Television made me want to be white. Now, it’s making me happy to be a queer Muslim

PERSONAL ESSAY: Inside one Palestinian American’s journey to self love

If you watch television today you’ll notice a growing sense of diversity in almost every aspect of the industry. From the types of stories being told to the cast of characters inside them, culturally rich perspectives are gaining momentum as the demand for inclusivity grows, creating a vastly different landscape than even a few short years ago—one that is long overdue.

Had this demand come any sooner, or if industry executives realized the problematic consequences of only telling white stories, I wouldn’t have spent my formative years enthralled by whiteness and thinking it was the only way to achieve the happiness I saw on screen. If Hollywood had focused on showing the world as it is, instead of what rich, white old men wanted it to be, I wouldn’t have spent over two decades of my own life wishing I was white.

“This is a plight most first-generation kids know well: being told to appreciate your culture but being more interested in your peers’.”

I am a first-generation Palestinian American, an only child raised in San Francisco by two wonderful Muslim parents. From early childhood, they tried to instill in me a love for my culture, faith and language. I remember them taking me to Arab cultural festivals, pro-Palestinian protests and enrolling me in Arabic school—and I fought them every step of the way. This is a plight most first-generation kids know well: being told to appreciate your culture but being more interested in your peers’. I was stubborn, and I didn’t want to do things that I never saw anyone else at school—or on TV—doing. 

Growing up in the ’90s, I was glued to my screen watching ABC’s TGIF marathons on Fridays,  making sure to not miss my staples like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Full House or Boy Meets World. On other networks, I was enamored with my first crush on the belly button-less Kyle XY, jealous of Rory’s love triangles on Gilmore Girls and introduced to vampire lore with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just like many TV fans at the time, all of my shows were dominated by white actors in white stories with white themes.

Around the time puberty hit, I realized I was different from everyone in my family. As I grew to realize my queerness, I noticed that no one ever talked about being attracted to the same sex. My father even made sounds of disgust at the sight of two men kissing on television and my cousins made fun of the gays in San Francisco whenever they came to visit from the Midwest. A massive gap the size of the Sahara formed between my family and me. I filled it with more television, especially when I started seeing more queer people on screen in ways that contradicted how my conservative family spoke of members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. It was the ’90s, so obviously there weren’t a lot of queer people on TV, but the few that were there and those that slowly came were enough to give me hope for who I was growing up to be. Shows like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk were massive beacons for any queer kid watching, showing that it is possible to live a happy, queer life… if you were white.


Back then, no one seemed to think about the consequences of only hiring white folk to tell their stories. No one batted an eyelash at the predominantly white casts on our screens because every so often they’d have a handful of other races at their disposal, ready to use as a shield whenever someone called them racist. Individual shows had their token Black or Latinx characters, and networks had their singular Black sitcoms. The world was perpetually Black and white, as far as the industry was concerned, and that was good enough until 2001.

When the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 happened, suddenly the industry was forced to reckon with the fact that other nations existed, and our country was at war with one of them. Shows like Law & Order, West Wing and 24 all took time to create stories about the events that happened that year. But it seemed like the only time any of these shows incorporated non-white cultures was to vilify them. So I sat there, watching the white gay people having the time of their lives while any Arab or Muslim character got turned into a villain. I vividly remember asking myself as I sat in front of the TV, watching the credits roll after one of those problematic episodes: Is this who I want to be? Do I want to be the evil Arab, or do I want to be the happy, white queer guy? I chose the latter, because the same industry that made me feel seen as a queer person was actively making me feel shame for being Palestinian.

I immediately felt like my decision was the right one when I started finding communities online that shared my pride in watching queer content. From AOL chatrooms to message boards, the internet was primed with other queer people loving the representation they were getting. It made me feel less alone. As my online activity became a daily habit, my mother got concerned and told me to start using a fake name—the internet was still pretty new then. Naturally, I picked the name of my biggest TV crush: Kyle. As Kyle made friends online, he noticed something. I noticed something. I never ran into any of the same trouble about my culture when I was Kyle as I did when I introduced myself as Tariq. Tariq had to feign a nonchalance about the pronunciation of his name. He avoided saying he was Muslim, and debated whether he wanted to open a political can of worms with a stranger when they ask where he’s from. Kyle, on the other hand, was free to be himself. He didn’t face the same potential judgment or opinions made from racist caricatures. He was able to explore the rainbows and pride of being gay. 

The way everyone interacted with Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims was coloured by what the television industry put onto our screens, and my problem-free experience online as Kyle corroborated that. Online, I was making friends, having long-distance relationships and never had to talk about race. Ever. In person? My friends, and even myself, made bomb jokes, attempting to use comedy to deflect the racism I faced because of the colour of my skin and the Arab-ness of my name. It wasn’t long before the persona I built online made its way offline and I started introducing myself as Kyle in person. I continued to have success avoiding most forms of judgement and mistreatment by merely pretending I was someone I wasn’t. 

“I sought drastic ways to conform to the cultures I grew up watching.”

We’re all aware of the racism Hollywood perpetuates, about the recurring stereotypes that cast us as suicide bombers, terrorists and thieves. What we don’t discuss as much is the lasting psychological effect these problems cause people like me. To everyone else, it was just entertainment. For me, it was a never-ending subliminal message that whiteness was the only way to achieve the happiness I saw on those screens. The white people were the ones accomplishing the impossible. They were the happy families, the smiling gay couples, the magical witches, the ones living happily ever after. Meanwhile, Arabs and Muslims were turned into villains, grouped into the same brackets as extremists and put on no-flight lists because they have Arabic names. Of course I wanted to be white. Of course I ran away from everything that I knew so that I could learn how to be happy as a “raceless” gay man. The alternative was being reminded every day that I was part of a culture that didn’t want anything to do with me because of my queerness, and shunned by my fellow Americans because of what they thought they knew about me.

I sought drastic ways to conform to the cultures I grew up watching. I signed up for experimental eye surgeries that removed the pigment from brown eyes. I bought creams to lighten my skin and avoided the sun. When I found out the eye pigment surgery was a hoax, I started wearing grey contact lenses to lighten them. Anything to become the Kyle of my dreams and not the terrorist from TV’s nightmares. Embarrassingly, this conditioning that came from the decades of watching television lasted until very recently. I only realized the horror of it all when my grandmother died in 2019, and it forced me to see the family I’d thought shut me out.

When I saw their faces and got to be in the same room with them, I realized that I was the one shutting people out. So much of what I’d learned came from television, and I placed the very same stereotypes that made me run away from family on myself—and on them. I never saw people accepting of queer Muslims, so I assumed my family wouldn’t accept me. But on my trip I officially came out to a couple of my cousins to their faces. They already knew; they accepted and invited me to their home to get to know me more. They made me feel at one with both parts of myself. 

When I realized this was possible, I ran to the internet again to find other queer Palestinian Muslims, to find what I thought didn’t exist. I found it on Twitter, of all places. Then, as if the universe herself was speaking to me, Mike Mossallam made a film called Breaking Fast. For the first time in my entire life I saw that a gay, Muslim man could find love and be at peace with his culture at the same time. I got to know Mossallam personally, and had a conversation with one of the film’s stars, Amin El Gamal, which opened my entire world up to something I wasn’t able to see because it was never on TV.

After spending two decades hiding behind the mask of someone named Kyle, trying to find a sense of self in my queerness, I finally stopped hiding. Now, I’m just barely beginning to find a sense of self in my Arabness. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see this industry making stories that are less white, and offering creators of colour opportunities to share their own perspectives. Shows like Ramy and We Are Lady Parts are true pieces of art that give billions of Muslims a chance to be seen for who we are instead of the stereotypes we’ve been assigned. Those shows gave me the tools that I needed 20 years ago. They showed me positive portrayals of Islam and, most amazingly, queerness in Islam that could have quite literally changed my life if I saw them growing up.

It’s critical that this work to diversify the industry and expand on the stories we tell continues. I’m so thankful for the multitude of initiatives that have popped up all over Tinseltown focused on giving people of colour a seat at the table—from The Disruptors initiative that helps trans and non-binary, disabled, undocumented and formerly undocumented immigrants to Riz Ahmed’s Pillars Artist Fellowship which empowers emerging Muslim artists. No one else should wait 20 years to be seen by the medium they love.

This isn’t just entertainment, and it’s certainly not a fight for inclusivity and diversity metrics to be won by networks and executives who call themselves progressive. Somewhere in the world, there’s another kid grappling with their queerness, wondering what space there is for them in their conservative world. And if they watch today’s television, they might get a chance to see someone owning all sides of their intersectionality, instead of being forced to hide one of those defining features away. It turns out the real way to get your happily ever after is to be yourself, and that’s a story worth fighting for.

This story was published with support from Critical Minded.

Tariq Raouf is a Palestinian-American Muslim writer, based in Seattle.

Read More About:
Identity, Culture, Power, Personal Essay

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