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Privilege Olympics on Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act?

Written by: Masuma Ali

Edited by: Jesie Randhawa


Hasan Minhaj is best known for being a comedian and political commentator as well as for his famous Netflix show, ‘The Patriot Act’. On his show, Minhaj explored the contemporary cultural and political terrain with weekly episodes focusing on various current affairs being faced in a polarised world. After releasing six seasons over two years, the show was announced to be cancelled in August this year.

Courtesy of Netflix

Following the attack on the Ellen show for the mistreatment of employees, women of colour spoke out on Twitter about their ill-treatment when working on the Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. Widely renowned for being a progressive American Muslim of Indian origin with immigrant parents providing a refreshing countertake compared to the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political and personal power, it surprises many to see tweets surface about his apparent mistreatment towards colleagues on the set of Patriot Act.

Some Episode Titles of Patriot Act, Courtesy of Netflix

Being the first Muslim talk show in the US media, many find it difficult to believe that such a diverse space would be called out for being a toxic workplace for women of colour. The first to speak out was Pakistan born Nur Ibrahim Nasreen, a former producer on the show. She tweets about feeling ‘humiliated and gaslit, targeted and ignored’ on the show.

Male writer, Wil Kauffman also spoke up and tweeted, ‘While Patriot Act should be celebrated for the underrepresented voice it brought to a blizzard white genre, it should also be condemned. Nur is my brilliant friend who, among other WOC, faced mistreatment while employed by the show. Absolutely no workplace is immune to prejudice’.

There certainly is curiosity surrounding the mistreatment that the tweets refer to, especially as Sheila Kumar, a former producer on the show tweeted, ‘my tolerance for this industry is very, very high. I’ve worked at some difficult places. I’ve never experienced a work environment like the Patriot Act’.

Stacy Lee Kong strongly believes in the tweets from these women; she writes, ‘I’ve worked in media my entire career; I know what it’s like here’. Even though the tweets don’t provide explicit detail and none of the claims have been confirmed or addressed by Minhaj or Netflix, they bring to the forefront many prevalent problems within the social justice and progressive spaces. ‘Progressive media outlets with not-so-progressive labour practices’ have been a recurring theme this year following toxic workplace controversy on many talk shows. Firstly, preaching progressiveness and subscribing to representation does not mean that these spaces cannot be racist internally. ‘Gaslighting, wage theft or racist and sexist microaggressions’ are still experienced within these outlets.

Toronto journalist Pacinthe Mattar writes about her experience of having her professionalism questioned when she suggested stories surrounding race and religion coupled with her bosses claiming she didn’t qualify for a leadership role despite working at the company for a decade.

Earlier this year in June, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Refinery29, Christene Barberich resigned after former employees spoke out on social media about the toxic and racist treatment they experienced at the brand. These examples demonstrate that progressive spaces aren’t automatically immune to inequality and injustice. It is perfectly possible for progressive spaces to preach about empowering minorities but still keep positions of power inaccessible to them. These spaces can advocate anti-racism but still act in ways that endorse pre-existing white ideals. Supposedly safe spaces can still end up promoting ideas and jokes that hold patriarchal notions. This highlights just how entrenched ideas of white supremacy and patriarchy are, in that just rejecting them does not manifest into real progression.

Sangeetha Thanapal writes that her experience of social justice spaces have been similar. As a woman who doesn’t hold pretty or thin privilege, light-skin or class privilege, she finds that social justice activists can easily dismiss her because she doesn’t provide the networking connections that they could nurture their careers with. Strongly relating to the tweets from the women of colour who worked on Patriot Act, she emphasises on the contrast between the exploitation that these women face against the free license to exploit that men like Hasan Minhaj hold. This brings to light how the representation of Minhaj as a coloured person overlooks the sexism he may impose on coloured women. It is extremely difficult for coloured women to find the courage to speak out against coloured men from the same community because it may reflect negatively on the whole race at a time when people of colour want to crush stereotypes with a united front.

This is an argument well articulated by the leading scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw where she delves into the intersectional identities held by women of colour. She argues that as being both women, and of colour within discourses of anti-racism and feminism that often react to each other, women of colour end up being disadvantaged and sidelined in both spheres.

Read our two-part series on Intersectionality here:

Part 1

Part 2

As a result, women of colour can experience further marginalisation due to the inaction of an already disadvantaged group that men like Hasan Minhaj would fall into.

Minhaj hasn’t responded to any of the claims and neither has there been a wider push towards investigating these claims further, especially from ‘Woke Desis’ (South Asian Americans who are well-informed about the social and racial injustices that they face). The lack of public outcry may be because the plight of South Asian women is not as significant as the suffering of the white people that worked under Ellen DeGeneres. Thanapal argues that Woke Desis are very selective with their targeting. Minhaj holds a lot of power and perhaps this correlates with why these claims on Twitter did not receive any traction in Desi magazines on the internet or social media.

The power he holds further iterates Crenshaw’s argument where intersections between race and gender can work to produce representational forms of violence towards women of colour.

Minimal coverage could also be due to the absence of detail provided in the tweets – they lack firm allegations or examples of the mistreatment that occurred. Due to this, many may not believe them and many may feel uncomfortable writing or spreading word about unjustified claims, especially about a person who is so highly revered within South Asian spaces. Nevertheless, the range of tweets that surfaced from many women who worked on the Patriot Act do highlight that there is something unspoken that needs to be addressed. The tweets do display that through action or inaction, Minhaj upheld a toxic work environment.

After all, in the words of Sarah Thankam Mathews:

‘Labour matters, labour is political, if you treat your workers badly but preach progressiveness it’ll catch up to ya’.

On the whole, the tweets certainly contribute to a wider theme of regressive labour practices within progressive channels that have been largely impacting women of colour and women generally.

Kong highlights that we shouldn’t be asking why Minhaj simulated the very dynamics of white spaces that his show was supposed to correct. The answer lies in how deeply rooted the ideas of white supremacy and patriarchy really are – where despite being women, BIPOC, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, we are still predisposed to the bearings of white supremacy and male-dominance.

This presents a strong message for how progressive spaces struggle to implement the beliefs that they outwardly advocate for.

Perhaps this lies in the fact that while we can renounce the ideas of patriarchy and white supremacy on an individual level, it is much harder to manifest that into a wider progressive sphere.

Ultimately, if we don’t actively work to shun it, we will always behave in ways that uphold it, whether it be covertly or overtly.


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