Questions for Artists Rethinking What They’re Making and Why

(Including and not necessarily limited to me)

  • What art do you like?
  • What art do you like when no one’s watching?
  • What art has changed your mind?
  • What art has changed your life?
    • Yes, sitcoms count.
    • Yes, comic books count.
    • Yes, music videos count.
  • Do your answers have anything to do with art you make?
    • Why not?
  • Are you only making art for people exactly like you?
  • Are you only making art for people unlike you, selling them a caricature of your difference?
  • What if you didn’t care what critics think is “quality,” agents think is “marketable,” grants think is “important,” or your artist friends think is “cool?”
    • Of course you care, but just pretend for a second and see what still excites you.
  • Would you rather make art that everyone likes, or art that at some people need?
    • Keep in mind that the former is impossible.
    • Yes, you count as a person.
  • What do you wish existed?
    • Why not make it?
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White Jesus Won’t Save You (On Religion and Attempts at Arab-American ‘Whiteness’)

In 1913, George Dow, a Syrian* immigrant in South Carolina, was trying to convince a court that he’s white, a requirement for citizenship at the time. This wasn’t the first or last case disputing the categorization Arabs within the racial hierarchy of US law, but it’s the one that would make it to the Supreme Court.

So how do you convince white people that you’re white enough? According to that legal history, there’s a few strategies. It sure helps if you’re closer to looking the part, in terms of skin color and features. You need to buy into white supremacy–explaining how you’re too good and too smart to belong to any other racial category. You can dig through the wormholes of “scientific” racial theory to find a version that benefits your ancestors.

You can argue for easy assimilation: that you’ll blend in with white people without rocking the boat too much. Most of these people were Syrian/Lebanese* Christians, and didn’t hesitate to highlight their Christianity fact for white points.

And then there’s the White Jesus card.

As the argument goes, Jesus–who presumably must be a white man–was from the same region as George Dow. Therefore Dow must be granted legal whiteness to protect Jesus’ precious white image. (To argue whether or not Jesus was actually was white isn’t quite the point here. American whiteness is a social and legal construct with borders that could be redrawn specifically to include Jesus, maintaining the links between American nationalism, whiteness, and Christianity.)

In 1915, after several multiple appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that Syrians* are in fact legally white. Of course, that “white” status would be up for legal debate and social skepticism for years to come.

Screen Shot 2018-07-21 at 11.06.12 PM

A slice of the deeply consequential nonsense. Compiled by Ian Haney Lopez


In 2002, Nadia Khayrallah, a seven-year-old first-generation Lebanese-American* in North Carolina, had no clue what box to check the on the demographics page of a standardized test. “Um, why don’t you just check the ‘Other’ box,” the proctor stammered, eying me uncomfortably. “That’s probably what it’s for.” Little did I know, the “White” box was technically mine to check, if not socially mine to inhabit.

But I hoped I could white-pass if I just tried hard enough to fit into that box. I dropped any interest in speaking Arabic. I kind of resented my parents’ accents and the way they packed me hummus for lunch about five years before it became ‘cool.’ I dreamed of marriage only because it could involve changing my name.

I must have mostly white-failed, because people still had questions–lines of questions that might start with “Where are you from?” and lead down to either “Are you a terrorist?” or “Are you a lesbian?” (both of which sounded equally scary at the time–at least I felt fairly certain that I wasn’t a terrorist).

And then there were the raised eyebrows asking if I goes to church or . . . something.

(My deal wasn’t quite what they were thinking. My family includes both Christians and Muslims, but I wasn’t aware of the significance of that distinction. By Lebanese law, I was in fact a card-carrying Christian, but I had no reason to know that given my non-religious upbringing.)

The entire concept of religion was a little opaque to me, but I had picked up enough sociopolitical common sense to know this: if churchy people suspect you’re a Muslim, outing yourself as an Atheist won’t do you any favors.

So I did the thing I do quite poorly: I lied. I made up a church to pretend I went to. Given how little I knew about churches, and how bad I am at lying, I doubt that I was very convincing. But still, like George Dow, I knew to call upon Jesus to save me from racial otherness.


But oh how naive to think that White Jesus would make us pure in the eyes of white supremacy. If only we knew how tenuous that salvation would be.

A few years ago, I heard about an Orthodox Christian church near my parent’s current house in California that was burned down after 9/11, allegedly because the congregation was largely Arab.

“But…it’s literally a church,” my mom remarked in confusion. “People who commit hate crimes aren’t known for precision,” I responded.

Indeed, race and religion are still knotted together in our bloody cultural fabric. While Muslims are particularly targeted, anyone considered vaguely Muslim-adjacent can feel the blow of Islamophobia.

Some Arab Christians hope to escape by insisting that they’re different and not like the other ones.  Yet even if you choose self-interest over solidarity, the broad strokes will sometimes hit you too. Jesus, not even White Jesus, can save you from that.


*Note about nationality labels: Because borders are imaginary lines that were fiddled with in the early 20th century, the distinction between between Syrian and Lebanese people gets fuzzy and anachronistic real fast. For simplicity, I’m calling people by their most immediate nationality as it would be described at the time.

Things I Love About Being Queer

Being queer can involve struggle, fear, and discrimination. This is not a post about that. Because some things are really awesome too. Here are some of my faves right now:

Relationships models outside of a (failing) hetero script

M/F relationships come loaded with a set of cultural defaults of who does what in initiating dates, finances, sex, housework, emotional labor, big/little spoon positioning, etc. Turns out this doesn’t always reflect the needs and desires of the individuals involved (for example, it usually leaves women sexually unsatisfied, and men emotionally repressed).

Fortunately, in gender pairings where this script doesn’t apply, you have to collectively build your own script by understanding, explicitly communicating, and negotiating your desires. These are great relationship skills to have, regardless of gender or orientation.

(For background, I’m bi, most of the people I’m attracted to are women or non-binary people, and my previous relationships have been with women. It’s not out of the question that I would date a dude, but because of the expectations I’ve developed, I don’t have much patience for some of the gendered expectations that many straight men bring to relationships. Thank god.)

Queer friendship

Not all meaningful queer relationships are romantic/sexual. There’s something wonderfully affirming in having a squad of LGBT-identifying peeps there to understand, validate, and fight for you, as you do for them.

Better media consumption

So I was reading Autostraddle, appreciating the gently subversive commentary, quirky ingroup humor, and supportive comment section–and I thought, “Wow, thank god I’m not straight–I would probably be reading Cosmo right now.”

As a queer person, you are usually not the target audience for most mainstream TV, movies, news, magazines, art, music, and fashion (perhaps more of a niche side-group to be pandered to on special occasions).

But on average, I think the media that is made by and for us is much more thoughtful, creative, interesting, and…better. Stories that don’t assume one type of happy ending or path to getting there. Advice columns that don’t idealize one relationship model. Fashion that doesn’t center around one beauty ideal per gender. Nuanced personal narratives that aren’t forced into a simpler and more comprehensible for cis/het consumption. You kind of have to find this stuff yourself, but damn, it’s worth it.

Getting to be the representation you want to see

It sucks if you didn’t get to see yourself reflected in mainstream entertainment, literature, and news growing up. (This remains true particularly for QPOC and other people at the intersection of identities.)

But the cool flip side of this is that you get to be that representation for other people. In whatever capacity you are publicly visible, you showing babyqueers a possible future that they might not have seen before.

I’ve had some moments particular where I realized just how true this was: A 13-year-olds at a dance intensive I was working at felt comfortable talking to me about questioning his sexuality; A blog reader told me that my goofball bi visibility post seriously helped her feel valid in her sexuality;  I’ve gotten some messages on social media from people who were excited to see some form of representation they were missing, whether queer female dancers or queer Arab people.

Now I’m obviously not a celebrity and my online presence isn’t particularly designed to be inspirational, but the awesome truth is that just by living your life openly and unapologetically, you can give other people license to do the same.

Questioning 

Adopting a LGBTQ identity generally involves a period of questioning. For some people, that questioning starts and ends with figuring out what there own gender or sexuality is. For those willing to expand their minds and hearts a little, it can be a door into questioning the cis/heteronormative systems of the society they were raised in, and questioning other systems of oppression that might not personally affect them. For example:

  • When I accepted that queer sexuality was okay, it only made sense to question other sexual norms I had encountered, from slut-shaming and victim-blaming, to kink-shaming and sex-worker exclusion.
  • For me, coming to terms with my sexual in-betweenness helped me better understand my racial in-betweenness and how concepts of conditional passing, erasure, and choices in identification play into both. For some of my white queer friends, accepting their queerness was their first experience with being the Other, and they used it to become more empathetic and motivated allies to POC.
  • Because I’ve had to validate and explain my sexuality to those who refuse to see it, I’ve developed better empathy and allyship for those who are forced to justify their gender identity or non-visible disability.
  • While I’m in a place where I feel relatively comfortable and safe in my queer identity, I feel a sense of solidarity with those who don’t have that privilege, nationally and internationally. I am navigating how to support these movements, while knowing that they are not mine to lead.

I don’t see “Questioning” as a transitional phase, but rather as a mindset that I hope to keep with me as I learn and evolve.

For Boys in Glitter

This one’s for the femmeboys. The flaming softboys and the fearless sissies. The boys in glitter and nail polish and neon pink. The boys at dance camp who I let try on my pointe shoes, just for shits and giggles. The men who showed me how to tear up a dance floor in heels like its a job. The pop stars with full makeup and raging falsettos.

You offered the first form of queerness made undeniably visible to me, and I latched on without quite knowing why. No, it wasn’t a desire for a “Gay Best Friend” accessory that drew me in, but a deeper, vaguer sense that we somehow belonged in the same category.

And as we stumbled through adolecence together, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be with you or be you. (Like with the cool girls with half-shaved heads, leather jackets, and poetry blogs, it was probably some of both.)

As a babyqueer girl who would never feel at home with ‘butch’ or ‘femme,’ something told me that the sissy boys were my gender cohort.

I’ve often heard from butch women and female-assigned trans people that wearing dresses and makeup felt like drag. And I’ve felt that too–but in a good way. See, I considered drag fun: a way to be excessive and expressive and play outside the boundaries of who you are. (The only problem comes when people don’t seem to want to see me out of that costume.)

If some butches found their parallels in bros who would never be caught dead in a dress, I found mine in the bold give-no-fucks girly boys (who usually lived in patterned buttoned-downs–but actually might be caught dead in a dress). Beyond the style inspiration, I saw a form of femininity that could be part of me–a queer femininity that wasn’t passive or dainty, but aggressive, flamboyant, and subversive.

And then there were my occasional boy-crushes–generally falling into that same type. They seemed safely unrequitable–like all those straight girl crushes. (In reality, some were not as unrequitable as I had assumed–like some of those “straight” girl crushes). But in my head, they were a purely hypothetical illumination of my desires, without the more daunting possibility of action.

With my femmeboy crushes, I realized it wasn’t men per say that contradicted my tastes, but rather the stale normative masculinity that most of them came wrapped in. I came to own the nuances of my desires and understand how my sexuality might be made to function in a less staunchly gendered sphere.

So thank you, all the fabulous femme-leaning men who have rolled through my life. We’ve found our own places in the world and they’re not quite the same, but in seeing you be unapologetically you, I found some seeds I needed to be me.

“Labor of Love”

On the Dance NYC Junior Committee blog, I’ve shared some of my thoughts on the use of the phrase “labor of love,” in preparation for our Long Table discussion next Tuesday on labor, artistic love, and monetary and social value in the dance field. Read the full post here, and check the blog for more JComm member’s thoughts!

“Labor of love” is a phrase brought up to justify not paying artists, with the assumption that we are so eager to practice and perform our craft for its own sake, we will be willing to do it for free. (In regard to myself, I can’t say this isn’t true.)

“Labor of love” is how I justified to my parents my desire to pursue a highly underpaid and unstable career in dance. They asked how health insurance fit into that. I didn’t know.

Throughout high school and college, I was told by some (overwhelmingly kind and supportive) teachers and advisors that “the most important thing in life is to do what you love.” In a sense, I am following that advice, but the reality is that not everyone has the privilege to view work as more than a means of survival. When we treat the choice to pursue our passions as a morally superior one, we can develop a disregard for work done “only” for money and the people who do it. (In other words, “labor of love” won’t really help you pay your rent, but it can help you feel superior to the people living next to you.)

Believing in the moral purity of “labor of love” means dismissing those lucky enough to get significantly payed for their art as “sellouts.” (I wouldn’t mind selling out one day.)

In addition to art, I have heard the term “labor of love” used to refer to to social justice-oriented work and childrearing.

A “labor of love” is usually supported by a labor of money (either yours or someone else’s).

On “President”

This is a post about President. Not about any particular individual occupying a particular presidential office, but about President, the idea and aspiration. The thing you once thought you might be one day (at least if you were lucky enough to ever be told you should dream so big–or at least before you learned you shouldn’t).

The first presidential election I remember was Bush v Gore 2000. I got a Kids Voting ballot with pictures of all the candidates, and awarded each of my empty votes to whichever guy I thought had the better headshot. Sometimes it was hard because they kind of looked the same. For the record, I voted for Gore. (In retrospect, I stand by my decision but not my reasons.)

I asked my mom if girls were allowed to be presidents. I learned that they were, but none of them had yet. Like many ambitious little girls first hearing this news, I was less concerned with why this was the case than I was with beating out any other ambitious girls to the “first” spot. (In retrospect, I realize that being the first anything is terribly overrated if you’re the only.)

The people counting the votes needed extra time, my parents informed me, as they watched the news with anticipation. I thought that made sense, because counting that high must be really hard. I later heard that that the guy who got the most votes didn’t get to be president. I thought that might kind of be nice for him, because now he could brag about winning without having to be in charge of everyone. (In retrospect, he sure did.)

Being president sounded like a lot of pressure–people always seemed angry at presidents–so I thought I might aim for vice president instead. I checked that no girls had been vice president either, so I could still be first at something. Thinking realistically, I decided that I would start my career being vice president of small countries, then incrementally work my way up to bigger ones. (In retrospect, that plan could have used some refinement.)

At my neighbor’s birthday party that week, his know-it-all older brother offered a piece of candy to whoever could answer the question “Who was the first president?” He proceeded to inform that me and the three other people who blurted out “George Washington” that we were wrong–George was the first president of the US, but not the world. He didn’t know the name of the actual first president, but insisted that it was someone else. (In retrospect, maybe he didn’t know it all.)

(Today I Googled “first president in the world. The ambiguous definition of “president” across languages and systems of government leaves no clear answer. Possibly Filippo Antonio Pasquale di Paoli, President of the Corsican Republic in 1755. His republic didn’t work out, but at least he was first at something.)

My mom told me that I couldn’t be president of Lebanon because I wasn’t the right religion. I wasn’t quite sure what religion I was, but “Deputy Speaker of Parliament” sounded less cool, so I immediately became a firm opponent of sectarianism. (In retrospect, I had a point, but Deputy Speakers of Parliament can also be cool.)

The next election season, I learned about write-in candidates. I asked my parents if they would vote for me, and was kind of offended that they said no. Unfortunately, they had other plans for positions like “mayor” and “senator,” but eventually agreed to write me in for soil commissioner. (In retrospect, I apologize for trivializing the soil commissioner race. Soil commissioners are as important as presidents.)

(What kind of person would want to be a president anyway?)

Just Ribbing

Did he think of it as birthing or purging when he tore me out of himself? It was hard to tell.

No sooner did he fixate on what he loved in me–the beauty, the softness, the fragility–than did he gag at reminder that it had once been a part of him. Then he sighed in relief that it was all now apart from him. As if he didn’t have more ribs where those came from. As if we weren’t made of the same bones.

And I thought: what a self-loathing creature to draw such a wall between what he loves and what he hopes to be.

But maybe that moment of shock was when he became determined to see no reflection of himself in whatever came out of him. His colorful musings were Pure Reason. His sappy tunes and poetry, Straight from God. 

Of course, anyone else could see otherwise, but I didn’t have the ribs to break it to him. Yet. When it came to the baby, though, we had to talk.