A conversation with comedian and advocate Sameena Mustafa about the election and what to do next

Not to dampen the season, but my earliest holiday memory is watching our neighbors’ Christmas through the window, marveling at all the aunts, uncles and cousins, and knowing that an entire half of our family would never be available to throng about the house holding wineglasses and reunions.

So, you may reasonably ask, if that’s the case, Teme, how are you here? My grandfather is the answer. He left his family home in Vienna when he was twelve years old, ending any formal education, but gaining street intelligence that would serve him well for the next eighty-two years. He learned a craft and slept in the back of the Vienna shop where he worked.

In 1932 when he was in his twenties, he started hearing about a politician in Germany, formerly considered a buffoon, who was gaining influence and sparking racism in both Germany and Austria. He told his parents, brothers and sisters that they all needed to get out of there. No one believed him. “It” couldn’t happen there.

After seven years of working to secure a visa, my grandfather found sponsorship in the U.S. and continued working on visas for the rest of the family who now knew their brother and son spoke the truth. It was too late. Only my grandfather, grandmother and mother made it out, although not without considerable trauma.

My grandfather at that point had Plans A-Z, including hauling everyone by foot across the Alps if necessary. Instead, they ended up on a train to an Italian refugee camp and eventually on a ship across the ocean, learning English and caring for a boy whose parents were unable to leave. Interesting side note: Dewey Stone, whose family founded the Converse shoe company, paid their passage. My family didn’t know him. He simply felt that aiding as many refugee families as possible was the right thing to do.

I don’t know if it was being on his own from such a young age that made my Opa so observant and watchful. Or perhaps it was just that he was a remarkably brilliant man. However you explain his ability to know the truth, it’s how I was fortunate enough to be standing in our driveway in Washington, D.C. at Christmas gawking at our neighbors.

This is all a long way of saying that Sameena Mustafa is also a rare person who sees the signs and the facts and acts on them. She co-founded Simmer Brown, a Chicago-based South Asian stand-up comedy showcase and podcast with Prateek Srivastava in 2015. Their goal is to include both under-represented and mainstream voices. In less than two years, the showcase has received acclaim from the Chicago Sun-Times, RedEye, Chicagoist, the Reader, The Aerogram, WGN Radio, and Margaret Cho.

Artists and audiences alike have responded enthusiastically, regularly selling out the evening in advance, and demonstrating the need and desire for a no-fear forum of diverse comic voices and points of view.

Sameena kindly spoke with me by phone about Simmer Brown’s role in the wake of the election, the powerful actions she is taking and the actions we can all take, and the consequences of being a bystander.


Sameena Mustafa

Teme: What are some of the secrets of Simmer Brown’s success?

Sameena: The need is stronger than ever for a space with a commitment to diversity. This is why we exist. We are not an all one-color show or an all one-heritage show. That was never our idea. We’re not a theme show or an ethnic show. We’re the opposite of that. We’re committed to booking people who aren’t seen very often or often not on a bill together.

Teme: What has been most rewarding about Simmer Brown?

Sameena: It’s exciting to be a part of something that is unique and to build something new and needed and appreciated. The other piece is the principle, the mission of bringing people together and creating a space where they feel welcome.

The audience mirrors what’s on stage. That’s the other cool part. I’ve had people tell me that in other shows, audiences are as homogeneous as the line-up. Simmer Brown draws an audience as diverse as the show.

Audiences are so appreciative of the points of view: African-American comics, people like me, people like Prateek, who make jokes about being discriminated against or profiled. There’s a humanity that comes with saying, “Hey, I’m getting singled out and I’m making it relatable.” The audience gets it without feeling, “I’m pointing at you. It’s your fault.” Instead, it’s “Hey, isn’t this f’d up?”

It takes a bit more effort to go outside our immediate circle and ask, “Who can bring a different voice?” We ask ourselves these questions at every show. We’re always asking, “How can we replicate that ‘included’ feeling and create a line-up we won’t see on most other shows?”

Teme: How do you see Simmer Brown’s mission post-election?

Sameena: This election makes us want to double down and keep going. I think everyone’s collective jaw dropped. I came to Election Day with some trepidation because I saw how much propaganda people of all backgrounds were regurgitating about Hillary Clinton.

Teme: When was the moment you knew?

Sameena: I knew it was over as soon as Trump took over the count in Florida. I was on my way home from a rehearsal. As I was getting ready to get in the car, I had a text from my husband saying, “We’re going to be fine.”

As I was on my way home, my husband sent me another text saying, “It’s time to get scared.”

I haven’t allowed myself to cry. But it’s like a brick on your chest and someone is telling you, “You can breathe just fine. Go run a marathon.” But it feels like, “No, this brick is on my chest.”

But I know I have to keep running.  That night I was so enraged. I started going off on Facebook just to let off steam.

The election is a reminder of how much has not changed in our country and how easy it is to demonize and dismiss the “other.” The only thing that makes me feel it isn’t over is that most voters agree with me.

Teme: That’s what I keep reminding myself. Although racism is nothing new, the way it was mainstreamed and normalized is especially scary.

Sameena: To bring it back to Chicago and comedy, the equivalent is people making jokes on stage about the “N” word or rape jokes, for example. This is why that’s not okay. This is why accepting that behavior is being complicit.

I’m not saying that Chicago comedy is more racist than the nation or the city at large. But it’s a representation. Our data points are who gets booked on a show, who produces a show and then puts those people on.

We don’t actually know what’s in your heart, but we know what you do. We know what you say. It’s not like we’re making stuff up. Like with Trump. “Oh, he’s not a racist.” But the first time he appeared on the national stage was for housing discrimination against African-Americans in the ‘70s. People use the term “micro-aggressions.” That’s only because for them it’s micro, but it’s macro to us.

Simmer Brown is not going to retreat to a ghetto. We’re often asked, “Do you book white people on your show?”  All you have to do is look at our line-ups. We have straight white male headliners who have a point of view that is nuanced and they’re solid comics.

We’re going to include them in a line-up that represents the best of Chicago comedy. It’s easier to book people you know and who are your friends and not worry about building an audience or having a diverse audience to match the line-up.  But we’re going to keep doing the harder work of being inclusive.

Teme: How has the atmosphere of increased racism impacted you?

Sameena: I think about representation beyond Simmer Brown.  I also do some acting, and my day job is in commercial real estate, which is a majority male profession as well. I think about what’s missing or what can I do to move the needle in multiple areas of my life.

In my professional life, the slights have been less overt. They’re like, “Oh, we’re going to hand this opportunity to the guy (that we feel comfortable with)” or “we need to have a minority woman on this project.” The same thing happens in the world of comedy. “We’re going to book the guy or the gal that we know and feel comfortable with. They’re doing material we can identify with.”

It’s that same mentality of, “I don’t know you and you’re not like me, so I don’t get you. We’re never going to think of you because you’re not part of our circle.”

It happens in every environment. People work with whom they know and like. But that’s a way to maintain the status quo, whether it’s business or comedy. You have to really step out of your circle and most people aren’t willing to do that.

Teme: What is a good way to help people understand? When I express concern I get reassuring messages from people who mean well, but have nothing at stake. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. Here are the reasons people voted for Trump: jobs and economics.” But what about the racism? It impacts me day-to-day, to not know how this is going to work out for all of us who do have something to fear from it.

Sameena: I very much appreciate your perspective as someone who is Jewish and has that history and is educated. That people are educated about their history is so valuable.

There were a lot of people on election night who were “not all-ing” me. Like, “not all white men think …, not all white women …” I was like, “Don’t ‘not-all’ me right now, because you are not helping. This was led by white mainstream America. Go and fight it!”

Don’t defend yourself or say, “It wasn’t me.” I got that. It’s irrelevant.

Ask what beliefs kept people from the polls? What about the voter suppression? Don’t tell me how many people of color, or people who are marginalized voted for Trump. Nazis and slave traders needed people to be turncoats to fill their gas chambers and slave ships. We’re seeing history repeat itself.

Teme: It feels like it.

Sameena: I wrote, “I kept wondering which is stronger, white women’s self-hatred, or white people’s hatred of everyone else? I got my answer: it’s a draw.”

That’s what people don’t get. You put your job concern over the lives of undocumented immigrants, refugees, other immigrants, Muslims, Jews, you name it. Do you really think that Trump is going to give you a job? He has no way to do that. You sold out your fellow Americans for the promise of something that simply doesn’t exist.

I was having a hard time making this funny. Want comics to diversify your line-up? They’re going to be deported, detained, arrested, or interred. There you go, you got your straight white male line-up for the next four years! Congratulations!

Teme: It’s frightening that people can ignore the racism. If you voted for some of Trump, you voted for all of him. Just pragmatically, that’s how it works.

Sameena: Yes, it does. You can’t say, I voted for the jobs. Because guess what? He’s wrapped the jobs into the wall and the wall is about anti-Latino, anti-Mexican sentiment.

My dad immigrated here in 1962, and was able to bring my mom. My mother was a physician in the Uptown neighborhood for thirty years and treated uninsured and under-served patients from all parts of the world.

I shared their stories before the election because a lot of people told me that they don’t know any Muslims. That’s why they fear Muslims. If you are living in rural America, you have no input about American Muslims other than what you see on television.

That’s why I get on stage and say, “Hey, I’m a Muslim woman. Are you expecting me to speak? Because Donald Trump thinks we can’t speak. You expect me to be head-to-toe covered in black and to be invisible? I’ve already thrown that out the window. I’m not afraid to criticize the guy who wants to ban my people. So, I’m visible, I’m vocal, and I’m unapologetic.”

People think Prateek is Muslim more than they think that I’m Muslim, because even though his family is Indian and Hindu, they have an assumption of what a Muslim looks like. We laugh about it. A guy with a little bit of five-o’clock-shadow and darker skin is a “Muslim.”

Teme: Automatically.

Sameena: Yes. Automatically.

Teme: How do we change the thinking?

Sameena: “Optimistic me” says to keep showing up. To push for representation. To take on roles that traditionally minorities would not take on. It’s happened quite a bit over the last fifteen, twenty years. You see more South Asians who are journalists, attorneys. They’re visible. They’re on television.

I think the other piece is reminding people through representation and interaction that we aren’t our stereotypes.

“Pessimistic me” says keep doing those things, but know those people are never going to have their minds changed. There is a temptation to keep preaching to the choir and hoping that at least the choir gets more powerful. President Obama has been a game-changer for minority representation, but clearly it was painful and scary for some people.

The night of the election, [author and commentator] Van Jones asked, “What do we tell our children?” I don’t have kids, but I thought of my niece and nephew. My brother-in-law is half Peruvian and half-Western European American, and then my sister is Indian Muslim. My niece and nephew cover so many different groups. They are America.

Some comedians avoid politics and controversies. I just can’t. It makes Prateek and me a good team. We’re drawn to those tough subjects and are committed to tackling them.

Our audience is smart, affluent, and diverse. I feel so lucky, so blessed to have the community that we’ve created. That’s the other thing that gives me hope.

Since election night, I probably whimpered for about a minute and then I was like, I am so angry. I can’t stop. Let me figure out who are my allies, who I can work with, who can I mobilize? What organization can I support?  This has lit a fire under me that I already had, but it’s like it went up ten times.

Teme: I see a lot happening on social media. Are people really mobilized or is clicking “like” on social media simply the illusion of action and it stops there?

Sameena: There is a lot of clicking and “liking,” but it isn’t enough.

Teme: What is your advice for doing more?

Sameena: I encourage people to use the skills and resources available to them. I donate to organizations that help vulnerable groups. I volunteer with them. I conducted youth leadership trainings with Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR), a leadership retreat for South Asian leaders in high school and college, and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) where I spoke to middle and high school students.

I’m thinking how I can use my creative skills and the knowledge I have about the arts to educate and inspire people. A lot of people are turned off by activism and politics. They think of it as removed or wonky or boring. The arts can be a way to galvanize people.

When I did the presentation for CDYR, I showed a clip of Bill Hicks, who is a classic comedian’s comedian. You might think, why would a bunch of brown girls in college care about Bill Hicks? Bill Hicks did an abortion joke on Letterman in 1994, which was so controversial that it didn’t even get broadcast until well after his death. Even this youth group got the significance of that. He modeled behaviors of putting yourself out there and challenging norms.

I also asked them, “What are some things that people have assumed about you? The jokes that people have made at your expense?” Typical lines like, “Where are you really from?” Or, “Why do you smell like curry?” That’s a shared experience.

How do we say we’re more than that, and make fun of the ignorance and take back that narrative?

To me, the power of art and comedy are voices like George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. They spoke out at personal risk. I don’t overestimate what I do. I’m not in immediate personal danger, but speaking out in an environment, which is anti-democratic and is, frankly, moving towards a fascist ideology, that’s a powerful and scary act.

Hari Kondabolu says, “I’m not an activist.” I find that fascinating because people become aware of issues because he’s calling them out. That is a form of activism to me and powerful in itself.

So that’s one piece; volunteering, donating and using the skills you have to effect change.

The other piece is to take it to the next level. What can I do, whether it’s Simmer Brown, or other organizations, or taking a leadership role? Not only was this election a referendum on our morality and our humanity, it was a referendum on our leadership. Perhaps it’s time for me to either be a candidate or work with someone who is going to run.

Teme: In what ways has tolerance for racism impacted you?

Sameena: I’ve definitely been hassled at the airport and included on a watch list, but it occurred to me as we were watching the election results that the extra-judicial stuff that happened post-9/11, the questioning, the profiling, imprisonment, is coming. I’m expecting that I’m going to be surveilled, especially if there are not people looking out for our privacy and our rights as citizens even though I was born here.

There are a lot of things people can do, but the simplest thing is to not be complicit. If someone reached out to me and said, “What can I do?,” my answer is please be an ally. Just please do not be a bystander.

Teme: Being a bystander is complicit.

Sameena: Yes, it’s the same thing that happened in Nazi Germany. People said nothing. It’s that classic Niemoller quote. I didn’t say anything and at the end there was no one to speak for me. I was thinking I need to update that.

First they came after the Mexicans, and I was silent. Then they came after the Muslims and I was silent. They came after the veterans and I was silent. And all of sudden they came after my pussy, and I decided to wake up! But then it was too late.

Teme: Ha! Yes.

Sameena: Like now you care? And now it’s too late.

Teme: It’s like Austria in 1932.  And again now, people don’t say anything and don’t see the signs. They watch it happen or dismiss it.

Sameena: There’s no understanding of that history. I’ve been saying that Islam is treated in many ways like Communism. Like saying about Obama, “Are you really a Muslim, or are you really an American?” It’s like there’s a binary construct.

We haven’t really had it great under Obama, either. The drone strikes, the surveillance. You go to a mosque in New York, you’ve probably been watched.

During the debates when Hillary Clinton said, “We need our Muslim community members to be our eyes and ears …” For what? I don’t know anyone who’s going to commit a terrorist act.

There are lots of ways that people can be engaged. Probably the scariest and most powerful thing people can do is to speak up. I have to remind myself that I have a voice still. I’ve gotten messages from people saying thank you for speaking out because they are beside themselves. They don’t know what to say or think.

Teme: I think a lot of people are in a state of shock and doing nothing because we don’t know what to do.

Sameena:  People are scared. They have to know there’s a place where they won’t be marginalized or dismissed. I think the worst feeling is to be scared, to seek counsel and be told “we can’t help you,” or “your feelings are invalid.”  People often don’t see the consequences for other people.

It was completely crazy historical coincidence that November 9th was the anniversary of Kristallnacht. I remember thinking, “This is what it felt like.” I’m sure it didn’t just happen that one day everything was fine and then all of a sudden, they were smashing windows. People saw it coming. People don’t see that this movie has already been made. We know how it ends.

It is so important to remember that the majority of Americans who voted don’t feel this way. This is the same country that voted for Obama twice. On an extremely local level, we are lucky to be in a progressive city in a blue state. We have the Constitution and other protections.

There are people within our community who are suffering, but I’d also say, there’s going to be more awareness. This is an opportunity to educate people in your lives.

One of the jokes I made before the election was, I know there are a lot of people who are wishing the holidays would come sooner so they could have those awkward conversations, but I’d like to introduce those people to two technologies that they may not be aware of, a telephone and a backbone!

Don’t be someone who is going to snicker or be silent when someone says something offensive.

Have those awkward conversations today. Even though it’s technically too late, it’s not too late. That’s what I mean by not being a bystander.

There are consequences for being apathetic. There are consequences for being silent. There’s consequences for thinking, “It’s not my problem.” That time has expired.

Even though it may be not apocalyptic for you as an individual, it is apocalyptic for someone. The people who are included in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), those people are going to get deported.

It’s going to happen. Your grandfather knew this. [Trump] is not going to be able to give jobs to the people in Wisconsin or Michigan or bring back those Rust Belt jobs. His base will say, “You haven’t done what you said you were going to do.” To appease the base, he’s going to punish the most vulnerable people in society. “I can’t give you a job, but I kicked out this Mexican. I can’t give you a job, but there are no more immigrants with Muslim sounding names.”

Teme: Who inspires your leadership?

Sameena: There are so many people I look to. I have friends who work for organizations fighting sexual assault and domestic violence. I’m lucky to have real-world role models. It’s inspiring for me to know there are people doing this day-in and day-out.

My sister is a family law attorney who represents adolescents and wards of the state. I talked to her the day after the election and she said, “You know what? I’ve been on the losing end of so many battles. I keep going because I can’t be afraid. Fear is just going to paralyze you.”

I am also energized by the advocacy work I’ve been doing for the last few years. Other people respond to it positively. That’s what tells me to keep going.

One of the personal quotes that I follow when I try to motivate people and stay motivated myself, is from Alice Walker, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

I can sense that there are more people who are sad and despondent and frankly just feeling powerless, because they think there isn’t something they can do.

Teme: Exactly, or just don’t know what to do.

Sameena: For some people protesting isn’t physically possible. It’s something I only became aware of recently because of a friend who is sometimes restricted to a wheelchair.

For some, time and effort may not be best served by going door-to-door, or participating in a protest. You can use your voice and resources in different ways. It doesn’t mean you’re not contributing.

I’ve heard people say, “Oh, in solidarity with Muslim women, should we wear hijabs?”

No. Don’t wear hijabs. Not only because you can take it off, but because Muslim women aren’t reduced to their head covering. It would be like saying, “How do we show solidarity with Jews? Wear a yarmulke?” That’s pointless and doesn’t actually do anything. Those things are designed to make you feel good.

Instead, educate yourself. Advocate for people in your community. Reach out. Show support in a meaningful way. The opportunities are there and have always been there.

It’s like your grandfather. All he had were his beliefs and convictions. But the amazing and incredible thing about him is he knew there was action he could take. He didn’t rely on one source. He saw patterns. Your grandfather noticed something that said, “This is different.”


The next Simmer Brown comedy showcase is on December 23 at Bughouse Theater at 8:00 p.m. Tickets: simmerbrown.com
Follow Simmer Brown on Facebook and Twitter.
Sameena also appears in The Other Side of Christmas, a series of eight plays about being an outsider at the biggest birthday party of the year. Through December 30. Tickets and more details here.  

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