived on the shores of the land of the free just about a year before that moment that seems to separate history into a BEFORE and AFTER narrative. For the purposes of this rant, I shall focus mainly on my experiences of what the four politicians in this season of "Change" now uniformly refer to as "The American People."

When I first arrived here in 2000, I dabbled for a brief minute in academia and the words of sociologist Steven Seidman made a great deal of sense. He made the argument, which I am helpfully able to retrieve easily from Wikipedia, that "White culture constitutes the general cultural mainstream, causing non-White culture to be seen as deviant, in either a positive or negative manner. Moreover, Whites tend to be disproportionately represented in powerful positions, controlling almost all political, economic and cultural institutions." Seidman also makes the argument that for the most part "Whites" are unaware of their privilege and the fact that "White" culture and all that that encompasses has always been the dominant force in the United States. Growing up in India, one of the most bitterly defined and divided by class, caste, religion (and yes, colour of skin) societies-the condition of Indian-ness for me did always include one uniform skin colour and that was brown. Now brown, much like anything else comes in different hues. My mother always said that I was blessed with very 'fair skin'. I rebelled and wanted to be darker much to her consternation, and she even procured a popular skin bleaching cream called 'Fair and Lovely' for me. My obsession with darker skin tone continues, as much to the reasonable despair of my very-White partner (he fears melanoma) I spend time on the sun soaked beaches of the free world without using any "protection".

Much of American "culture" I was ever exposed to in the 27 years of life spent in my homeland was mediated by people whose skin colour was very pale, and yes White. Random encounters with "Black" even being a part of America's demographic were defined by Michael Jackson, the television series "Diff'rent Strokes," both very popular when I grew up and, to some degree, the music of Tina Turner and Diana Ross.

I have, recently and mostly successfully, negotiated a majority-White film industry and been able to produce the film that defines me today. An Arab-American friend recently watched the film and said to me, "Dude, yours is the only 'non-white' name in the opening credits of your film!" I might have noticed that before but never quite sat down and pondered the ramification of that statement. He was right; as I went through each name and realized they all belonged to people who would easily be called "White." I have been to festival after festival, film market after film market and meeting after meeting where the majority in the room or at the venue will be "Whites." Sometimes I have questioned that. For the most part I have seen that as a product of the (census proven) demographic of which skin colour is the majority in this nation. Recently I have wondered increasingly about what might constitute White privilege and whether Obama's biggest challenge is that he is--even though nicely mixed to not be as dark as his paternal ancestors--the un-White.

A few months ago in South Africa, the nation where in my opinion and experience, apartheid is far from over, I had an argument with a Jewish colleague about race. He told me that he was not "White" because he was Jewish. I perhaps unfairly critiqued his white privilege and therefore his incomprehension of the continuing apartheid system in South Africa. That discussion is sadly incomplete and will probably remain unfinished, because it carries my own charge of being way too often, the only "person of colour" in a room. (Meanwhile-in my dichotomous struggle to stay on in America and yet retain my "un-American-ness" I always spell words as my English teacher in India taught me and my spell check on my Mac always try to correct me.)

But that discussion and hundreds of others have become the defining ones for me in an election year where I, with my limited American experience, find all of its racial fissures laid out for the whole world to see. I believe that some of America's dirtiest laundry is about race, and to this day some of the most uncomfortable discussions I have had with White friends are about White privilege. In this increasingly viral world, an email just landed in my mailbox where a gentleman called Tim Wise spells out the case for "White Privilege." Wikipedia, a "reliable source" I pray even Sarah Palin would consult more before her next interview, informs me that Mr. Wise is white and is one of the most prominent anti-racist activists in the US. He wisely notes in this article (mostly constructed around the current political apocalypse), "White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people immediately scared of you."

Admittedly, Mr. Obama, in addition to the colouring of his skin, also has the fundamental problem of having a name that has nothing Christian about it. In fact, it is by far the "strangest" name Americans have ever had to encounter on a Presidential ticket. As an Egyptian journalist friend reminded me when I was recently in Istanbul, "Do you know his name comes from Arabic? From Berakat? From Blessed?" Point noted and, yes, it does not help that Obama becomes Osama with a simple (filmic) dissolve in a yet-to-be-aired Republican ad (not that Fox and other networks have not tried that already, by just conveniently using the latter). And I do realise, his nomination just a few decades after the supposed end of the Civil Rights Movement is a great testament still to the "greatness" of this nation.

But for its entire and very brief history this land of the free has been ruled by a combination of White men of varying shapes, sizes, ages and ideologies. Now that the Republicans have decided that in the first few years of the twenty-first century a woman can be a heartbeat away from the presidency is sadly remarkable, even for America. Consider this: they have finally come to this place of emancipation after many in the much-reviled "Moslem world" had already elected Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed (Bangladesh). Indira Gandhi was India's prime minister and, yes, where the buck stopped in that nation for most of the first eleven years of my life. What remains largely missing in the discussions of Mrs. Palin's being "unfit for office" is how profoundly popular some of her policies would be for the most extremist Muslims, and as just one example for the Guardian Council in Iran (the religious body that supersedes the "democratically" elected President of that country). Certainly her views on abortion are ones I have heard clearly in many Friday prayers I have attended at mosques around the world. Her not-so-hidden desire to be on her political path as a "task from God" has much in common with the "Velayat-e faqih" (rule by Islamic jurists or clerics). Nine years before he returned triumphant to Iran and nine years before the Americans were taken hostage at their own embassy in Tehran, Ayatollah Khomeini had made what is probably the most forceful argument in the twentieth century for mixing religion and politics in his Hokumat-e Islami: Velayat-e faqih. "Hokumat-e-Islami" roughly means Islamic government.

Talking to many of my many "liberal" friends within the deceptively homogeneous electoral classification of "the American People," I repeatedly hear that what they fear most is a Hokumat-e-Church--in this case the Church signifying every shade of "unacceptable" and retrograde Christianity that flourishes in this country. Now that "liberal" is a dirty word to be used with trepidation in this election year, I often wonder about whether they too, suffer perhaps from my indefinable characterization of "the unbearable whiteness of being". They often present their friends, Black or "of colour," at their parties as delightful proof of their "liberalism" and in fact flaunt them as trophies sometimes. But they have also sometimes questioned how safe my newly fashionable (and perhaps previously scary and ghetto) neighbourhood in Upstate Manhattan, aka upper Harlem, would be at night. And then I wonder, will America's deep and profound racial divide finally end if Barack HUSSEIN Obama succeeds in being less Black, and therefore more acceptable to every bleeding-heart White liberal whose heart might just skip a few beats in a Black neighborhood at 3 in the morning? That other argument about Obama not being ready to answer that 3 am call in the White House has already and famously been made.

Clearly I am not free of the charge of being racist either. In trying to spell out my case for what I characterize in the title of this piece as being "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being," I wonder how much of my own prejudice against a predominantly White power-structure shows through. Probably, a very great deal. While my "alien" and "brown" credentials may save me from being called "uppity", I know I can definitely sound "bitter". And its an odd place to be, because clearly many "browns" have feared the "blacks" as well. I am reminded that even an aunt who has lived in American suburbia for decades now used to tell me to be careful around "Kallus" at night, when I first arrived here in 2000. ("Kallu" being as strong a pejorative as the N-word, but in Urdu/Hindi).

Sometimes in my travels around the world with "A Jihad for Love" it has felt like Barack is running for President of the world. In Tokyo's gay Shinjuku-ni-chome district, I blundered into a store that had T-shirts of both Osama Bin Laden ("Wanted" and "Most Famous" were just two of the epithets used with the pictures) and Barack Obama proudly displayed. To my surprise the shop was run by a Pakistani immigrant who for inexplicable reasons had lived in Japan for twenty-five years (and writing about race in Japan would be a book in itself, I felt, when I was there). He informed me that his teenage Japanese customers had in the past preferred the Osama t-shirts to flaunt in their Sunday promenades in the bizarre fashion/culture district of Hara-juku. But in the last two months they all had wanted the Obama t-shirts. Interestingly, Obama did not have any lettering but was stenciled in the multi-hued, Che Guevara-like image of posters we have seen in the US. In Turkey another friend confidently told me "if a man called Barack Husein Obama stands outside the US Capitol on January 20, 2009, all of the damage of the last eight years will be repaired in a moment." Even in Delhi's crowded January streets, Obama buttons were to be found and sold, even as the intelligentsia and the hyperactive news television media debated just how much a Democratic (as opposed to Republican) administration would harm the outsourcing boom. This man (Obama) can clearly draw 200,000 Germans to listen to him and that would include all of the starving artists that have moved to Berlin in the last year from around the world ("Berlin is what New York used to be in the seventies and eighties and its so much cheaper!" they yell).

Eight years in America, from fresh off the boat to becoming a deeply political animal, I have watched "the American People" in fascination. I turn on the television and usually see broadcasters who are Caucasian. Just watch CNN or MSNBC on any given weeknight and name me one television anchor who is not Caucasian. CNN according to some surveys does better in having up-to 8 Black television anchors. Most of the pundits that swim before our eyes, are not 'Black", though there are recent attempts to bring them into debating the politics of race. One, Roland Martin has now been given his own weekend show on CNN.

My politics remain constrained. I even thoughtfully consulted my immigration lawyer before I wrote this. I cannot go and work for the Obama campaign as many of my US citizen friends seem to be doing this Fall, she said. Just last night, I watched Lou Dobbs spit out "alien" with anger and venom once again, and realized that, as I wait for my green card to arrive by next year, I cannot really hope to participate in the political process. The arrival of that card, however, will move me only one meager step up on that ladder to being a "resident alien." The passport would still be many years away and I wonder, if Iran and America become increasingly indistinguishable, would I want one? As Sarah Palin, the newest spokesperson for "feminism" smoothly delivers yet another prepared (and repetitive) text, I shudder to think what may become of this nation. One commentator on the networks during the RNC even dared to say that the sheer numbers of mostly Caucasians in the room made her deeply uncomfortable.

A young Muslim-American friend calls. We talk about -- what else -- the election I cannot participate in. He says he is as American as anybody else (and I know that because he grew up in suburban, out-in-the-boonies Texas) but is worried if he went out and openly campaigned for Obama, he would damage Obama's prospects with White voters. He has many "hockey moms" in his neighborhood and really and urgently wants to talk to them. He reminds me that just a few months ago women wearing the Hijab were barred from appearing in the same camera shot with Obama. I remember that. He also repeats the comments overheard at his workplace on the sexual appeal of the female candidate and especially her 'legs'. Clearly Palin is not part of the "sisterhood of travelling pantsuits".

Obama's screen-shots always seem to include people of other varying colours and McCain and Palin always seem to be surrounded by Whites. Does the Republican Party now represent primarily a demographic of one skin colour only? Should the McCain-Palin ticket now put up those signs so well tested in South Africa, "Whites Only"? In what now increasingly seems to be one of the most anti-intellectual societies on the planet, an election season like none other has arrived. And I fear that the "Unbearable Whiteness of Being" will be casting the deciding vote.

And yep, I am still looking for a perhaps more concise description of what "the unbearable whiteness of being" might constitute.

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