Riz Ahmed Preeti Chhibber Swapna Krishna

Brown bodies in white spaces: On meeting Riz Ahmed

Contributed by
May 4, 2017

The funny thing about writing about race is that my instinct is to always start off with an apology. Sorry, I'll think, imagining readers clicking on the piece, sorry I'm going to make you uncomfortable.

I grew up in the '80s and '90s, the height of "color blindness" — the thought that we should all agree not to pay attention to what color anyone was. "You could be yellow, red, white, blue, green, who cares?" was a common refrain. This led to an entire generation of kids being taught that their skin color was better off being invisible … that to recognize our differences meant we were being divisive.

But, it's an easy thing to be colorblind when all you see is your color. And it's a very difficult thing to be when it seems like no one is really ignoring your skin color. Try being a brown kid in the south during the Disney Renaissance.

"I want to be Ariel!"

"You don't look like Ariel, you can be Flounder or Sebastian." Thanks.

Color blindness didn't mean that we were all suddenly equal, it just meant we couldn't talk about the easily recognizable reasons implicating why we were not.

To this day, I have to cut back that instinct to apologize for talking about race. And so I won't apologize for how uncomfortable this might get. For many people of color, the issue of our skin color never goes away. It's always there, lurking. Especially when surrounded by whiteness. The feeling of being a brown body in a predominately white space is not one that I can get used to, no matter how often I experience it.

So. On to the matter at hand.

I attended Star Wars Celebration last month and it was awesome. It was also very, very white. There were definitely people of color, but … as a whole, it was a very white show. I made jokes, because that's what awkward people do when they (we) are uncomfortable.

Let's rewind for a minute and go back to the last time I dressed up as a fictional character for Halloween. I went as Zorro. It was just before I became fully aware of the fact that my skin color was different. That my skin color meant I didn't look enough like any of the characters in the cartoons or movies I watched to be them. Too dark, too brown, too ethnic — whatever you wanted to call it. At the time, it was just this vague understanding that I couldn't dress as those characters. Just because.

This meant, despite being a lifelong Star Wars fan — literally, I cannot remember the first time I saw it, it's just always be there — I didn't grow up dressing as Leia or later, Padme. Star Wars has always been very, very white. Yes, there was Lando Calrissian. Let me take a moment to pause here to recognize how ludicrous it is that it feels like I'm speaking for all-people-of-color here. I'm not. But representation is still so rudimentary in terms of how it's happening … it basically follows the woman-to-men-Saturday-morning-cartoon-ratio of 1:6, so people of color can often find themselves enthusiastically supporting literally any departure from whiteness. ... There was Lando in The Empire Strikes Back. Lando had lines, Lando was cool, Lando was a hero. That was amazing.

Then the prequels came out and we got Mace Windu! There was also a pretty big moment of excitement in the Indian community when we realized that actress Ayesha Dharker played the Queen of Naboo after Padme, although she was a blink-and-miss-it role in terms of Star Wars. But we were so starved that that was thrilling. That was in 2002's Attack of the Clones. Clones was 25 years into the franchise.

I waited another 14 to see someone who actually looked like me in lead role in a Star Wars movie. In 2016, Rogue One came out. Riz Ahmed, a British-born actor of Pakistani-descent played a lead role in the ensemble, pilot Bodhi Rook. I looked on screen and that could have been my brother. And he was playing a hero. Not a servant, not a silent extra, he wasn't erased, his skin wasn't covered in face paint. He was the one who said the name of the movie in the movie! He was living proof that brown faces belonged in our most fantastical of stories. We shouldn't be relegated to only playing taxi drivers or asexual nerds or terrorists or gas station attendants. That we belonged in all genres.

When photo op tickets became available for Star Wars Celebration, my fellow desi Star Wars nerd Swapna Krishna and I decided we had to get Riz tickets. He was the first and easiest decision we made.

The convention started on a Thursday, our photo with Riz was scheduled for Friday. That first day, the first moment walking into the hall full of lines, the lack of color was immediately noticeable. The minute that awareness hits, of how few of you there are in a space, anxiety follows. It's almost like a survival tactic, that anxiety and awareness allows you to be ready just in case anything happens. I can't say what that anything might be — maybe a micro-aggression about brown girls, maybe outright anger at anyone who looks vaguely middle-eastern, it's always a toss-up. Especially when in the months leading up to this convention, people who looked like me were being shot for their skin color and ethnicity.

My instinct is bubbling up again, telling me I should stop here and put in a paragraph insisting that I know this is not all white people. Rationally, I know the odds were much more likely that everything would go fine because most people are decent, and Star Wars fans can be the most lovely and welcoming people on the planet.

Except for the ones who hated that Finn was black, that Poe was Latino, that Rey was a woman.

I'm trying to get across what it means to love a thing that has never represented you and then suddenly does. What it means to love a thing that is surrounded by a group that has historically considered you less-than and is only very recently learning in small ways that that is not true.

On Friday, we got into line for Riz. We were the only desi people there. Through a random sequence of conversations leading up to the convention, I'd found out that Riz and I knew a few of the same people. I was wondering whether or not to mention this to him while we waited. The staff were pulling lines in and shuffling people through and we heard the shouts of the photographer as she readied her subjects and then pushed them along. We were giddy with anticipation. We made it to the front of the line and a volunteer with dyed silver hair put her hand in front of me. Riz was standing a few feet away in a white tee, jeans and a jacket looking not unlike any one of the South Asian boys with whom I'd grown up. Familiar in a very weird way.

She waved us through.

"Funny story," I started, "We have friends in common."

"I'm sure we do," Riz grinned, "We're probably related."

We took the picture, shook his hand, thanked him, and went to pick up our print. When it came out, Swapna and I started laughing. Riz in the middle, with his arms around us … it looked like a photo booth shot from a cousin's wedding.

Our interaction with Riz lasted maybe five seconds. There wasn't time for any deep or meaningful conversation. But all the same, it feels like something has shifted permanently in my relationship to my favorite fandom. A tiny bit of anxiety chipped away. Star Wars was something I watched for a long time, but now it's something I belong in. And everyone knows it.