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Hasan Minhaj, the power of being understood, and the insufficiency of intersectionality
My friend recently recommended that I watch the Hasan Minhaj special on Netflix.
I didn’t know who Minhaj was until I watched it (he's a Daily Show contributor; unfortunately Trevor Noah’s version of The Daily Show never hooked me), but I watched it anyway.
I totally mean this: I’ve never watched a TV show that felt so relatable! You know, in sociology class in college, there’s a lot of talk about not seeing people like you on TV growing up. I never made much of it, personally; though, generally relating to my black and Latino friends, and empathizing when they gravitated toward shows that featured people like them.
My cousins had a few Arabic channels at home, so I distantly understood the idea. But I didn’t speak Arabic well enough to really watch and relate to those shows, so it just seemed strange. Plus, I was a first generation kid, so there was always a cultural distance that made direct interactions with the “mother culture” a little weird.
But growing up in a different country, with brown skin (and an accent), put me out of place in experiencing lots of things in the predominantly white town I grew up in. I never quite fit in. So, my cultural experience was always kind of outsider.
Finding someone I could relate to was not very common at all for a host of reasons. One of the biggest ones was that disillusionment of being ignored, stereotyped, and rejected was lost on many of my even Egyptian friends. We don't really talk about that. Haram aleyk! Egypt is a land of honor and shame, and to embrace and name your oppression is to name and embrace shame. It acknowledges that you aren’t on top of the world, something Egyptians love to fake. It means you don’t control your destiny, and that’s another problem.
Especially for Christian Egyptians who escaped a Muslim government (even a secular one). They left the homeland because it was unjust, and they arrived in the U.S. to only be marginalized. As a result of this dynamic, it was really hard to find people I could relate to.
Even Aziz Ansari on his Master of None barely touches first-generation honor/shame culture problems. But Hasan did so, in what I found to be an amazing and high production show. He was funny, eloquent, and relatable. He bases his whole set on being rejected by his prom date in high school because her mom was uncomfortable with his skin color. He prophetically speaks about what it’s like to be a brown son in a family of immigrants after 9/11. He even talks about FOBs (people who are Fresh Off The Boat) and has a very interesting bit about how Indian his prom date's current boyfriend is. It's amazing. I can relate significantly to these things! It was extraordinary. I watched half the special with my jaw dropped!
I reflected on this moving experience that I had. To be fair, it’s not like Hasan and I had everything in common, but we shared a lot. It was more than I am used to experiencing too. But it wasn’t a perfect match. It wasn’t totally pure. It felt good, but it left me feeling like there could’ve been something more. Furthermore, if a woman watched the show, or someone who was more strict than I watched it (after all Hasan is Indian, not Egyptian), I think they might have related less or not felt the same connection. I was longing for it, so I connected the dots.
To be understood, related to, connected with—these things are things that we all want and long for. Waiting to meet the perfect people who will do that seamlessly as a result of their experience might not be possible, and it may leave you disappointed nevertheless.
I talk to a lot of my woke friends about intersectionality. Every single part of a human being, which is ever-proliferating, needs to be acknowledged or an expression of solidarity is nearly useless. They spend a lot of time exchanging hostilities with each other. I often am endlessly deconstructed for (or a witness to) not making every possible intersection. I think character matters more than perfection, and I wish we were more gracious.
We need to be sensitive to each other. But doing so from a “holier-than-though” perspective makes us as bad as the fundamentalists. I hope we keep listening and learning from each other, instead of barking about where we are insufficient.
For me, I couldn’t wait for Hasan’s special, before I could feel understood, related to, and connected with—the hope of perfect intersectionality for me was just insufficient. It took too long, and when it came it was great (awesome, even), and not perfect. I related to it, but it didn't save me—it hardly liberated me. Perfect activism is not salvific. But hostility surrounding its imperfections can certainly make us feel good.
While I won’t stop working toward justice, liberation, and reconciliation. My hope isn’t found in their completion. It's because I am completed in Jesus that I moved to reconcile all things unto him. Jesus freed me enough to live fully and freely in the world even if I was never understood. He gives me the liberty to continue to do his work here and to spread it around the region. And I’m free to do it because he saved me, not because I found a perfect match on TV.