There is a scene in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None that has been stuck in my mind since the day I watched it. It opens with the main character, Dev, as a young child, playing on the brand-new computer his father, an Indian immigrant, bought for him. Then, the scene shifts to the present. When his father asks for help with the iPad, a now grown-up Dev says, “I’m not your personal computer guy!”
There’s nothing particularly special about this scene. I didn’t cry when I first watched it. It’s not a perfect parallel of my life. In fact, I’m not even Indian.
And yet, this scene—and that episode, aptly titled “Parents”—was the first time I saw my truth on an American television screen. It was the first time a character who looked like me was portrayed as more than a South Asian stereotype. It was the first time someone had managed to capture that beautiful and painful complexity of immigrant life that defines my identity. It was the first time I found home, belonging, and understanding in a piece of fiction.
This was two years ago. I was sixteen years old, and it was the first time I felt represented by American media. (Take a minute and let that sink in.)
This week, I experienced a similar feeling.
The event? The Oscars. The problem? I was in meetings until 10:30, so I couldn’t watch. The time? 8:49 pm. The occasion? A text from my Muslim roommate: “MAHERSHALA WON!!!!!!”
That’s right, six exclamation points. To be fair, my response, sent a minute later, was: “IM SCREMAIFH”, so I really shouldn’t be talking.
My roommate and I had spent the last month anticipating the win, which has now cemented Mahershala Ali, to whom my roommate was referring in her text, in history as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. After I got back to my dorm, I dropped onto her bed. We were united in excitement once again when the acceptance speech for “White Helmets” quoted a verse of the Quran. And later that night, as I caught up, I reveled in the protest of Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker who won his second Oscar, even while he refused to attend the ceremony in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s immigration ban—known to many as a “Muslim ban.”
By the end of the night, I was overwhelmed by all the good news. After last year’s #OscarsSoWhite debacle, and after months of the daily worry that has become normal for Muslims living during the Trump administration, it was gratifying to see the power of Muslims, either on or off the Oscar stage.
The fact is that representation matters. Diversity in art allows us to celebrate our experiences and explore our identities in a way that nothing else can. In a space as whitewashed as Hollywood, the presence of minority actors and celebrities humanizes and inspires us. And since the Oscars are universally recognized as the gold standard in entertainment achievement, they play a crucial role in furthering the goal of creating nuanced, diverse art that reflects the full complexity of the human experience.
Of course, it’s not like Muslims aren’t represented in media. We definitely are—Muslim actors get to pick from a whole variety of complex roles, like Terrorist 1 or Terrorist 2. The verses of the Quran are often butchered out of context on Fox News. And Muslims are given space to talk about Islam on prime time, as long as they are ex-Muslims spewing Islamophobic rhetoric.
So to see Ali, a man who is Muslim and African American, who has navigated Hollywood wearing both of those identities proudly, who has publicly acknowledged his personal experiences with Islam, win an Oscar matters. And to see Farhadi, an Iranian citizen who creates work that reflects the nuances of his people, who is protesting the injustice of the current political regime, win an Oscar also matters.
It’s rare enough for Muslims to publicly exist in Hollywood, but what happened at the Oscars is even rarer. Muslims didn’t just exist on Hollywood’s biggest stage—they took up space. Farhadi took up symbolic space when he refused to show up at all, and Ali took up literal space when he received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to a standing ovation. This taking up of space, especially under an administration that has refused to condemn and even promoted Islamophobia, is important and it is brave.
Resistance is harder for people like Farhadi and Ali, whose very career is dependent on walking a careful line between existence and self-politicization. It is hard to navigate this line when their personal identities are seen as an act of triumph in the face of oppression. But they do it anyway—by the art they create, which challenges societal stereotypes and reveals personal truths, and by the words they say publicly. For me, and for millions of Muslims, this resistance instills a sense of hope and a sense of pride.
Hope, because in this post-9/11 era, we’ve been pushed into a corner here at home and we’ve watched as atrocities are committed against our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. Hope, because we’ve survived it. And pride, because we’ve overcome it. Pride, because we are taking up space and demanding attention with our excellence. Pride, because we represent many different nationalities and races, and we cannot be ignored.
I am aware that this one night will not fix Islamophobia. Muslims know how entrenched these problems are, and we know that the fight is only starting. I’m also aware that it wasn’t a perfect show by any means. Racism and sexism remain deeply entrenched in Hollywood, and the Oscars still reflected that: whether through Casey Affleck being named Best Actor despite multiple sexual assault allegations, Jimmy Kimmel’s inappropriate jokes about Ali’s name, or the fact that Dev Patel was only the third Indian person ever (ever) to be nominated for an Oscar.
But the power displayed by Ali and Farhadi is no small feat. It’s the culmination of years of hard work, and we should celebrate the perseverance and the strength of these artists. We should celebrate the perseverance and the strength of our community, because in the years to come, this visibility and this power will only grow. And maybe one day, seeing myself in a television show or watching fellow Muslims win the highest of honors won’t be surprising at all.