The New Brown America (Playing Your Cards and Taking Your Seat)

by Srosh Hassan

Hasan Minhaj had me struggling to find the right words. The Daily Show’s iconic comic tells an incredibly well-woven story about being a Muslim in America in his newest Netflix Comedy Special, Homecoming King. With unbelievable humor, he walks us through his childhood, growing up in a South Asian home, cleverly integrating the subject of racism, and what it means to play your cards and fit in the Western world to make a life for yourself.

[SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT!!]

Minhaj talks about the relationships he had with his family members, ones of give and take, and one of the most important being the one with his father. He describes the cultural differences he observed between them in both his childhood and adult life. For example, he shares the hilarious tale of his seventh birthday when his father took him to home depot to pick out door handles with him because it seemed to be the appropriate gift in his father’s eyes. Hasan justifies not arguing with his father at the time by explaining that one only has so many cards to play in a South Asian life.

He jokingly describes moments of negotiation, where using up one of your cards meant you had a limited number moving forward: less of a say for future events. He explains how this causes South Asian kids from a young age to learn which battles are worth picking, teaching them to decide where to give up a major card, whether it be in exchange for the autonomy of picking a career other than becoming a doctor, or an unconventional marriage choice, for example. In many ways, Hasan also relates this method of compromise and circumstance awareness to the ways he attempted to fit in as much as he could in public school. While some battles, like not dating, were relatively easier to surrender in, others left him feeling without a choice, such as in the example where he almost did not propose to his Hindu now-wife because of the doubt he faced from the Muslim family around him.

In these metaphorical battles, Hasan mentions the phrase that he describes to be “the killer of every brown kid’s dream,” log kya kahenge? – What will people say? This paralyzing sentence evokes memories of times in our lives when we would ask ourselves, “why can’t I be an acha bacha – a good kid – keep my head down, and just do what I’m supposed to do?” Such as marrying the people I am apparently supposed to, or be the student that is not different than anybody else? Why not fall in line and play it safe? Why cause noise at the expense of comfort?

After sharing the heartwarming story of his new marriage, Hasan switches to a much tougher battle he faced with his father and himself on the night of September 12th, 2001. Sparing the details, Minhaj recounts the infuriating experience he faced the night his family was victim to a hate crime: someone anonymously called his home, threatened to kill them, smashed their car windows, and stole his belongings from inside. Hasan, livid at the time, remembers watching his father calmly sweep up the broken glass from the road. He ran up to his father with rage, demanding a response, asking him, “Why aren’t you saying something?”

To this, his father only responded, “ye cheez to hoti hain.. aur ye cheez honge. – These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That’s the price we pay for being here.” At the heart of this retelling, Hasan speaks of a dilemma many immigrants relate to. He explains the generational difference he felt with his father in that moment, where he saw that when they came to the United States, his father felt like he had to pay what Minhaj calls, ‘the American Dream Tax.” This price paid by newcomers to face this unquestionable experience of bigotry in order to be permitted a different life in the West rings similar to the ways one plays their cards, sacrificing certain rights or comforts for others.

However, Minhaj explains that he, like many children of immigrants born in a foreign land, has “the audacity of equality.” Upon watching his father walk back into their house with glass on his feet, he narrates his uncertainty in the response to have, describing it like a pendulum swinging back and forth between justified outrage, or fear and silence; continuing with his head down, pursuing the American Dream and enduring the bigotry that comes with being an immigrant. As he questions his father’s advice about keeping his head down and while he feels like change must happen little by little, he also admits that these situations are not so black and white. He comments from experience that as heartbreaking as it is, it is easier to move on and not cause trouble, easier to assimilate and be stepped on than demand a rightful seat at the table. Not only is change met with an obstacle at every turn, but as a Muslim, your love and loyalty to your country are consistently questioned and undermined in the West. I relate to Hasan’s story, as I feel many minority and immigrant children do as well. What cards must we sacrifice to survive? Do we have to sacrifice any cards at all, or at least, more than others do? Do we do what we must to fit in and not ruffle any feathers, or do we speak our truths and say how we really feel?

This year, I found myself in a similar dilemma. On International Women’s Day, I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the 338 delegates invited to Ottawa to take their seat in the House of Commons as part of a national movement by Equal Voice to promote more women in politics at every level of government. I was also allowed the opportunity to give a statement of my choosing. That day, I was both a woman of color in an institution where there had never been as many women taking seats in the entire country’s history as there were that day, and a Muslim immigrant who was sitting in a space where debates surrounding my freedom of religion had been questioned through suggested legislation. That day, I spoke about Islamophobia, voicing my truth and making a plea for love over hate and acceptance over discrimination. Hours prior to my delivering this statement, I could not have known the overwhelmingly positive response that would follow. Instead, as my fellow Daughters of The Vote and I marched to Parliament Hill, I wondered if what I needed to say would be deemed appropriate. I found myself wondering, log kya kahenge?

On a basic level – so as to not downplay the incredible challenges of each hardship – the invitation extended to my fellow delegates and I mirrored the experience of being an immigrant. We are ‘invited’ into places, the presumption is that our being there is not the norm, nor inherently deserved but, something offered conditionally, possibly as an effort to appease histories of injustice. While Canada and its government has come a long way from being ‘the old boys club,’ it is undeniable that we lack in representation on the fronts of race, ability, class, indigeneity, gender, religion and sexuality, to list a few. Like an immigrant granted rights from being a Canadian citizen, I found myself immeasurably grateful for the platform and time I was given, while fully recognizing that my presence was political. Rather than appease the hand that feeds, I, like my fellow delegates, spoke of controversial issues, things not said enough. I spoke on the real consequences of Islamophobia in our country, demanding Canadians confront the growing ignorance, hatred, and fear that is borne out of terrorizing actions that do not represent Muslims. I expressed my frustration at having to repeatedly apologize for said horrifying events while having to bear witness to both my heritage being used as a political platform and the resulting xenophobia and prejudice being justified as free speech. I spoke of how Muslim Canadians, regardless of if they have contributed to this country for many generations or are newcomers seeking opportunity, are as Canadian as they come.

When I sat down, it was not in shame but, rather to thundering applause and support from my 337 seated fellow delegates and members of the House.

I say 337 because, – contrary to the advertised publications regarding this event – my fellow Daughter of the Vote delegate, Arezoo Najibzadeh, requested that her seat be left intentionally empty to symbolize, as she writes in her statement, “the countless Canadian women who, as a result of sexual and gender-based violence, have not been able to realize their potential to play a meaningful role in the political sphere.” As she stated in an interview earlier this year, she felt this stance would be “much more meaningful … than taking [her] seat and pretending that everything’s alright when it’s not.” Her actions shed light on the ways women are expected to navigate their world tolerating the hate and misogyny in their careers. As she describes in a co-written article, this systemic sexual and gender-based violence seriously impedes on women’s involvement, presenting them great obstacles in being able to take their seats in the first place.

While most of us must have felt an unspoken pressure to fall in line, we supported each other to speak our truths and be courageous. I am tremendously thankful for the courage I was awarded then, and words cannot do justice to the awe I experienced admiring my fellow brilliant women speak with such tenacity as they intelligently challenged the House and its members at every opportunity they received. Never had I seen such gracious and poignant women, whose presence demanded the attention their histories deserved, signifying to the nation that those seats were just as much theirs as anyone before them.

In a time when many of us are fighting for our fundamental rights around the world in our respective ways, we often ask ourselves if the fight is worthwhile. If the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, why bother sticking out? Even when it is not a matter of life and death, there is great challenge and labour in choosing to educate those around us, and pursuing activism for social change. There is heaviness that comes with being an outsider on the inside; with being an immigrant in a country you call your own. You struggle between feeling like you deserve everything this place has to offer and feeling like you need to thank it every day so it doesn’t get taken away. You are split between being appreciative and being indebted into submission and differential treatment in every facet of your life.

One of the most powerful moments in Homecoming King is when he retells the story of his Prom, and how at the last second, his homecoming date and best friend didn’t go with him because her extended family would be seeing their photos from that night, and so her parents told Hasan that he “wouldn’t be a good fit.” This heartbreaking story hits home when Hasan tells the audience the chilling realization he came to that night, “I didn’t know that people could be bigoted even as they were smiling at you. It’s hard to understand when you see people saying they love you but they’re afraid of you at the same time.” Hasan digs deep into the complexities of racism and the shades of bigotry that happen every day that permeate our experiences and shape who we become. He provides an insightful example of how discrimination and othering can be experienced by marginalized groups from those that claim to be their allies, that support and love them, but ultimately still have the privilege to not understand the harm in their actions.

However, even with experiences of both overt and implicit racism lining his childhood and youth, Hasan is clear about his message: surround yourself with good people, irrespective of creed, class, and color, “because love intrinsically is bigger than fear.” When navigating experiences of discrimination and alienation, where he is split between forgiveness and wanting to express anger and seek revenge against those who have wronged him, he quotes his father, “himmat honi chahiye… apki himmat dar se zyada honi chahiye” –  you have to be brave… and your courage to do what’s right has to be greater than your fear. I hope I have the bravery to never feel like I ever have to apologize for my existence. I hope I have the bravery to feel like I deserve a seat at the table.

Hasan gets vulnerable and invites us into the story of his childhood, and his path to comedy, effortlessly jumping back and forth between the hilarity and horrors of his growing up in America. He stays relatable and real to both older and younger generations and captivates the audience with his storytelling, leaving us hanging on to his every word. Personally, many tears were shed – mostly of joy – and I found it to be heartwarming and powerful through and through. I was both gasping in shock and for air from laughing too hard. He brilliantly creates a space for people from all backgrounds to laugh, cry, and think about race and what it means to be an immigrant in the western world. Hasan Minhaj puts his cards on the table and pursues one of the toughest battles of our time. Through humor, he exposes his experiences as a way to spur conversation about deserving a seat at the table, telling the world that in his new brown America, the dream is yours to take.

Photography by Srosh Hassan.

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