A Muslim comedian’s take on diversity in America

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/06/08/a-muslim-comedians-take-on-diversity-in-america/

Negin Farsad opens her recently published memoir, How to Make White People Laugh, by announcing that she is an “Iranian-American Muslim female comedian-slash-filmmaker,” and also a self-professed “honey mustard enthusiast.” She declares that like most comedians, she “has a master’s degree in public policy and African-American studies,” from Columbia University. Rather than trying to establish a common ground with her audience as some writers might, Farsad calls attention to her idiosyncratic background from the get-go. She subsequently uses this platform to explore the truly pressing questions surrounding modern race relations: What does it mean to have a hyphenated identity in America today? How can we actually combat racism, stereotyping, and exclusion? Why do British people order shrimp on their pizzas, like psychopaths?

Although How to Make White People Laugh represents her first foray into publishing, New York-based Farsad already boasts an accomplished resume. She is the director and producer of the feature films Nerdcore Rising starring Weird Al Yankovic, and The Muslims are Coming! starring Jon Stewart, David Cross and Lewis Black. Her third film, 3rd Street Blackout, is slated for release this year. She also has numerous writing and acting credits for networks, including Comedy Central, MTV, PBS, Nickelodeon and IFC. She has even been selected as a TED Fellow (of the famous talk series). Indeed, her description of the TED conference as a blur of meeting people who invented the internet, hunting for free snacks, and chiding herself for not having “set up a 501(c)(3) whose mission is to end world hunger through an interspecies app robot” by day 3, is one of the book’s most memorable episodes.

How to Make White People Laugh (Credit: Grand Central Publishing / Hachette Book Group)

How to Make White People Laugh (Credit: Grand Central Publishing / Hachette Book Group)

However, Farsad is above all a comedian, and this blunt, well-written, disarmingly funny book is a wonderful exposition of what she termed “social justice comedy.” Her autobiography is no mere exercise in navel-gazing. As she charts her journey from awkward teenager in sleepy Palm Springs, CA to a still-awkward New Yorker, she reminds her audience that her comedy has a purpose. She emphasizes that “protesting, lobbying, begging, yelling, lecturing, after school special-ing” cannot compete with comedy for “easing people into tough discussions” about race and culture in America.

Moreover, as an Iranian-American Muslim, she is uniquely positioned to foster this discussion on behalf of all “Third Things” — her affectionate term for hyphenated Americans — whom she identifies as those caught somewhere on the margins of mainstream culture. She recounts dealing rather hilariously with a series of blatantly anti-Muslim advertisements that appeared on the New York subway in the fall of 2014. She sued for the right to put up tongue-in-cheek counter-advertisements featuring “facts” about Muslims. That these advertisements conveniently promoted her film The Muslims are Coming! was, of course, an added bonus. Her book is full of other funny, if frustrating, anecdotes about confronting the racism and sexism surrounding her identity, including from other minority groups.

New York subway ad for "The Muslims are Coming!" (Credit: www.themuslimsarecoming.com.)

New York subway ad for “The Muslims are Coming!” (Credit: www.themuslimsarecoming.com.)

However, Farsad emphasizes that she is also an American; raised in the United States, she must confront her own internalized stereotypes. To her credit, she does so fearlessly. A trip to Iran for a cousin’s wedding is particularly telling. Beyond the ululating relatives greeting her at the airport (yes really), aggressively hospitable neighbors stuffing her with transcendent Iranian almond cookies, and smuggling Jay-Z’s complete discography into the country (unnecessarily, as she found out), she finds herself pondering, “how could people feel happy without iPods and easily accessible beer? How could they be fulfilled without regime change?” She couldn’t fathom how her family could live full lives while living under the notoriously repressive Islamic Republic.

However, over the course of the trip, she comes to the realization that as an American, the guilt she carries on behalf of her family “trapped” in Iran is “useless and belittling.” Indeed, “while her cousin waited for regime change, she had found Mr. Right, she had become an architect, found career success, and had a child.” On this trip, Farsad finally lets go of “the dangerous superiority that swallows the three-dimensionality of their lives” and realizes that she has “to talk about them like they’re people, not news stories.” This is an important lesson for all Americans, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.

Nevertheless, Farsad’s book avoids taking itself too seriously. It is also grounded in a deep love of the United States. She has great fun writing about her place somewhere in between Iranian and American cultures, and makes her audience feel like they can do something to make this country an even better place. And yes, in the end, this white person did laugh.

Jacqueline McCleary is a doctoral student in physics at Brown University, specializing in astrophysics.