By Negin Farsad
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Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American-Muslim female stand-up comedian who believes she can change the world through jokes. And yes, sometimes that includes fart jokes. In this candid and uproarious book, Farsad shares her personal experiences growing up as the “other” in an American culture that has no time for nuance. In fact, she longed to be black and/or Mexican at various points of her youth, you know, like normal kids. Right? RIGHT?
Writing bluntly and hilariously about the elements of race we are often too politically correct to discuss, Farsad takes a long hard look at the iconography that still shapes our concepts of “black,” “white,” and “Muslim” today-and what it means when white culture defines the culture. Farsad asks the important questions like, What does it mean to have a hyphenated identity? How can we actually combat racism, stereotyping, and exclusion? Do Iranians get bunions at a higher rate than other ethnic groups? (She’s asking for a friend.)
How to Make White People Laugh tackles these questions with wit, humor, and incisive intellect. And along the way, you might just learn a thing or two about tetherball, Duck Dynasty, and wine slushies.
Table of Contents
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AN INTRODUCTION: I USED TO BE BLACK
Like most comedians, I have a graduate degree in African-American Studies.
To be clear, I'm actually an Iranian-American Muslim female comedian-slash-filmmaker. (I thought of making that description longer by adding "honey mustard enthusiast," but I'm trying to exercise what my publishers call editorial discretion, which supposedly means "don't add every stupid descriptor that pops into your head." Sorry, I didn't mean to get too technical.)
Here's the thing: I used to feel black. Sometimes "kinda pretty black," occasionally "really black," and, depending on how drunk I was, "Don Cheadle." I'm not technically black. Or even on the black spectrum. I'm Iranian, an ethnically brown Muz type, and definitely not black. Further evidence of not being black: I can't play basketball or U.S. President at all.
There's probably a seventeen-year-old living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who knows exactly what I mean when I say "feeling black." But for the rest of you, let me explain.
You could identify blackness by external appearance. I fail on that count. You know, because I'm not black. You could define it based on the one-drop rule, which is to say if you have any black ancestry, however remote, you're black. I fail on this count, too. I've never done a family tree and I've never been the subject of one of those reality TV shows where they trace the family history of say, Ben Affleck, and he finds out that he and Matt Damon are connected eight generations back through a soldier in the Revolutionary War who wore custom pantaloons. I'm pretty sure my ancestors are Persian. An Arab dude probably came in and had his way with a Persian lady somewhere in there, but I don't know where that dude was before he boned the Persian or anything about his family. So, I don't rate on the one-drop rule, either. Basically, external appearance and CSI-style blood forensics don't get me closer to blackness.
But then there's the kind of blackness that's defined by its opposition to whiteness. It's the binary we've all been living with. The Civil Rights movement was driven by black folk against white folk who were trying to keep them down. Slavery was black folks being owned by white folks. The race question in the United States since the beginning of its inception has been Black in Relation to White. Everything in the U.S. is black and white, ebony and ivory, Black Eyed Peas and White Stripes. But what if you don't fit in this binary?
I guess what I'm saying is, I felt black in that I wasn't white. My definition of blackness was never about the externalities, it was about the gooey, inexplicable internalities.1 Growing up with immigrant parents, I felt like my minority and ethnic status was the flashpoint of national blame for some kind of social tension, but I didn't exactly know what or why or how. I felt like I was or should have been involved in the struggle, but the only nationally recognized struggle was (and basically still is) the black struggle. So my still burgeoning mind decided to embrace the struggle, embrace that blackness. It was the only narrative around "otherness" out there. Blackness had TV shows and books. It had everything from Roots to Cornel West. And somewhere in between: A Different World. Come on! That shit was hot. It meant something, it was easy to understand. It represented the struggle in a pleasing and easy-to-swallow sitcom! Dwayne Wayne had flip-up glasses!
So I felt the blackness and I applied to Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for a degree in African-American Studies and, miraculously, I was accepted. On my first day, I discovered I was the only nonblack person in the program. I was pretty stunned by this—didn't other nonblack people feel as outsidery as I did? Wasn't there one other nonblack-ethnic-diasporic-whatchamacallit in the whole City of New York who identified with the black struggle in their bones and wanted to formalize the feeling with a master's degree? To that question, the City of New York said, "No, not that we know of," then offered me another slice of pizza and an opportunity to yell at a cabbie for pedestrian-unfriendly behavior.
The program itself was exhilarating and for those of you who know black celebrity scholars, I got to work with the Manning Marable. Marable was like the Meryl Streep of black scholarship. He was great in a way that no one questioned… and he never seemed to age. RIP, Marable, no one could ever whip up an analysis of the economic underdevelopment of the black community vis-à-vis modern capitalism like you could. You were dreamy.
But as you can imagine, there's only so many critiques of Orientalism or Marxist reinterpretations of Malcolm X that a gal like me could read before she wondered how it all applied to the real world. Enter former New York City mayor David Dinkins. Hold up! You're saying that a former New York City mayor figured into your life? Yeah, motherfuckers, deal with it, I have a personal connection with David Dinkins, the first (and only) black mayor of New York. Now, would David Dinkins remember me? Totally. Maybe. Probably maybe. Okay, not really.
Dinkins is by far my favorite New York City mayor whose leadership I never got to experience firsthand. (Warning, Dinkins shout-out coming up.) He taught a great class on how to run cities, for which he was extraqualified because he ran one. It was Dinkins—not Rudy Giuliani—who started the Times Square cleanup and built up the police force to the point where it could reduce crime. Yeah, I've always been bitter that Giuliani gets credited with bringing crime reduction and order to NYC, because it was Dinkins! But is Dinkins bitter? No. Because he's one of those nonpetty rise-above-it type people. (I'm one of those "write an angry paragraph trying to correct history" type people.)
Dinkins taught a class at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, where policy wonks get their schoolin'. I was hooked. And I decided to get a dual master's degree in public policy, where I would learn the nuts and bolts of administering and changing cities, states, and countries. At the same time, over in the African-American Studies department, I would learn all the theoretical underpinnings of why I would do what I wanted to do. I interned for the likes of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and the Campaign Finance Board. I was graduate-educating real hard.2
Back then I wasn't going to be a comedian, I was going to be the first Muslim president (but Obama beat me to it).3 My calling was to end the racial divide. I was a part of the struggle—the only struggle that had things like leaders, legitimate entities, graduate programs, mainstream recognition, and pop stars. I felt so totally committed, so totally in the thick of blackness. That struggle didn't include any Iranians, but at the time I thought, Close enough. That's what a lot of hyphenated Americans say to themselves when they glom onto the larger minority groups: close enough.
It felt good, it felt like I was finally a part of the fight! It's comforting to be surrounded by a group that basically knows what you mean even if they don't exactly know what you mean. I would start sentences with "In Harlem we.…" I lived in Queens, so I didn't quite know what happened in Harlem, but I was in the African-American studies program at Columbia, which was… Harlem adjacent. So that wasn't horribly untrue, was it? (It was.)
But I should note that I went to grad school in the aftermath of 9/11. That event sparked a little something we now like to call Islamophobia. I thought this little spike in Muz-hate was going to dissipate quickly. How naïve. I really thought, how could people associate this kind of violence with a whole religion (Islam) and an entire region (the Middle East)—that's just crazy! That's like stereotyping 1.6 billion people. Who does that? Americans. We Americans do that. Post 9/11, mainstream American media was all about creating the following critical associations:
Islam = the promotion of violence.
Muslims = violent people with dusty faces always running around the desert.
The Middle East = a place full of violent people with dusty faces always running around the desert, plus women shrouded in what appear to be blankets.
But it's not like Muslims were so totally adored before 9/11. When my parents moved to Virginia during the Iran Hostage Crisis, my brother would get beaten up in school for being Iranian. We lived in Virginia until I was seven years old, and I remember in kindergarten a girl yelled at me for being "a communist." How embarrassing for her: She had the political regime all wrong! I came back with the very clever retort, "You mean Islamic Republic." And that's about as much as either of us could say on geopolitics. But for five-year-olds, that was pretty good.
After the hostage crisis, Muslims kinda went on the back burner. Americans got real busy hating on Russians. But not too busy for the classic hating on black people. Then we had Mexicans to worry about, gotta save some hate for them. Plus all those Asians who apparently drive badly… oh, bigotry had a busy schedule! But 9/11 changed the national discourse by giving America a brand-new enemy.
I was in grad school, hard at work being politically black—preaching the words of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. I memorized an argument on the critical race theory underpinning of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was prepared to change my name to "Tyler Perry Presents Negin Farsad." I was ready to fight for black causes whenever and wherever!
My classmates were sorta like, "Um, yeah, could you stop doing that? It's weird." Didn't I have my own people to fight for?
And that's when it struck me: I wasn't black, or Mexican or Asian or Russian. I was an Iranian-American Muslim female (the comedy, filmmaking, and honey-mustard enthusiasm didn't come till later). To large swaths of the American public, that meant I was a possibly dangerous brown person who potentially sympathized with Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. To other swaths of the American public, I was the kind of person who pronounced "Iran" in a way that didn't make it sound like a past-tense verb.
I needed to come out of the closet. I wasn't helping anyone by glossing over my real identity. This was my struggle, and I had work to do! There were 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide whose identity was being hijacked! People needed to know that secular, fun Muslims who smell nice are the norm—more the norm than the dusty brown people we were seeing on television. And I had to let people know it with the only tool I had: comedy. (Actually, I also had one of those little wrenches that came with the IKEA Fjälkinge shelf, but I didn't think I could take on bigotry with that.)
Even though I went to graduate school for African American Studies and public policy (not at all for comedy) and even though I didn't know it at the time, graduate school was preparing me for this work. Getting that education made me realize how little time we all spent exploring other minority groups. It made me realize that the hyphenates were getting the short end of the stick, and that the stick we did get was from a really old twig that had already served its time as a snowman's right hand. I also figured out that if you want to broaden and tackle the issue of race relations with jokes, I guess it's not bad to have an academic foundation in race relations. I could have lived without the debt, though, 'cause that shit was expensive. My plan was to reverse the iconography that stemmed from all the bigotry, xenophobia, and general shittiness with something I call social justice comedy.
The characters we see on TV, those shows, they become iconic representations, and iconic representations are limiting. They define things. They're sticky, like when you get superglue on your fingers and it takes three days of excessive scrubbing to get it off. Except three days in this case is more like several decades, and the superglue is possibly something really awful, like a stereotype that results in bigotry.
Stay with me here, as I am about say something that makes it sound like I went to grad school. What follows is what you might call a theoretical argument. Or a bunch of images with blurbs next to them—your choice.
What Are Iconic Representations?
I breezily mentioned icons above, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, let's first talk about what icons are! Let's look at some examples that'll go down real smooth. For example, when I was growing up, if you said the word dancer, I thought of these ladies:4
I didn't necessarily think of these ladies:
To me, a dancer was a be-tutu'd, rail-thin girl who might or might not have an eating disorder. The iconic dancer does ballet or, at worst, ballroom dancing. She doesn't pop, lock, drop, shake, strobe, grind, krump, or twerk. Though she may do Zumba. The iconic definition of a dancer for me is simply not correlated with this kind of booty overload.
What do you think of when you hear the word artist? I think of this kind of dude:
He's got the Flock of Seagulls haircut. He's wearing a smock, he's standing next to an easel, he's wielding a paintbrush, he's got an asshole-ishness to him. His work is esteemed, it's shown in highfalutin museums and galleries. The dude just screams artist!
But this dude—a guy I like to call Oscar Wilde, because that was his name—is also technically an "artist":
Oh yes, Oscar rocked a fur coat and a scepter. He gave everyone a run for their money by being hilarious, unconventional, and smart at the same time. When they found out he was gay, well… Throw this man into prison, they said! And they did.
And weirdly, this guy is also an "artist":
This image butts against the iconic understanding of "artist," because she appears to be a stand-up comic making fart noises with her face.5 What's confounding this stereotype even more is that this stand-up comic is a woman. Weird.
If you think representations of artists have been limiting, think about the plight of fruit. Fruit have been depicted in bowls from the beginning of icons itself.
Fruit in a bowl in the eighteenth century:
Fruit in a bowl in the seventeenth century:
Holy hot pants, this is fruit in a bowl in the first century BC!! Like forever ago:
Little known French artist Paul Cézanne tried to depict fruit outside of bowls:
For this violation of fruit iconography, Cézanne was beheaded.6 All of this to say that these kinds of representations really stick.
When Ethnic and Religious Iconography Turn to Crap
So icons are limiting and they also have a tendency of creating monolithic definitions of large groups of people. Since I'm a Middle Eastern lady Muz, why don't I share some of my people's chart-topping iconic faves?
1. Women shrouded in black sheets with slits at the eyeball area.
Photo by Steve Evans
This icon does a good job of making the entire Middle East seem really medieval. A place where women have no rights and they probably don't even realize they're missing rights because it's like 1320 (or whatever year they're peddling) over there. There's no way they could actually want to cover themselves! And what? Miss out on all the great catcalling from construction workers? No way!
This icon also does a great job of suggesting that there are no separate countries in the Middle East—it's just one big brown violent blob where women float through fake borders in their black sheets as if hovering over the sandy deserts, defying gravity. I mean, never mind the fact that burkas are mostly a Saudi thing or that in Beirut ladies are more likely to look like Salma Hayek bearing smoking-hot cleave.
This icon also satisfies a weird fetish, too: This mysterious Middle Eastern woman is probably naked under there, she's probably waiting for a dude to come give her sex opportunities. She's poised to pop out a tit on command!
This image says "Muslim Female in the Middle East" more than anything else, but it doesn't communicate the fact that this woman is actually in a very small minority. It doesn't communicate that women in Iran, for example, have the highest rate of degree attainment in the Middle East, outpacing that of men. Or that women in Jordan drive, or that women in Lebanon run for office. And win.
How do I know that this icon has impressed itself on the eyeballs of the American public? Well, I tour the country doing stand-up, and whenever people find out that I'm Muslim, their first question is "If you're a Muslim, why are you dressed like that?" Or they say "Are you supposed to wear one of those things that cover your whole face and body?" I have to deal with this question over and over again. I try to be creative and answer in different and adventurous ways but ugh… sometimes I just wish people knew. Maybe if this icon wasn't so pervasive, people would know.
2. Dusty dudes hanging out in desert-like situations with beards and weapons.
Seriously, for real, Middle Eastern dudes like to chill outdoors with their weapons! Not only that, they do it while having very hot-faced beards. What a simultaneously violent and hairy icon! You know what else—when these guys aren't taking a little shaded rest with their weapons, they're running in formation with their weapons. When they're not doing that, they're probably cleaning their weapons. You know how there's always a "falling in love" montage in a romantic comedy? That's basically what the life of a Middle Eastern dude is, except it's a three-way with his weapon and his beard. It's basically the dude, the weapon, and the beard in the meadows. The dude, the weapon, and the beard eating ice cream together. The dude, the weapon, and the beard getting buck naked and boning.
I'm not saying that there aren't Middle Eastern men who are weapon-and-beard based. Of course there are! But again, that's a minority. The proportion of bearded dudes with weapons in the Middle East is probably the same as bearded dudes with weapons in the United States. It should also be noted that we would probably have more bearded dudes in the U.S. but we don't, because some guys grow patchy beards, so it doesn't really make sense for them to have beards at all. But they should be counted because they would have beards if their faces let them.
This isn't the first time that we've depicted men of a certain racial and ethnic background as violent. We've done it to African-American men, too, presenting them in mass media imagery as savage brutes. That shit goes back to Birth of a Nation in 1915.7 What's that thing about repeating mistakes? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame another group with the savage brute imagery? Maybe it's easier to wage large-scale wars in the Middle East if the people you're killing are seen as animalistic. Because if we replace the weapon with a guitar, these iconic Muslims would end up looking like tan American folk singers, and maybe the killing wouldn't be so easy.
3. Middle Eastern people pray their pants off.
Oh yes, the iconic image of the Muslim in prayer. Holy shit, how much do brown people pray? I mean, really? What's worse is, it's that really intense praying where they have to get up and down and kneel and bow—it's almost like a CrossFit workout—and every time there's a news story involving Muslims, that CrossFit-praying-Muslim image is streaming on a bunch of different channels. It plays so much that it seems like Middle Easterners just constantly pray.
This kind of imagery leads people to think that all of us Middle Easterners are hardcore, practicing Muslims. And what's the stereotype of hardcore, practicing people of any religion? They're the zealot-nutjobby ones. In the case of Muslims, praying = nutjob.
Contrast this to the image of, let's say, a Christian, kneeling with their hands in prayer position at their heart. Are they considered nutjobs or pure-of-heart-jobs?
You've probably watched a scene in a movie where a little girl prays with her dad? Picture it, there's that moment where the dad and the little girl are barricaded in the little girl's room because there are monsters outside. The monsters have already eaten most of the family, and the dad and the little girl are all that's left. Once the barricade gives out, the dad is going to have to fight the monsters. But, first, Dad and little girl have to pray! They get down on their knees, lean against a bed with a sparkly pink comforter on it, and they pray. They pray hard. It's that prayer that gets them through the next scene where the dad has to bare-knuckle-fight the monsters.
I like that scene in those movies. It makes them human. But for some reason the iconic Muslim prayer gets reduced to nutjobbery. Isn't praying supposed to be a nice thing? Isn't it supposed to help us fight the monsters?
4. Is that a nuclear weapon in your pants or are you happy to see me? Yes, actually, it is a nuclear weapon, because I'm Iranian and we all have one we keep in our pants.
This is more like a concept than an icon but it basically goes like this: If you're Iranian, you've been developing nuclear weapons. The thing with Iranians is that we're all enriching uranium all the time. You'll be hard-pressed to find an Iranian who doesn't know how to enrich uranium. In fact, I'm enriching uranium right now. It smells like bacon.
The desire for nuclear weaponry is the only reason Iranians are in the news! There's basically been a cavalcade of stories where either Iran is maybe enriching weapons-grade uranium, or they're probably totally enriching weapons-grade uranium. Or inspectors were in the country and they couldn't find anything but that's probably because the Iranians have figured out how to enrich invisible uranium. Or it sorta looks like Iran could be on the verge of having a whole bunch of atomic bombs, or the bombs are probably even pointed at every country and even though there's no real proof we should invade and get this over with.
What I like about this endless nuclear haranguing is that it implies two things: (1) Iranians are super into mass murder, the kind that comes from setting off nuclear weapons; and (2) Iranians are smart enough to build nuclear weapons. Oh yeah! We smart! At least this is a slight improvement over the "dusty dudes in the desert" icon, because those dudes seem kind of dumb. They don't look like nuclear engineers. But I would say the positives here are outweighed by the "murderous warlords with plans of global nuclear domination" thing. So it's a net loss.
And that concludes our lesson on iconic representations. See what I mean? Icons are sticky and limiting all at the same time. The ones allotted to people like me—violent, covered, and bearded—are nothing to write home about8… and they offend my fashion senses. This, my friends, is stage one—admitting there's a problem. There's a problem! Now, what are we gonna do about it?
Here's What I'm Gonna Do About It, aka Lube the Nation
There's a definitive book on race—but it's usually for black people. There's a definitive book on religion—but it's usually for Christian people. There's a definitive book on the immigrant experience—but it's usually about Ellis Island, or it's about Mexican people, or it's about Ellis Island. We seem to think those are the only groups out there! I want to give voice to the multihyphenated Americans caught in the margins. I want to give voice to all those feelings of self-censorship and cross-cultural pressure that they feel. I want mainstream American culture to take note, because we can't be ignored anymore, and recognizing us is a matter of social justice.
But here's the deal: I can give voice all I want, but that don't mean shit if I can't get through to white America. Now, I hear you saying: Why do white people matter anyway?
Because, here's the thing: White people (still) sorta control stuff. In fact, here's a handy list of things white people dominate that matter a great deal to humans. This is by no means an exhaustive list—I'm forgetting at least one to six items—but I think it's good enough to demonstrate the extent of what white people control:
HBO's Game of Thrones
The career of Tom Hanks
International currency valuation
The breeding of small dogs
- "This book is more than funny-it's on David Sedaris-level first-class perfect fucking hilarious funny. I laughed so hard, I made a spectacle of myself."—Julia Sweeney, Comedian, Writer, and former SNL cast member
- "A hilarious and personal take on the complexities of being non-white in America today. This book makes racial politics a bit easier to swallow."—Reza Aslan, bestselling author of No god but God and Zealot
- "Apparently, Negin did not spend her childhood in the Irish countryside. She was never a beat jazz innovator, and her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks was unconsummated. This long overdue book not only 'sets the record straight' but also improves the whole structure of society. I thank Ms. Farsad for that. You should do the same."—Janeane Garofalo, Comedian
- "Negin Farsad whips out some smart racial politics . . . with a side of fart jokes and the result is a hilarious and pungent book."—Aasif Mandv, Daily Show correspondent, actor and author of No Land's Man
- "Farsad's fresh and funny voice is perfect for presenting tactics to fight anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., and her work is intriguing and enjoyable to read."—Publisher's Weekly
- "How to Make White People Laugh will help answer some of the questions people have been too scared to ask. And get you laughing."—Refinery29
- "Well-written [and] disarmingly funny."—New Boston Post
- "Hilarious and groundbreaking...Farsad carves out a new space to talk about cultural and political identity."—BookWitty.com
- On Sale
- May 24, 2016
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing