The only caveat given by Azhar Usman on Tuesday evening was that those who were easily offended should simply “deal with it.”
Usman, who was listed as one of the world’s “500 Most Influential Muslims” by Georgetown University in 2009, is a stand-up comedian from Chicago who was born to Indian immigrant parents. He performed a comedy sketch titled “ULTRA-AMERICAN: A Patriot Act” to a group of over 150 community members in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Though comedy throughout the evening included quips about the Yale community’s elite reputation, a call from “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj and frequent interaction with audience members, the talk — which event organizer and Yale professor Zareena Grewal described as “obliterating the notion of a post-race America” — emphasized an honest approach to race.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody; that is not my motivation,” Usman said during a Q&A with the audience after the show. “I am convinced that … if you are really a culture maker, if you are really trying to make art, then the intentionality of the art is front and center. I have discovered doing stand-up for 15 years now an experiential certainty that audiences can … pick up on the intentionality of the comic.”
Midway through the performance, Usman encouraged attendees to look around the room at their peers, noting that America is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world. But, he added, it is also one of the most racist countries on Earth, and he called the nation a “paradox.” He then quipped that because he is an American, he is a racist, joking that Americans sort everyone into five “buckets”: white, black, brown, Mexican and “slanty-eyed Asian” — a bit that was greeted with laughter from the crowd. Unless one takes the time to get to know an individual’s ethnic backstory, everyone is a racist, Usman said.
During a bit in which he joked that the white civil rights movement possesses a “secret racism,” he referred to black people by a derogatory term. The worst part, he said, was that most in the room were made more uncomfortable by the word itself than by the racist realities the word represents.
“Talking about race in the United States is a very messy, complicated conversation, and I have intentionally dumbed it down to make a point,” Usman said. “The only way to not be a racist is to actually really engage with everyone you meet as an individual human and really truly listen to their story and bother to care and really take the time to learn.”
Usman referred to a Chinese curse that states, “May you live in interesting times.” With the rise of technology, candidates such as Donald Trump on the political stage and the “double consciousness” of being black in America — a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe African-Americans’ sense of alienation from their national identity — America is certainly in “the most interesting time,” he said. Usman also took time to address “the elephant in the room, or as [he likes] to call it, the camel in the room,” which was fear of terrorism in a post-9/11 world. He also described the challenge of raising four Muslim American sons, to whom he has made the commitment to be truthful about modern issues.
Usman’s brand of comedy is one that thrives in an intelligent audience, Coordinator of Muslim Life Omer Bajwa said, and students in attendance could have their assumptions challenged in a provocative way. Mujtaba Wani ’17, who attended the talk, said that he appreciated Usman’s ability to combine humor with subtle, truthful rhetoric on everyday racism. He praised Usman’s “five buckets” metaphor as especially pertinent.
“He is voicing a number of concerns, questions and anxieties, not just from the left, but also from the right,” Grewal said. “He is making fun of ‘safe spaces’ as much as he is making fun of bigoted thinking. I think it touched on a lot of those anxiety points, and to me the edge of learning is an uncomfortable place, so I think this was actually a really great educational moment, and it brought in all these really great ideas to grapple with.”
The event was the product of a collaboration between the American Studies Department, the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program, the Asian American Cultural Center, the Institute of Sacred Music and the Public Humanities working group.