Sports in America come in various forms, with basketball, association football — or as North Americans would call it, soccer — football, baseball and ice hockey probably the most popular sports, in no particular order. Something that has often caught my attention is how American sports are organized. In fact, it somewhat inspired me to write this piece.
The overall champion in Major League Baseball (MLB) is decided through what’s called a World Series and the overall NBA championship winning team is often called the world champion. Considering every major sports league in America includes teams mainly from within America — with the exception of some Canadian outfits like the 2019 NBA champions Toronto Raptors or Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS, America has got its definition of “world” drastically wrong and it always cracks me up, especially when the FIA label Formula 1 as a World Championship but back it up with races in five continents and when FIFA include countries from virtually every continent in World Cup qualifying borders. There exists an entire world outside of the American and/or Canadian borders, the real world.
On a more serious note, the whole premise of white supremacy also has an incredibly short sighted view of what the world is. White supremacy dismisses the non white world as typically inferior or maybe non-existent in their world view. The last four years have done a great job of showing us all that racism definitely still exists, contrary to what some privileged folks may have you believe. There exist so many instances of people being attacked in some form for the language they speak or their names — even when there is no official language of America — or if they exhibit any culture that does not conform to whiteness or “western values” — there is no monolithic western culture, despite what the alt-right may want you to believe.
Now what do the arts have to do with all of this? A lot, actually. Places outside the American world — basically anywhere outside America itself — and people of color’s cultures are depicted stereotypically, often a result of obnoxious American self-importance at best or white supremacy at worst. The character of Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory is a walking stereotype — admittedly, the whole show deserves an article of its own — and of course, the yellow filter, so commonly used to depict countries like India and Mexico in visual media are just some examples that come to my mind.
As a person of color born in India and raised in the Middle East, I have been at the confluence of Arab and Indian culture all my life. I’ve been brought up on American cartoons, British YouTube and European sports — the latter especially proving to be a wonderful vehicle of culture. I appreciate cultural differences for the most part and believe that the best depictions of culture come from the groups that practice said culture, or adaptations that are respectful of the culture they borrow from, not from some white person who has likely never encountered the culture first hand and resorts to convenient, watered down, negative stereotyping. The arts, therefore, play an important role in bridging the perception-reality gap and I believe conventional — often monolingual — white Americans should open up their worlds by taking in art and culture directly from the source or from respectful adaptations, rather than watered down misrepresentations.
The first form of artistic expression — and the one that has always caught my attention most — is music. Music from the Arab World is exquisite. While most people think of the Arab World in the context of geopolitics and even stereotypes, especially after 9/11, it can be easy to forget about the rich cultural wealth possessed by countries in this region.
Music from this region is diverse and can’t quite be encapsulated in a single song but one of my go-to songs from the region is “Aïcha” by Cheb Khaled, the world renowned — yes, by the global definition of world, as the song has been adapted in several other languages and charted across the world — Algerian Raï musician. Ironically, I did get this recommendation from a friend in America — I respect their genuine appreciation of culture and we need more of that sentiment. The song is about a woman named Aisha being wooed by a man and her refusal of his advances. With soothing lyrics in French — originally written by Jean-Jacques Goldman — and Arabic — added by Khaled himself — and music that both hit very close to home and made me want to visit Algeria, it is a musical gem for me personally, despite my lack of French knowledge and limited Arabic proficiency.
Raï music is a form of Algerian folk music — the word Raï meaning “opinion” in Arabic — that is about more than just a man trying to woo a woman. It has often stood firm in opposition to conservatism, allowing much-needed expression of ideas in the face of repression. Even this song contains the following lines from Aisha’s perspective I found translated from French online that target patriarchy and cherish true love:
"Keep your treasures/I want more than all that/Bars are bars, even if made of gold/I want the same rights as you/And respect for each day/I don't want anything but love."
Rather than negatively stereotypical content, musicians like Cheb Khaled should be made popular and accepted, despite the language barrier that might exist. The power of music transcends language.
Another form of media that deserves recognition is visual media in the form of movies or series. “Parasite” rightly won big at the Oscars last year, much to the chagrin of Trump and his supporters, serving as a great example of the quality of creativity that can often be missed out on due to shortsightedness. Letting subtitles do their job can certainly open up one’s world.
Speaking from an Indian perspective, I believe people should try watching the Amazon Prime series “Laakhon Mein Ek” — roughly meaning “one in many”— which is an Indian made Hindi series with English subtitles. Oftentimes the stereotype goes around about Indians and Asian people in general being overly studious or hard working. This show depicts the kind of pressure-cooker environment students are forced to endure in reality and the effect such stereotyping can have on people, suppressing their passions often in pursuit of their parents’ personal dreams or satisfy societal expectations or defy gender norms. Not every student endures the exact same fate — I most definitely had a more watered down experience (which is how I am able to write this) and the diaspora often has different experiences to those in the mainland anyway — but the suppression of the arts and worship of the sciences is very real. It is rare to find anyone from an Asian background who hasn’t had any experience that suppresses independence. The lack of independence is often underscored by those who ignorantly and even maliciously laud Asians as a “model minority.”
Lastly, I would also like to touch on the written word as a medium. Black Lives Matter protesters and rioters faced a lot of backlash last year — from the right, as expected — but also from the comfortable. The written word can help people understand the point of such public demonstrations, as long as they are willing to listen. Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail” is one such written work which eloquently explains the motivation for public demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. In the face of calls to wait for justice, Dr King effectively conveyed that justice simply could not wait and that discomfort is necessary. I cannot quite do the letter justice in a few paragraphs but I would urge those who vacuously tweet our Dr. King quotes only on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and other such occasions to read or listen to the letter being read by Dr King himself and confront the discomfort.
Global and diverse media forms can help fix several misconceptions people have about places they’ve never been to or people they’ve never really known and the struggles they face. Such misconceptions can have devastating effects, especially when parroted by white supremacists with an agenda. Thus, I implore the overly comfortable monolingual white population to take the initiative and engage with diverse media.
When the nation faces a racial reckoning, read or listen to Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail”, an explanation of Black and Brown action by a Black leader. When the Arab World is derided as terrorists or entirely patriarchal, give songs like “Aïcha,” directly from the Arab World, a listen and if you’re finding yourselves placing unrealistic expectations on Asians as a “model minority”, watch a show like “Laakhon Mein Ek” to realize this isn’t a lifestyle you’d want to laud as model.
Any systemic issues or negative stereotypes are perpetuated by white folks being comfortable in their positions. Like it or not, you — the comfortable white person — hold more power than you realize. However, it is necessary for you to feel discomfort — as King would say — for anything to happen and for that, misconceptions need to be shattered. There is a world outside of what the NBA or MLB say. There is a world outside your cul-de-sac. If systemic change is to be made, we need you to find it.
America is an amalgamation of a multitude of cultures — Native and non Native — which means the possibilities are endless. Thankfully, the arts can lead the way and open up your world.