Last summer, VICE filmed Abdullah Saeed, Wilbert L. Cooper, and Martina de Alba as they embarked on an epic road trip during the frenzied 2016 election season. Their mission was to find out what the hell is going on in America as we come to the end of the Obama era and fall head first into uncertain political terrain. The show, 'VICE Does America,' premieres on VICELAND at 10 PM on July 6.
All three of the hosts brought their own unique perspectives to the show. So, we asked them to tell us a little bit about how they developed their own, personal views of America. This is what Abdullah had to say.
I have to admit, I felt a hint of fear when VICE first asked me to go on road trip through some of the most conservative parts of America. Of course, I'm an American—I was born here. But I'm also a Muslim man with brown skin, and I have one of the most Islamic names you can think of. Not to mention, I spent most of my formative years growing up in Thailand. So on paper, I've got virtually nothing in common with any good ol' boy and I know many of them would at best, like to get me on the no-fly list, and at worst, exile my ass to Pakistan.
These feelings certainly didn't come out of nowhere. I know the depths of American's Islamophobia from first hand experience. I got a crash course in it at school on 9/12/2001, the day after 9/11. That day, instinctively, I knew that people were going to be flexing on me. So, I was walking on eggshells when I entered my school. For the first time in my life, I donned that feigned, benignly pleasant expression that you see some people of color wear in white spaces to broadcast that we are not a threat. It's an expression I still use to this day any time I walk through an airport.
But my attempts at assuaging the white people was no match for the anger and fear they had over the heinous terror attacks—so I bore the brunt of their frustration. A hockey player named Kenny approached me at my locker and said, "I'd like to go to your country and murder children." He attacked me with his words and then stared me down as I gathered my books. I just did not respond. I couldn't. After awhile, he finally walked away.
I didn't know it then, but both Kenny and I got what we wanted out of that situation. He wanted to release his anxieties and fear by punishing me. I—the new member to the white man's long, long, all-encompassing hate list—avoided being hassled anymore by just keeping my head down. It was a convenient, though unsustainable compromise for me. But I wasn't alone. As Islamophobia started to spread throughout the United States, many Muslim Americans remained quiet, hoping that the fervor would eventually die down and they would be accepted once again.
But as time ticked on, I only saw the division between Muslims and the white America grow. This country did less and less to muzzle its hatred of Muslims, and few prominent voices rose to oppose that hatred in a substantive way, leaving those faced with discrimination defenseless and bewildered. Perhaps they were so bewildered that the weakest of them began to see their disenfranchisement as irreconcilable. And those broken people began to search for understanding outside of their surroundings—some of them wound up sitting across the virtual table from calculating merchants of violence like ISIS who prey on the lost with a false ideology. And then those lost ones acted out, attacking more innocent Americans, inspiring even more hate for Muslims.
This is the world we live in today—one where a legitimate presidential candidate calls for a national database of Muslims and the banning of all foreign Muslims from entering the country. Given the contention of the era, the prospect of taking a road trip across American and coming into contact with folks in the Red States who actually subscribe to the rampant hysteria over Islam that is griping this country was a risky, maybe even foolish proposition. But I could never let the fear of running into more Kennys stop me from seeing my country. I'm an American. If I don't go out and confront the ignorance that tries to take that identity away from me, I'm letting it win.
So, I decided I'd take the road trip for VICE—but I was going to swing my perceptions the other way. Instead of hating those who preach hate, I would at least try to make friends with them. At the end of the day, I'm convinced that most racists are only racist because they haven't been exposed to the people they think they hate. If the Kennys of the world got to know me better, maybe they'd think differently.
I'm positive that all of those people who leave racist comments on my YouTube videos would be far more bashful if I met them in person. And all of those politicians who tout racism in an attempt to reflect their constituency's attitudes would falter if they ever had to say that crazy shit to my face. Inside everyone—behind the xenophobia and the false statistics and the factoids—is a simple lump of flesh that wants to eat and laugh and relax. Along with my friends Will and Martina, I was ready find these people, and by God, we would chill with them.
To see what Abdullah experienced on his journey across the country, tune into 'VICE Does America' on Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND. The premiere is July 6.
Follow Abdullah Saeed on Twitter.