Actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, aka Riz MC, has shared an essay titled Typecast as a Terrorist on The Guardian. The piece is taken from The Good Immigrant, a new anthology of essays by British writers of color collated and edited by author Nikesh Shukla.
Ahmed writes passionately and personally about his interlinked experiences of auditions and airports; both performing roles as an actor, and performing cultural identities as a second generation immigrant. He details his personal experiences of being interrogated and detained at airports after 9/11, and his professional experience of trying to dodge stereotypical, typecast roles in the same period. Throughout, he shines a spotlight on the arbitrary yet dangerous nature of labels attached to him by others.
As children in the 1980s, when my brother and I were stopped near our home by a skinhead who decided to put a knife to my brother’s throat, we were black. A decade later, the knife to my throat was held by another “Paki”, a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990s. The next time I found myself as helplessly cornered, it was in a windowless room at Luton airport. My arm was in a painful wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers. It was “post 9/11”, and I was now labelled a Muslim.
As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.
Towards the end of the essay, Ahmed reflects on his now privileged position as both a respected, non-typecast actor and someone with a U.S. visa, but notes that his story is an exceptional one.
Now, both at auditions and airports, I find myself on the right side of the same velvet rope by which I was once clothes-lined. But this isn’t a success story. I see most of my fellow Malkoviches still arched back, spines bent to snapping as they try to limbo under that rope. These days it’s likely that no one resembles me in the waiting room for an acting audition, and the same is true of everyone being waved through with me at US immigration. In both spaces, my exception proves the rule.