The end of May was defined by the ongoing saga of COVID-19 as well as the brewing civil unrest from the death of George Floyd. As a Black American physician working on the front lines of the emergency room, this combination of calamities took its toll on my emotions. Naturally, I wanted some kind of escape.
As a Muslim American, that escape came on May 29th, 2020. No it was not because it was the end of Ramadan, nor was it when my local shawarma restaurant announced a 10% loyal customer discount! It was the day the second season of Ramy was released.
Since the first season, I’ve been obsessed with this show. I was impressed by the ability of the writers and directors to captivate the audience with both funny and emotionally gripping scenes while also forcing the audience to critically think about the topics of faith, ethics, love, or whether virtual hajj/umrah is a legitimate investment. I personally asked everyone about it from friends and family to the girls I was seeing. Everyone had an opinion. Even my Hindu best friend from college watched it, loved it, and passionately believed that Ramy was a terrible human being.
Given the great success of the first season, I was anxiously anticipating the release of season two. So much so that I binged the entire season in one night. I have no regrets!
As I flew through the episodes, I became even more enamored with the show’s willingness to take risks and address topics that are often avoided within the Arab or Muslim communities, such as portraying the complex interdependence of hypermasculinity and homosexuality through Uncle Naseem’s character. However, when I got to the final few episodes where we see Ramy’s relationship with Zainab develop, I was confused and disappointed with the portrayal of his parent’s reaction to Zainab.
In one scene, we see Ramy’s father, Farouk, get over his initial meltdown (which is largely spurred by his unemployment rather than Ramy’s choice of partner) and his mother, Maysa, make an awkward comment about how the Black Zainab couldn’t be Ramy’s fiancé and then attempt to cover up this charged statement by saying Zainab reminds her of Beyoncé. Beyond these two moments, it appeared as if his parents accepted Zainab and her family openly. No major arguments and no hang ups. Although this depiction of openness is beautiful and should be the norm within these communities, it is far from the reality that most Black Muslims face. It’s also not true to their overall character, as it’s been developed over the last two seasons.
Although this depiction of openness is beautiful and should be the norm within these communities, it is far from the reality that most Black Muslims face.
In both Arab and South Asian Muslim households (the ethnic groups that comprise the majority of American Muslims), the vitriol spewed against Black people can be quite caustic. As a Black Muslim, I’ve had my fair share of racist experiences with non-Black parents, with only a sprinkling of legitimately open families. I’ve courted Muslim women with whom I truly connected and had palpable chemistry. But these relationships often ended in the same way: She liked me, but wouldn’t want to pursue anything serious because her parents would never accept me.
Often, the families that are not racist are the ones who try to fully practice the tenets of equality in Islam, which emphasizes character and denounces racism. Others have just given up on the idea of their son or daughter getting married and would be happy with anyone that walked in the door… Just as long as they are a doctor, lawyer, or engineer obviously (some things don’t really change within the American Muslim community). Everyone else is tainted by cultural biases against darker skin; sometimes, they even use derogatory words for Black people such as the Arabic word “abd,” which literally translates to slave.
As a Black Muslim, I’ve had my fair share of racist experiences with non-Black parents, with only a sprinkling of legitimately open families.
Ramy’s parents are not portrayed as particularly religious people, nor are they portrayed as social justice-oriented individuals who are aware of and vehemently reject racist thought and action. So, it made more sense that Ramy’s parents should have had a more hostile reaction to Ramy wanting to marry someone Black. In fact, the only one who seemed true to his character was Uncle Naseem, who had one too many ignorant statements about Black people during the visit of the families.
However, instead of dealing with this issue of anti-Black racism within the Arab and/or Muslim community more honestly, the show brushed over it. Yes, the show was written and filmed months before the death of George Floyd, but in the wake of the calls to end systemic oppression of Black lives within the U.S., I think it is also important to use this as an opportunity to tackle the insidious racism that exists within smaller, non-white immigrant communities. Given the brave risks already taken by the writers and directors so far, I wish that they had highlighted anti-Black racism in the Muslim community. In choosing to portray this as a non-issue, they completely missed an opportunity to spark discussion and contribute to change.
Despite this, I’m not surprised that this issue was avoided. Before George Floyd, avoiding discussions of racism within the Muslim community has long been the norm. Muslims in my generation will often use the excuse that it is futile to address these issues with their parents, and often say, “Yeah, but this will of course change with the next generation.” The truth is that racism will continue to linger in these communities unless we address it full on. If we do not act now, the same oppressive forces that ultimately led to the death of George Floyd will lead to further destruction and division of our communities.
AK Agunbiade is a comedian, writer, and emergency Medicine Physician based in LA. He tweets serious and silly things @TheAKagunbiade.