When Negin Farsad and a small group of fellow Muslim comedians launched a nationwide tour, their goal was to engage American communities in casual interfaith dialogue—by bowling together, eating tacos or holding up signs with the invitation to “Hug a Muslim.” The idea, Farsad said at the George Washington University last Wednesday, was to “fight Islamophobia through a whole lot of fun.” They called the tour, which later became a movie, “The Muslims Are Coming!”
Some segments of the American population seemed to read that title as a threat.
“Some people would show up to this show thinking it was, like, a preventative warning lecture on the coming Muslim apocalypse,” Farsad said.
Farsad delivered the keynote address of the George Washington University’s eighth annual Diversity Summit, “Toward a More Perfect Union: With Liberty, Justice & Civility for All.” A comedian, podcast host and author, Farsad is one of the Huffington Post’s 50 Funniest Women and Paper magazine’s 10 Best Female Comedians.
She also is well-credentialed to approach social justice from disruptive angles that few would even attempt. Farsad has a master’s degree in African American studies from Columbia University— “like most comedians,” she joked—and began her career as a policy adviser for the City of New York. When she made the jump to comedy, she brought a strong social consciousness and a unique perspective from her upbringing as the child of Iranian immigrants.
Compared to the institutional dryness of her first career, Farsad said, laughter has often allowed her to connect more directly with auditors and to make her points even more effectively. “I spent a lot of time being straight-laced and boring, and I never had the same kind of connection as I do now,” Farsad said in a Q & A with School of Media and Public Affairs professor Jesse J. Holland after her routine.
“They’ve done actual research on this, which is that your brain remembers [information] more if there's laughs attached,” she continued. “It opens receptors and it kind of gets more into your brain, in a way. For whatever reason, maybe because you're a little happier, you’re more able to hear it.”
In her quest to open minds and build equity, Farsad said, her genuine enjoyment of and interest in other people has been her most powerful tool. She described a visit to a notoriously Islamophobic media outlet from which she and her colleagues requested and were granted an interview during the course of “The Muslims Are Coming.”
“I don't think that we changed anyone's mind while we were there, but I do think it chips away at something when they see you as a person—it makes it harder to get back in that TV station and be like, ‘I hate Muslims,’” she said. “It's really cheesy, but when you approach people with love, you get love in return by and large.”
There are exceptions, some of them terrifying even when related as jokes. Farsad described being chased out of a bare-knuckle boxing match at a state fair in Tennessee by a half-naked man—“He was not wearing a shirt, but he was wearing a bow tie, you know, for the occasion”—waving a stick and screaming Islamophobic slurs.
In retrospect, Farsad said, “the beer cans and the snarling dogs and the dripping blood” might have clued her in to how well the setting would fit with her “really optimistic take on American culture.”
“I took bare-knuckle boxing matches off my list after that,” she said.
But her complicated, clear-sighted optimism about America remains. “I'm unwilling to give up on this country that I think is so phenomenal,” Farsad said.
She credits that refusal partly to her experience as an Iranian American woman. When a group of protesters picketed a performance in Washington state, Farsad saw it less as an expression of small-mindedness than as an opportunity to connect. When it began to rain, she went out to the group and invited them to sit in the lobby—“and then you can come right back out and keep protesting me.”
“I have every right to perform, and they have every right to protest me, and how beautiful is that?” Farsad said. “I come from a country where people do not have those rights. I come from a country that this very conversation is so deeply illegal for a woman to have…so we do have things to be grateful for here.”
Over the three days of the diversity summit, more than 100 presenters held more than 40 educational sessions and workshops on topics across the spectrum of equity at GW and in America—from ableism in academia to the power of protest art. Among many other presentations, professor emeritus of theatre Leslie Jacobsen directed a performance by Street Sense Media’s Theater Workshop in which eight writer-performers shared insights about their experiences with houselessness and the true meaning of home. And students from the GWU Debate and Literary Society hosted a “respectful disagreement,” rather than a debate, on how universities ought to strike a balance between freedom of expression on one hand and the promotion of equity and safety on the other.
The summit also held space for peace. Where challenging emotions arose, participants were encouraged to sit with them and provided resources to do so, including an always-open break room and silent space for processing. School of Engineering and Applied Science alumna and “equity warrior” Tenisha “Ava” Williams, B.S. ’13, returned to campus Thursday to co-host a morning-long experiential workshop in which participants shared their own stories of identity, bias and belonging through guided journaling activities, small group discussions, storytelling and visual arts exercises.
“This year's theme pushes us to consider our individual and collective role in striving toward what we feel may be ‘a more perfect union,’” Associate Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Jordan S. West said in her introduction to Wednesday’s keynote. “The theme requires us to hold up a mirror and be honest about our readiness for a union of people, places and space—what that would mean for disrupting power, white supremacy and more.”