American Muslim comedian discusses racial identity through comedy

Isha Bhutada, Reporter

Chicago-based stand-up comedian Azhar Usman examined the tensions surrounding national, cultural and religious identity during the Muslim-cultural Student Association’s annual fall entertainment event Thursday night.

In the two-hour show in McCormick Auditorium, titled “Un-American,” Usman spoke to a group of approximately 120 students about faith, race and identity in America. The show was emceed by Indian-American stand-up comedian Rishika Murthy and opened by Tucker Millett, host of the Shicago show at the CiC Theater, and Prateek Srivastava, an Indian comedian and Chicago-based producer.

After a light comedy performance by Millett, Srivastava addressed racial identity with anecdotes of discrimination that he faced throughout his life. His words paved the way for Usman’s own stories about his Muslim-American identity and Islamophobia.

Usman recollected experiences of prejudice at airports and being subject to insensitive questions about his religion and race.

“We are a racialized community,” Usman said. “The term Muslim has become simultaneously overinclusive and underinclusive … if you look anything like a Muslim in America, you are forced to play that role of an ambassador.”

Usman, who is also an actor, writer and producer, was born in Chicago and brought up in Skokie, Illinois. However, both his parents are Muslim immigrants from India.  After graduating from law school, Usman performed stand-up comedy as a hobby in addition to his career. As his popularity began to increase, Usman ended his law career and began performing full time. Usman has since toured more than 20 countries and has been named “America’s Funniest Muslim” by CNN.

Although Usman addressed sensitive topics in a comical way, students said his performance examined important aspects of racial and religious tensions.

Weinberg junior Rimsha Ganatra, McSA’s vice president of public relations, said Usman’s performance has the potential to affect how the Muslim community is viewed by non-Muslims on campus.

“Everything is lighter when it becomes funny,” Ganatra said. “His performances add a comedic relief to all the tensions there are with Muslims and Islamophobia.”

Weinberg senior Muhammad Yousaf said comedy helped Usman tackle and offer solutions to serious problems in society.

“I was surprised that he tackled serious racial issues,” Yousaf said. “I learned that all people are pretty much the same and that you can change the way you do things by the way you orient yourself and by keeping an open mind.”

Usman closed his show with a positive message about identity and race in America.

“I have come to find a profound truth: All of us are exactly the same,” he said.

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