In a recent essay published in The Guardian Thursday, Riz Ahmed writes about facing the same quiet discrimination as his character in the HBO series The Night Of. I say quiet not because it’s not violent or hidden. In the piece, Ahmed recounts incidents in which he and his brother were held at knifepoint or got into fights on various occasions, and once Ahmed was held at Luton Airport and a security guard twisted his arm out of shape; racism can always turn violent. But the racism Ahmed is talking about is sometimes more subtle.
Just like his character, Nasir Khan, is portrayed as a violent, irrational animal without ever saying “Muslim” or “Pakistani” out loud in a courtroom in The Night Of, Ahmed’s career has been about working around cultural stereotypes to find roles and being “randomly,” but consistently questioned at airports because of the color of his skin, the countries he’s traveled to, the music and art he makes, and the biases of federal U.S. security policies.
It’s a unique experience from a unique perspective. Ahmed likens the audition rooms of Hollywood to the airport detention rooms where they hold passengers for interrogation before (hopefully) letting them travel on to their destination. Convincing customs officers that he’s not a terrorist is just another role he plays on a regular basis.
Like auditioning for a role, he writes, people being held for questioning in an airport room share some solidarity but also compete with one another — who wears this best. Everyone’s nervous and no one knows if they will make it out. He also writes that, like in show business, stereotypes are given to you, and you have to wear them. They also change with time — growing up he was a “Paki” in Britain. After 9/11, he was automatically labelled “Muslim.” He likens the stereotypes to something like a charm necklace that’s forever being swapped out. “No sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another,” he writes.
When it came to his career, Ahmed had a three step plan about owning that particular piece of metaphorical jewelry:
“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype — the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.”
But there will always be a necklace for someone. For different minority groups, the stages are mixed up all the time. Today, someone of Asian descent is the villain. Tomorrow, maybe, the Hispanic. Ahmed shows that it’s like a creepy carousel everyone is forced to ride. Equality in this sense seems like an unattainable goal. Like the Promised Land, it’s worth wondering if it even exists.
Original by Karen Fratti