• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

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Identities Come With Entanglements but No Fixed Essence

How Gurinder Chadha’s and Sarfraz Manzoor's brilliant film Blinded by the Light teases formulaic models of identity.

November 4, 2019
 
 

There is a scene in Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor’s film Blinded by the Light in which the central character, Javed, a British Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, marches into his high school radio station and demands his own show. It’s the 1980s, and New Wave music -- the Pet Shop Boys, A-ha, New Order -- is everywhere. But treacly lyrics set to drum machines and synthesizers leave Javed cold. He and his friend Roops, a British Sikh from India, want a show where they can play music that expresses their identity.

The white kid with the classic New Wave hairdo who manages the station looks at them suspiciously. What do they mean, they want a show that expresses their identity? Do they plan to play Indian music?

Roops and Javed are insulted. They don’t want to play bhangra. They want to play Springsteen.

It’s a terrific scene in the way it perfectly teases formulaic models of identity.

Consider the setup. Two South Asian males who don’t fit in with the white culture around them say they want a radio show that expresses their identity. What should we think follows from that? What music would we guess they want to play? What music do we want them to want to play?

Part of what Blinded by the Light does brilliantly is show just how many people have a stake in the answer to that question. Javed’s sister, for example, scolds him for listening to Springsteen. Don’t get confused about who you are, she shouts. Her view is clear. If Javed got that high school radio show, he should play music from his homeland, or at least the faith.

Javed’s father, who has recently been laid off from an auto factory in the forever gray city of Luton, has no idea who Bruce Springsteen is. He wants Javed to spend more time at the mosque and more time studying to be a professional in a technical field. But then he has a sudden revelation -- is Springsteen a Jew? Those people are excellent in the technical professions, he declares. If Springsteen is a Jew, then Javed should by all means spend more time in his company.

Note the identity logic model at work. As a working-class teenage Muslim male from Pakistan living in Britain, here is the music you should listen to, the social group you should interact with, the profession you should pursue.

Part of what makes Blinded by the Light a terrific film is because it recognizes that ascribed identities like ethnicity, race and family religion don’t mean nothing, but they don’t mean everything, either. Javed’s life is deeply influenced by being a working-class Muslim of Pakistani heritage. His father’s social life and sense of self revolve around relationships at the mosque, and he wants his son to become enmeshed in these same circles. His mother is subservient in front of guests but unafraid to assert herself on family matters. Javed’s dreams of expressing himself as a writer are dismissed as something working-class people and Pakistani Muslims just don’t do. Writing is for rich white people.

It’s true in the movie that most of the people who encourage Javed’s writing are white people -- a neighbor, a girlfriend, a teacher. But this is not a white savior film. White racism is a prominent presence throughout the movie, and it is portrayed in all its brutality, from the explicit racism of violent National Front rallies, to deeply insulting pranks like white children urinating on the doorstops of homes owned by Pakistani Muslims, to simple dismissals of important religious practices like Javed’s girlfriend’s parents insisting he try alcohol even though she tells them that Muslims like Javed don’t drink.

Javed absorbs all of this, is influenced by each part, but none of it amounts to a fixed script that fully determines Javed’s path. He has agency. He determines what he will learn from and what he will do with these various pieces. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “The fact that identities come without essences does not mean they come without entanglements. And the fact that they need interpreting and negotiating does not mean that each of us can do with them whatever we will.”

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