Riz Ahmed has never shied away from discussing his experiences as a brown man living in a white world—that is, a Muslim Pakistani Brit living in a post-9/11 world. Not only has he explored these themes in the roles he has taken in films like Four Lions, The Road To Guantánamo, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as well as on HBO’s The Night Of, but also when he raps as Riz MC. In “Typecast as a terrorist,” a piece he penned for The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by British minority writers on race, identity, and immigration, he delved even further into his experiences, using both the audition process and airport detainments as a means to explore the boxes society insists on putting Ahmed and other brown people into.
He begins the essay, which you can find and should read at The Guardian, by describing the labels people put on minorities: “The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels.” He’s referring to the famous, centuries-old diamond found in India that was taken by Great Britain when they colonized the nation, and now rests on the Queen Mother Crown. “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”
Ahmed explains that while plenty of roles offered to brown men often put them in a demeaning and stereotypical corner, the dream (or the “Promised Land,” as he calls it) is to be able to play a character whose race simply doesn’t matter: “There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.”
He found it difficult to find roles in the UK in the mid-aughts, because at the time, a lot of the shows focused on 18th=century British people—not a lot of opportunity there. So he headed to the U.S.:
The reason for this is simple. America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.
And sometimes in America media the myth itself gets whitewashed. Ahmed describes being held by British and American airport authorities, being questioned about his roots and his films and his identity, and how difficult it was not to internalize that fear and suspicion, that idea that he couldn’t just be a normal dude.
I tried not to ingest all the signs telling me I was a suspect. I tried not to buy into the story world of this “protocol” or its stage-one stereotype of who I was. But when you have always moulded your identity to your environment and had your necklace picked out by others, it’s not easy. I couldn’t see myself as “just a bloke.”
The essay reminded me of an episode of Master of None aptly titled “Indians on TV,” where Dev rolls up to an audition for a character, only to find the room filled with brown men that look exactly like him, each pulling out their best offensive Indian accent for the role. It’s an experience Ahmed has clearly been through as well, one he parallels to sitting in an airport detainment room with other people that look exactly like him.
You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as “just a bloke called Dave.”
Just as he had been typecast as a terrorist in film, he had been typecast as a terrorist by authorities, and the same media that forces brown actors trying to get roles to be complicit in stereotyping and undermining their own people.