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Stop Playing Terrorists — And Other Ways For Brown (And White) Actors To Be A Part Of The Solution

flickr/Kirill Proskurin

Our choices as storytellers are having real-world effects, so we need to be smarter about the types of stories we help to tell.

I’ve been an actor in Los Angeles for over 15 years, and have over 100 credits to my name. I moved here in 2012 — and one of the first parts I played was literally a 9/11 terrorist.

When I started acting, I auditioned for and would have accepted any role Hollywood would give me the chance at. Not only was I desperate for credits (and a paycheck), but I felt that stereotypical or one-dimensional roles would pave the way to a larger cultural tapestry in which I and other Middle Eastern actors could play more complex and interesting characters. My thinking on this has changed as the world has changed. I now believe that when actors have the privilege to be able to refuse a job, as I am fortunate enough to have now, there are instances in which we should vocally exercise that privilege.

If you ever say “it’s just TV” or “it’s just a movie,” you are wrong. Every story shapes the person who watches that story. Three-quarters of white Americans have ZERO non-white friends, which means that their entire understanding of people of color comes from the media. So, until all those white people get some friends with more melanin, actors have a very important responsibility: For better or for worse, we will be teaching them, via the stories we tell, what people of color are like.

Three-quarters of white Americans have ZERO non-white friends. Click To Tweet

But there’s more. The stories we tell, and the lessons we teach, are not limited to ones of representation. It’s not just about simple questions like “Are all Muslims terrorists?” or “Are all Black people gang members?” We are also teaching larger cultural lessons, helping people answer complicated questions like “Are police trustworthy?” and “Is not-taking-no-for-an-answer a cool way to meet women?” These are questions that all actors can help answer, brown, black, and white alike.

Absent real life experience, people form opinions about the world based in part on what they see on TV and in movies. And when what they see is inaccurate, their opinions can lead to pernicious and harmful belief systems. Consider these connections, among many:

*A study by non-profit civil rights advocacy group Color of Change and Family Story found that “the media overwhelmingly depicted black families as poor and dependent on welfare, black fathers as absent, and consistently overhyped the link between black families and criminality. However, when it comes to white families, the picture painted is often of social stability.”

White Americans, including our president, overestimate the percentage of Black people that are on public assistance, and end up being more likely to oppose it. Further, most Americans think black people are dangerous (in turn making black people more likely to be shot, including by police).

*Shows and movies such as 24, Scandal, Person of Interest, and Taken “ use torture as a plot point in episodes designed to entertain,” as the International Business Times put it.

Many Americans, including our president, believe that torture is an effective and productive method of obtaining information, despite there being no conclusive evidence to support this.

*A meta-study published by researchers from UC Davis and the University of Vienna found that in the media, “Muslims tend to be negatively framed, while Islam is dominantly portrayed as a violent religion.”

In a December 2016 Pew survey, 41% of Americans said Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, despite the fact that Muslim societies are among the least violent in the world.

When people hear “Islamic,” I’d venture to guess that a large number of Americans, including our president, immediately think “terrorist.” Heck, it’s one of the first things I think, and my grandmother is Muslim. How twisted is that?

White Filmmakers Must Ask: Do We Need More Movies About White People?

Our elected leaders, from Trump on down — and with the support of millions of Americans — are making fewer decisions based on evidence, and more decisions based on ignorance and (literally) what they see in the media. There is a straight line connecting the one-dimensional, ignorant stories we tell, to a host of threats against human rights, including Muslim bans, mass deportations, mass incarceration, and suspending the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community.

Actors, this means our job as storytellers is more important than ever. Our choices as storytellers are having real-world effects, so we need to be smarter and more discriminating about the types of stories we help to tell. One of the very few things actors can control in this industry is the decision to participate in a project or not. So before you accept your next job, ask yourself what kind of lessons are taught by the story you’re going to be telling.

Our job as storytellers is more important than ever. Click To Tweet

To help you, here are some sample questions:

Are all the Muslims in this story terrorists? No? Oh, good. Are all the non-terrorist Muslims fighting the terrorists? Like, are there two types of Muslims — the terrorists, and the terrorist-fighters? Yes? Well, what story do you think that tells? Does it tell the story that every Muslim is engaged in terrorism somehow? Do you think that’s accurate? It’s not. Imagine if almost every time you saw a white guy in a movie, he was either a school shooter or a member of a SWAT team. Wouldn’t you naturally be scared of any white guy not wearing a SWAT vest?

In fact, contrary to the prevailing narrative in the media, relative to the billions of Muslims and other Middle Eastern people, the number of actual terrorists is miniscule. Most Muslims, most Middle Easterners, are just regular people going about their day, in a variety of jobs, from doctor to garbage collector to cabdriver to drug dealer to actor. But when this is not reflected in our media, and when people don’t know any real life Muslims, they form an inextricable link in their head between Islam and terrorism. And that is how you get a president who campaigns on, and then attempts to institute, a Muslim Ban.

Making Room For Diverse Voices With The Duplass Brothers

Look, I have no idea if The 15:17 to Paris or 12 Strong are good movies. There are a slew of talented people involved with both, so I suspect they are. But does our country need more stories about terrorists right now? Do these stories ultimately engender understanding and compassion, or will they just lead us to hate and fear the Muslim guy across the street?

That was an easy one to figure out. Here’s a harder one:

Let’s say the story takes place in the world of politics or the military. Who is the president in this story? Is it Trump? If so, does the fact that Trump is trash have any effect on the story? If it’s not Trump, what does the story tell the viewer about the President? About the presidency? If the president is never mentioned, is it implied that the story takes place in a world where the president is honorable, or corrupt? I once auditioned for a TV show about a counter-terrorism unit. The president was never mentioned, except for once late in the first episode, when someone says “we got the OK directly from the president.” They wrote the script while Obama was in office, likely expected Hillary to win, but now we have Trump. That line of dialogue does not exist in a vacuum, and neither can our choice to work on that show. Had I been offered that role, we’d have had to discuss just what it means to the characters to “get an OK from the president.”

Does our country need more stories about terrorists right now? Click To Tweet

Or how about this:

Are any of the cops or prosecutors in this story aware that the justice system is, to put it mildly, less just to people of color than it is to white people? Would it be realistic for them to not deal with this in any way? Do you feel like that is a fact that is being ignored or at the very least under-discussed in our society?

The point is, every project you participate in becomes a part of our national conversation. Of course, it’s impractical to only participate in stories that are completely realistic, and in which every single demographic group is represented in appropriate proportions. Every story has people who are good and bad, and to different degrees. And a story in which every character is honorable and infallible would likely be very boring. But before you accept your next job, if you can, place it in the context of our national dialogue. And ask yourself if participating in it will do more harm than good. And if it will do harm, think about using one of the very few powers you have in this town — say no. And better yet, tell them why.

Of course, your decision to not participate in a project will rarely result in the project not getting made. That story will likely still get told, with or without you. But if you turn down the part, the producers will have to go with their second or third or eighth choice for the part, which might force them to reexamine — if only for a moment — the story they are telling.

You may lose a job, but at the very least, you will know you refused to be a part of the problem, and tried to be part of the solution.