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Hasan Minhaj and the white desire to invalidate racism
The comedian drew criticism for making up stories about his experiences of racism, but as it turns out, he didn’t even come close to lying. That teaches us a lot about whiteness.
Hasan Minhaj, an Indian comedian and political commentator, drew fire when the New Yorker reported that his stories about the racism he experienced were largely fabricated. In the deck to the story, the New Yorker noted that “much of it never happened.” That story was then picked up by nearly every outlet. It is tantalizing for some to consider that an alleged victim of racism simply lied about his experience. Minhaj and I have a similar heritage: he’s a Muslim Indian, I’m a Christian Egyptian, but we were both brown people during 9/11. In fact, we were born the same year–just weeks apart. I’ve felt inspired by him and have written about him in the past (here and here). Something made me doubt that he had lied, as alleged.
I went to Twitter to share what I thought, with the New Yorker’s profile in hand. I wrote, “There’s no reason for BIPOC to lie about their experience; we all have plenty of stories of discrimination. Minhaj’s lying isn’t justified, but he either didn’t appreciate his own experience with prejudice enough or suspected his stories wouldn’t be believed. So he possibly fabricated it because he struggled to believe it, or his white counterparts did. Even if I would never do that and believe he shouldn’t have, I am moved to empathy.”
As it turns out, I wasn’t far from the truth. Minhaj shared his own experience about this story on a video he posted weeks after the story he came out. He wrote that the sequence of events in his routine were different from real life, but the meaning of the story remained the same. He spoke of story-telling and how we often change details for the sake of our audience, so that they might feel the circumstance themselves. It made perfect sense to me, as a pastor, a “storyteller” in my own right. It’s disturbing to me that a journalist, who tells and curates stories for a living, would accuse Minhaj of lying, when it was a matter of the art of comedy. Her art is also about storytelling, especially in the long form style of the New Yorker.
I don’t think we have a reasonable expectation that a comedian must precisely state the facts as if he were under oath. It’s a different medium, with a different purpose than hard news, and I would like to believe we generally understand that. It’s curious to me why Minhaj was held to a different standard than his white counterparts, in particular. And of course, I wonder why these stories in particular, which related to Minhaj’s experience with race and racism, were scrutinized by the New Yorker.
I don’t know the motive or the heart of the writer. How could I? But in my experience, the trauma and pain of racism is hard to receive and to know. Whether race issues are dismissed as economic matters, or whether the psychological pain of BIPOC is deemed trivial, the reality is that most of us don’t want to live in a world where people are treated differently because of how they look. We certainly don’t want to feel that we’re party to it. So we sometimes deny that these experiences are even real.
For people who have never experienced racism, due to their white skin, understanding the experience of BIPOC can be elusive or confusing. To acknowledge it is to feel guilty. Denial is easier.
Maybe that discomfort with the truth is the reason that the New Yorker still stands by its story. Clare Malone stands by her reporting and fact-checking, although they are an ocean away from Minhaj’s experience. Malone stretched the truth of Minhaj’s dishonesty to make a greater point that was comfortable and palatable to her audience. That it got picked up by so many outlets suggests that white mouths water for stories that invalidate the experience of BIPOC and provide comfort for white people as they face the confounding problem of race and racism in the United States.
In his own experience of being disrespected by that story, Minhaj suffered yet another attack rooted in his heritage and skin color. The New Yorker is ready to defend itself and assure us that Minhaj is just a victim of his bad judgment, unable and unwilling to tell the truth. Minhaj acknowledged and apologized for the parts of his story that were out of order or not precisely true, but also said that the thrust of his stories was true enough. He felt the New Yorker had published a sensational nonstory. Minhaj’s story is just one of many that white people long to dismiss. Well-meaning white liberals would prefer to think that there is another side to the stories of BIPOC that won’t make them feel as bad. The New Yorker wrote that story. No wonder that BIPOC often feel like it’s better not to speak about our experiences of racism.
That is to say, we often end up experiencing more pointed racism when we speak up. We’re belittled and gas-lit. I feel it in my bones, and I’m sorry this gifted entertainer had to experience it, and so publicly. I’ve said it before, but it should be an honor to hear the stories of BIPOC in this racist world. Don’t deny them, respect them, and you’ll grow in wisdom. If you fail to do this, the world will remain the same. For BIPOC, coping and surviving in an unchanging world is just another day. White people, who have the wonderful opportunity to grow, repent and change, they lose the change, should have the humility to understand the harm done. The denial of racism is another expression of the ubiquitous white supremacy that cloaks all of American life. In exaggerating the dishonesty in Minhaj’s stories, the New Yorker and Clare Malone proved he was right all along.