Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
American society often expects people of color and immigrants of color, like me, to share stories of our traumas and how we overcame them as a rite of passage. We must stop having such expectations and instead allow room for stories that show off different facets of life.
As a Muslim woman and an immigrant from Pakistan, a human rights activist, and now the producer and host of a weekly podcast, Immigrantly, where I invite the guests to talk about anything from faith, love, and relationships to food and mental health, I have shared many interesting and exciting stories. It should go without saying that these stories are in no way limited to my race and identity. Yet, I often feel that I am invariably expected to relay painful and, at times, uncomfortable parts of my identity and experiences to be taken seriously in American society.
My recent interview with Dr. Anthony Ocampo, a writer and scholar focused on race, immigration, and LGBTQ issues, confirmed this observation as neither mistaken nor an individual experience. He summed up the dilemma perfectly, saying that for BIPOC people, “what gets you into college, what gets you that diversity fellowship, it’s this exercise in deploying the most traumatic experiences of your life.” In other words, my worth is seen through the narrow lens of tragedy and rejection.
This is a terrible status quo to live in.
Society glamorizes minority suffering and scrutinizes our activism.
Don’t get me wrong; racial minorities do face constant racism and discrimination and are subjected to inequities that the dominant White population evades, but as a minority woman in America, I am frustrated to see how we are pigeonholed almost exclusively into constrained narratives of trauma and rejection, how minority anguish is commodified for consumption, and how trauma-centered stories burden minorities.
Through my work, I have consistently observed American society’s propensity to consume trauma that is not its own. It seems as though society glamorizes minority suffering and scrutinizes our activism. It is a binary plane beyond which minority identities are not allowed to operate.
As a result, those of us from marginalized communities are conditioned to view our identities through the narrow lens of tragedy and rejection and through tokenized stories of immigrant activism. This can significantly affect our mental and physical health; it puts the onus of bringing about meaningful social and cultural change squarely on minorities. We become the go-to narrators, teachers, and guides for the White population. This can be mentally taxing as it overexposes and even restricts us to the darker and more tragic side of our existence. Moreover, studies have shown that poor mental health can harm our physical well-being.
The progress of minorities is measured by how well we share our trauma and work to overcome it. For instance, the story of a Muslim woman like me is centered on my oppression and lack of agency. American society sees Muslim women as docile, occupying secondary roles in our communities, and being valued through our relationships with male protagonists, who are almost exclusively White.
For instance, in films like Hala and Iron Man 3, Muslim hijabi women characters are exclusively defined in relationship to their White saviors. Hollywood uses the White savior trope, especially in relation to Muslim women, to reinforce the stereotypical depiction of Muslim women as oppressed and Muslim men as oppressors, which requires outside intervention. In American pop culture, my identity as a Muslim woman rarely exists outside the confines of this classification.
However, because my lived experience doesn’t reflect this stereotype, it feels as though my story is not worthy of normalization. To most non-Muslim Americans, I must be an outlier.
As a result, people from minority communities are often forced to relive agony to get noticed and become more visible in every sphere of our lives, whether writing a college application, applying for a grant, or simply telling a story. Many of us feel as though we are only worthy of attention if we present ourselves as a case study that appeals to White sensibility and even White saviorism.
Are White folks in America more interested in BIPOC misery than glory because it allows them to act as the moral authority on various issues?
Mainstream media amplifies this phenomenon; our stories are essential or become part of the social and political discourse as long as they are built on our individual or collective suffering. I recently talked to someone about a season of Immigrantly focused on love and relationships. They said, “American society is not interested in knowing about a Muslim woman’s love life, because that doesn’t make for a sensational story.” While it sounded crass at the time, it nevertheless rang true.
Generally speaking, White characters are allowed to publicly experience stories of triumph and everyday mundane life. Contrary to how minority characters are framed in the mainstream media,White folks represent a broad spectrum of humanity. Their onscreen depiction lends itself to three-dimensionality. Many stories centered on White characters are slice-of-life examinations of their experiences. A great example is the Netflix series You, whose protagonist Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley, is afforded more nuance than any character of color on the show, despite being a stalker and a murderer.
In my opinion, the reasoning behind stereotypically tragic narratives around minority stories upholds the notion that minorities—especially those of us from non-European countries—are helpless, lacking agency, unaware, and sometimes even docile and in need of saving.
Further, such a narrative undermines the richness of our cultures. It reiterates the misconception that White folks are more in control of themselves, enlightened, able to act as saviors, and worthy of being at the top of the societal hierarchy.
Finally, it also enables America to further its imperialist ideals by justifying wars in countries that are part of the Global South. White saviorism formed the basis of Western imperialism, from British colonialism to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. White saviorism, among other things, manifests itself in U.S. foreign policy, which is centered on imposing “democratic values and systems” in places that are seen as inferior in their cultural, socioeconomic, religious orientation, and political ideologies.
I cannot help but think that the human capacity to consume distant trauma is linked to one’s desire to achieve a higher moral ground by helping others to alleviate that trauma—and American society is no exception.
How do we move beyond this vicious cycle of trauma regeneration?
Thus, it raises an important question: Are White folks in America more interested in BIPOC misery than glory because it allows them to act as the moral authority on various issues? The answer is complicated. While I do not think White Americans are uniformly intent on glorifying racial trauma, I do believe it is essential for society as a whole to reflect inward on what drives our consumption of minority trauma and how that influences the type of stories that get told.
It’s essential to identify the enablers of such stories and narratives. When the publishing industry, newsrooms, and mainstream media are dominated by Whites, the stories they choose to focus on will reflect how they have been socialized to think about minorities. This doesn’t necessarily mean they consider people of color a monolithic group of inferior individuals. Instead, the perspective is more unconscious yet equally insidious: BIPOC immigrants are valued through the narrow lens of trauma and, as a result, are often encouraged to relive their trauma for mass consumption.
So, how do we move beyond this vicious cycle of trauma regeneration?
To start with, we need to diversify decision-makers in newsrooms, publishing, writers rooms, podcasting, and other spaces of creative and artistic expression. But mere diversification isn’t enough. Putting more people of color into positions of power doesn’t necessarily mean the stories will move away from being trauma-centered.
So long as minorities are rewarded for reliving our trauma, we have no choice but to keep leveraging it. To ensure real change, we must dismantle the “White saviorism” concept and acknowledge and showcase the richness of experiences and knowledge in minority communities. We can start by normalizing systems of governance and cultural and social norms that exist outside the Western ideals of life. For example, it’s crucial to recenter narratives of who gets to be a protagonist in the Western psyche and move away from binaries of right and wrong as seen through the Western lens.
Ultimately, we must create spaces for and prioritize diverse stories of minorities. This will help audiences become acclimated to three-dimensional views of people and characters from minority groups. Maybe then we’ll discover and genuinely appreciate the broad spectrum of minority stories of the American landscape.
Saadia Khan is a Pakistani American immigrant, human rights activist, and social entrepreneur. A graduate of Columbia University’s Masters program in Human Rights Studies, Saadia has worked with UN Women and other UN entities representing civil society organizations. Saadia has hosted and produced 185+ podcast episodes and has received several awards. Previously, she worked as an interpreter for Human Rights First. She is also the board member of Hearts & Homes for Refugees, a nonprofit organization that works with the U.S. Department of State to welcome refugees. She writes for publications including Brown Girl Magazine, the Globe Post, and Medium. She can be reached at http://immigrantlypod.com