Picture it: Hollywood, California. The year was 2009, peak recession. I was fresh out of college and a year long internship with BBC Worldwide, in my very first industry job. I was a Production Assistant at Dancing with the Stars, and I was having the time of my life.
5? 6? days a week, I’d schlep myself from Orange County across the 405-to-the-605-to-the-5-to-the-101 to the CBS lot behind The Grove, an hour and a half each way, for a glorious 12-hour shift of re-stocking crafty, making host Tom Bergeron tea (two teabags of Twining Earl Grey with a generous amount of honey, cooled down to drinking temp) right before he recorded voiceover, posting up and ready-for-duty at various spots on set, delivering costumes to contestants homes, researching and buying props for the shows from sometimes creepy warehouses with date-rape-vibe-employees, ordering producer lunches from the Farmer’s Market next door, and coordinating rehearsal checkin’s and filming and spray tans at the dance studio. I was in the belly of the beast that is television production, assisting and observing on the #1 show in America, and I could not have been happier.
Season 9 featured Mya, Macy Gray, and Melissa Joan Hart so I of course was quieting my 90’s childhood / 00’s coming-of-age beating heart. I got to watch/glean live performances by Shakira, Alicia Keys, Susan Boyle (remember her from America’s Got Talent? The lovely woman portrayed as the pigeon-lady-from-Home-Alone with the operatic voice?). I saw the Beegees in the flesh and purple tinted sunglasses, and watched a very frail Hugh Hefner toted around like an expensive handbag by a group of entrepreneurial women in the business of sex work. At some point, Michael Buble, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Whitney Houston herself (God rest her soul) performed and I somehow didn’t notice, that’s how much was going on!
In between hard work, I made a ton of in-the-moment-for-the-moment friends. Aaron Carter and I chatted while he waited for dance rehearsal to start (dare I say he had a Mandy Moore’esque set-crush on me, while I only had eyes for the person I was in love with who I’m now married to). Debi Mazar and I became fast friends. Judge Lenny (Len Goodman) would shout my name lovingly across the parking lot in his British accent, “Netta, darling!”
My fanniest fan moments was being around Melissa Joan Hart, and even she was so humanly human and hanging around with her kids on set that it made that whole world so simple for me.
I saw her majesty Queen Latifah (and heard some fierce stories from hair & makeup about how people were trying to call her by other names and she insisted her name is Queen and that she be referred to as such and I was like shaking in my boots from the awe of her strength in response to the disrespect, which remains for me an early lesson in self-respect). I chatted a bunch with Donny Osmond and his son, and felt at home each time. I went to Kelly Osbourne’s birthday party and her mom, Sharon, once walked across the hall backstage on her way up to host America’s Got Talent (they taped in the adjoining studio) and gave me the biggest hug and kiss.
I have so many favorite moments. I brought my parents to be in the audience when Rod Stewart performed (my dad is a fan). I watched the Lion King theatrical performance from high up above in the studio where all the lights are kept (I was helping a crew member and he was like, you have to see this. I was paranoid that he was going to murder me, but he did not). It was magical. My favoritest moments were the many visits I paid to the costume department while running errands there. The absolutely phenomenal mad Swarovski crystal scientists of a designer duo, Randall Christensen and Josh Christensen (both have passed and are missed) would draw, draw, draw while the amazing expert team of Russian seamstresses would sew, sew, sew and hand-glue every single one of those thousands and thousands of crystals to each and every outfit before my very eyes!!! This was couture dance wear in the making!
I worked my butt off and learned so much and gained so much from that one experience that I then took into all my future productions. And while it was exhilarating and lovely and thrillingly-exhausting, I simultaneously experienced the side effects of being othered as a Brown woman in the industry.
I wore a headscarf at the time (and did so until I was 29 or so), and out of like 400 people on staff, I was the only visibly Muslim person. (I felt like part of a community and very seen on the days people were visibly Catholic having returned from Mass with a charcoal bindi).
I would refill the water cooler and someone would come over to chat, and instead of asking me something about me, they’d ask me a question about Islam, like, a question you’d find an answer to on a missionary pamphlet with lots of misspelled words or in 4th grade Social Studies. Then they’d move on to someone else and talk about their weekend plans or grabbing a drink. I found myself boxed into this conversation consistently and repeatedly, not knowing how to get out, even after attempting to expand the conversation. On the surface, it’s thoughtful curiosity, but underneath, it’s the inability to move beyond my identity into genuine connection that results in camaraderie and work relationships which leads to rehiring on other shows.
And when I was assigned a million different runs (hell yes!), I found myself struggling with one: the Bevmo run to stock up wine for the talent trailers. I don’t drink, so I found myself negotiating what my boundaries were in participating in drinking culture. I found a way around it in my own way to respect my personal boundaries at the time (I drove a fellow PA who chose the wine and swiped the credit card and placed the vino en los trailers). Anyone will tell you this was not a good idea for me to do have done as an easily-replaceable cog-in-the-wheel. Below-the-line’rs are not supposed to be “difficult” in any way, even when their jobs don’t reflect or accommodate their values or selves.
Cool things would happen, too, like Secret Muslims would come up to me and drunkenly confess to me at a work party that their great grandmother from Russia was Muslim, or that they themselves were Muslim (even one of the lead dancers!). At lunch, when I was punching people in, Mark Decascos from Iron Chef and I had a long conversation about Ramadan. (I was fasting on set that day, maybe, I don’t remember the timeline, but I was fasting at some point on set.) Another time, Toby McGuire came to watch the show and we both did a double-take to each other and smiled, like a mutual it’s-cool-to-see-you-here moment.
I also found secret brotherhood (not to be mistaken with the Egyptian political party the Muslim Brotherhood) in the security firm on the lot which was managed by and comprised of Muslim men, and they were deeply caring and protective of me, even standing up for me hardcore when I experienced verbal sexual harassment one day during the course of the season. They turned a potential #metoo moment into an example of how to be a fierce male ally.
And all of these subtle and secret-interactions added up to my first lesson (at the time): We (POC, Muslims, etc.) were here (in Hollywood), but we were not really here (like, don’t mind me, I’m just a potted plant in the corner trying to get by). We were like… physically present… but not as our full selves. We were disguised in khakis and polo shirts and careful exclusion of the parts of ourselves that would cause us to be further excluded. Like I ate biryani on the weekends, but exclusively asparagus salads on the job, all while my White coworkers ate “curry”.
And that quandary of trying to make-like-a-potted-plant and be like, as much of a White-passing person as possible, was one that I somewhat did and didn’t find myself in because, as someone wearing a headscarf with a female anatomy and life-long brown skin, I was like a walking NOT A WHITE GUY billboard. Plus, I was not well-adept at navigating White culture like Pink Floyd and what not. I just kind of silently waded through it feeling lost and less-than.
From then on, I kind of found myself in this forever box of like… being seen not as a hard worker, not for my skills, dedication, and sacrifice, not for my friendliness or pleasantness as a coworker, but, as a Muslim, and as a Brown woman (and not in like an everyone adds value with who they are kind of way, more of like an I am unable to see you as a coworker kind of way). Instead, I was like a curious alien entity, like a cute Muslim pet/mascot. A little Muslim Furby doll. A little nano-pet that secretly prays in the stairwell (while White people openly “meditate” everywhere). A little dash of sriracha in the mayo that is Hollywood.
I was not easily digestible, something to get past on a plate. I took “work” to understand and comprehend and then perhaps to relate to and befriend and see the potential and inherent value of, or at least the usefulness and money making potential from. To get past my name on my resume to then meet, evaluate, hire, and work with me (let alone mentor and groom for higher glass-ceiling-shattering positions) requires institutional and individual efforts like confronting ignorance and internalized and structural racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, and risking potential hiccups & slip-ups in the awkward embrace of “diversity and inclusion” that are not required in getting to know Bob. Bob is easy to understand even when he makes a #metoo mess or writes a Blackface scene that makes it through several rounds of studio notes onto our screens, because Bob reminds people of their own uncle who made that same inappropriate joke at Thanksgiving, where there are no Muslims except for the ones mentioned through the blaring television set to Fox News.
And for all of that, few (White people in positions of power in an industry that largely maintains inequitable structures and wealth rooted in slavery and remains uncertain or unwilling to dismantle said structures at the rate at which we demand such change) hire or promote a stereotype of their own making. Because that person is not a person. They’re an idea of a person, that’s kind of like, Hey, how did you get in here? You’re a funny looking fella. Are you lost? Can I help you find your mommy (outside the film industry)? Let me show you the door which you somehow mysteriously made it through, because this door was not designed for you.
As I’ve continued to create and pursue opportunities and place myself in rooms, something I’ve learned to do is to come prepared to be a human and staunchly defend myself in maintaining my own humanity. It’s 2020 and it only took me from 2009 until now to be fiercely me and not parcel away parts of who I am for other people’s comfort. I have finally manifested my inner me, the way I beheld Queen Latifah doing so on set. While I’m still subject to people’s racism diarrhea (more on this later), I find that exercising my own agency has been empowering and can help move my water-cooler conversations beyond the equivalent of, “So, what’s it like being a White guy?” which no one in the history of Whiteness has ever been asked.
Now, when I’m interacting with people who don’t look exactly like me (and those who do), I come prepared to lead with topics like:
- Where did you grow up?
- Did you play video games as a kid?
- What were/are your favorite TV shows?
- What do you do for fun?
- Tell me about your family.
- What have you read lately.
- This is the book that I have read lately.
- Here is a story from my childhood.
And then I open my mouth and let out the words on which I also relate on these topics. I jiu-jitsu you into getting to know me and I you. I Homer Simpsonly s-m-r-a-t the situation. ::taps temple with index finger:: Before you know it, you’re driving home, wondering, Damn, I didn’t even get to ask her how many times she prays in a day. I guess I’ll never know.
Before this experience, which was my first job in Hollywood, I experienced employment discrimination throughout college. So like. From that experience combined with the difficulty of continually breaking into Hollywood over the past decade, I learned to accept that employment bias and discrimination is a way of life? It is how things have been and are continuing to be, even though they’re getting .0001% better? (I can just hear the wonderful people who have hired me freaking out worrying if this is them. The people who are guilty of this are not worrying except about getting sued, and are also like, ‘But we have a diversity program.’)
This is a lot like me saying to me, It’s not you, it’s you. And being okay with that. And going ahead with the relationship anyway even though I’ve clearly been dumped. And although I am no longer texting the film industry at midnight, making myself too available, I still invite it to my birthday party, all while carving out a place of my own.