Growing up as a minority in a country surrounded by television and film that features the same kind of characters is tough. You start internalizing what “normal” means. When you realize you don’t fit that standard, you feel out of place and try as hard as possible to fit that vision of normal.
To combat that, Netflix has created a video campaign starring cast members from Dear White People and Orange is the New Black to talk about what representation means to them. There is also an accompanying hashtag, #FirstTimeISawMe, to engage its audience and create a conversation out of this crucial matter.
— Laticia “tell someone else cares, not me” Simpson (@idontdonature) August 2, 2017
Yes, I call it a crucial matter. It might not seem like that big of deal, but let me take you back to the first time I saw me.
I grew up mostly watching Disney Channel, PBS Kids, and Nickelodeon. The only Arab or Muslim characters I saw was on Arab television, which I never watched. This made me feel as if I had to fit into one group or the other; there was no “in-between” category.
When all I saw were the same characters, with the same struggles and backstories, I thought I had to mold myself into that. All of the cool characters I looked up to didn’t look or act like me. I quickly learned that in order to be like them, I couldn’t be myself. When Arabs and Muslims were on screen, they were terrorists or, at the very least, foreigners.
The first time I really saw myself was in a short episode of Proud Family that showed Penny Proud living with a Muslim family for a week. They didn’t exactly represent me, and it relied a lot on tropes, but I still remember flipping out and excitedly calling my mom over when I saw one of the Muslim characters explain what fasting was to Penny. The episode also wasn’t afraid to show others’ opinions of Muslims. This came in the form of Penny’s initial antagonism, as well as her friends and family seeing the Muslim family as weird, and even vandalism of the Muslim family’s house. But the episode works hard to depict the family as kind neighbors and members of the community without stripping them of their heritage.
A couple of years later, when my Jewish friend and I realized that what we were seeing in movies didn’t represent us, we watched a movie called Arranged. It was about two Brooklyn teachers, a Syrian Muslim and an Orthodox Jew, who come from fairly traditional families, and have parents pushing them to get married. It follows their friendship, shuts down ignorance, and depicts the women’s similar struggles. They mixed Arabic and Hebrew with their English, didn’t have accents (unless you count the Brooklyn accent), and weren’t secluded from the rest of their community. It also talked about diversity in all aspects, not just focusing on Muslims and Jews.
This was not a well-known movie, and I have no clue how my friend found it. The acting was awkward and the plot stale at times. Nevertheless, it was something. I’m pretty sure my friend and I started tearing up.
These moments of recognizing myself with media, made me feel okay being different. It normalized my identities.
I say the matter is crucial because these shows do more than help young kids like me develop into themselves. It also gives people an image of what a certain group is like. If all viewers are seeing is images of Muslims as terrorists and they don’t actually know any Muslims, then yeah, they’re going to be afraid. When they see them as a non-homogenous clump of people, they can start recognizing them as humans.
It’s important to aim for more than just diversity. The real goal should be giving these “diverse” characters actual complex personalities. It’s not enough to throw a girl wearing a hijab on-screen as a background character and call that good.
Arranged was a beautiful movie, but I want to see myself in movie theaters, not in the hidden corners of the film industry. I want to see a Muslim or Arab character be the lead of a movie and not have her main element be about being Muslim or Arab. I also want people to understand the depth of what it means to be a Muslim or Arab American. I don’t want them relying on tropes of what Muslim is, or treating Arab and Desi culture as one. At the same time, I don’t want them to whitewash my character to be more digestible to the American public.
I see where we are today, and we’re doing better. Dear White People is highlighting black voices, Spider-Man: Homecoming showcases main characters who aren’t white, Everything, Everything depicts an interracial couple without it being about how they’re an interracial couple.
But there’s still work to be done.
Let’s hear out the voices of #FirstTimeISawMe and work towards more encompassing television screens.