Posts Tagged ‘race’

Hijab and Race

April 18, 2011

This past weekend I attended a conference in Boston where I got to spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism in the U.S.

Contemplating the topic alongside this blog, I’m back to questions of public perception. What is the hijab’s power to racialize (i.e. to give a racial character or context to) one’s identity?

Note: I’m using the word “race” in this post as what we think of regarding physical characteristics, NOT biological clusters or national/cultural groups (which would fall more closely to “ethnicity”).

There’s zero question that racial and visible religious identifiers intersect, making it really hard to come to any real conclusions. In my own case, my race is decidedly non-European*; my skin tone is medium-brown and I have fairly South Asian features.

*I chose to identify this way (first as what I’m not, then as what I am) only because it’s a relevant detail in the United States. Hijab or no hijab, my experience would be different if I were white.

So, I’m interested in the ways my hijab might interact with my perceived race. Some possible options:

  • Accentuation of race: This is probably most often the result given my particular racial appearance. Though my other clothes betray me not at all (they come mostly from the Gap and its sartorial cousins), the hijab really adds a “foreign” look to my style. (How exotic!) I’m willing to bet that the headscarf, more than the color of my skin, leads people to believe (as many do initially) that I’m an immigrant.
  • De-emphasis of race: It’s also possible that the headscarf is so distracting that it overpowers any racial signifiers I would set off with my skin color/physiognomy. It’s pointless to try and measure, but it’s worth mentioning because the two don’t totally go hand-in-hand, either. For example, when I meet new people of my own race (a situation where race would be less of a glaring indicator of difference/individual identity), the hijab sends off signals of heightened religiosity (sometimes more than I’d like). So, maybe it shifts people’s attention in general from one kind of categorization (racial) to another (religious).
  • Contradiction/counteraction of race: This doesn’t really happen to me, but it might if I looked Irish or Norwegian.

New question: does it matter? Why is this important?

Maybe it’s not, but I think it’s worth calling attention to the fact that so often, hijab is just incorporated into race (e.g. when hijab-related hate is called “racism”). Neither can operate independently, but they don’t exactly equal the same thing.

The Unexplainable Appeal of the NBC Show “Outsourced”

February 27, 2011

Have you ever seen it? It’s still in its first season, and (from what I can tell) it’s doing pretty well via ratings.

The premise: a cute American white guy (totally devoid of personality, though in an endearing way) moves to Mumbai, India in order to to oversee his company’s outsourced call center. The ensuing culture clashes, amplified by an Indian office staff chock full of crazies, make for a reasonably funny sitcom script.

The show is rife—RIFE—with generalizing and often offensive (racist) cultural stereotypes. I won’t go into it here, but watch an episode and you’ll see. It’s impossible not to cringe at least once very three minutes.

Last fall, though, whenever I was around and it happened to be on, I couldn’t help myself. Like being hypnotized, almost. The feeling I got from watching it was (astonishingly) GENUINE ENJOYMENT.

This doesn’t directly have anything to do with Muslims—though a few appear on the show, and some of the actors are Muslim—but rather people who look like they could be. Or, religion totally aside, just people who don’t look white-bread American!

Being of South Asian descent, I don’t generally get to see a lot of people who look like me on TV. And until I stumbled on the show Outsourced, I didn’t realize how important that representation really is. Before its premiere, I’d never seen a show (on prime time television, no less!) displaying such a very high concentration of Desi people; it made for a fantastically pleasant surprise.

I can, of course, take the initiative myself to find appropriate media representations. I can do research and read books written by people like me, listen to music produced by people like me, watch shows and movies portraying people like me. (Another TV show that’s far superior in quality but more of an effort to watch is Little Mosque on the Prairie.) But there’s NOTHING like seeing yourself represented on something so now-antiquated as live television, smack-dab in the hot middle of popular culture.

Sometimes I worry about the potential for Outsourced—and viral YouTube videos like “Club Can’t Handle Me (Indian Style)”—to send the wrong messages about Indian (or any group of) people, especially when accessed by much larger masses of the population. Artists with wider audiences most certainly bear a greater responsibility to represent their identities well… but sometimes the representation alone is enough.

I haven’t seen much of the show since it got moved from the spot directly after The Office. If I’m ever in the same room as that catchy theme song, though, I guarantee you it’ll have me hooked.