Sheila Vand is an extremely creative and expressive performance artist and actor. She can currently be seen in Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, currently #1 at the box office. Earlier this summer, she co-starred in TNT’s Snowpiercer opposite Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connolly. Last year, she starred in a thrilling off-off-Broadway show, Nylon, written by Sofia Alverez. Additional credits include the 2018 Sundance Film Festival NEXT Award winner We The Animals, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Wave, Aardvark, Argo, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Women Who Kill and XX. Vand made her Broadway debut opposite Robin Williams as Hadja in Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; she starred in the Disney Hall’s 10th Anniversary LA Philharmonic staging of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels for Esa Pekka Salonen, had her original performance piece Sneaky Nietzche mounted at LACMA and co-created the award-winning visual art series MILK: what will you make of me? with TED fellow Alexa Meade, which toured throughout Europe. This series served as the inspiration for Ariana Grande’s recent music video for “God Is A Woman,” on which Grande worked with Vand and Meade.
For years, I was told by many people in the acting business that I was “lucky” because I’m “ethnically ambiguous.”
I would think, “Racist?”
Why is it a good thing that my ethnicity is ambiguous? What’s wrong with looking ethnically specific? Are you saying I shouldn’t look too much like my own people?
They would say, “Oh, we’re just saying you can play lots of different roles.”
I would think, “Racist?”
Why should I play roles outside of my ethnicity? I’m Middle-Eastern American. So you think I can play Indian-American too? You think I can play Latin-American? You think that’s OK? To blend us all together like the only options are White, Black or Ethnic?
And what actually makes me “ethnically ambiguous,” huh? Did you even consider what your gracious compliment means? What makes my ethnic appearance ambiguous to you? The lightness in my skin tone? My “palatable” features? Am I not as hairy as you assumed I would be?
I think, “Racist?”
So the reason I’m “lucky” to be “ethnically ambiguous” is really about my proximity to Whiteness, isn’t it? It’s not about me looking like lots of other races; it’s actually the opposite. It’s about me being White-passing. Passable. Acceptable. White-friendly. Closer to neutral, which is apparently White.
This is just one of the many examples of micro-aggression that I’ve faced in my career. And because it hides away in the micro, I’m often left questioning whether it’s really even there.
That person on the crew just confused me for an extra even though I’m one of the leads and have been working on this set for weeks.
They brought out the cast chairs for all the White actors, but didn’t bring my chair out.
Oh, they are so sorry!! They didn’t know I had a chair with my name on it.
My trailer is smaller than all the White actors, even though some of them have way less experience and fewer credits than I do.
If my trailer is smaller, my contract must be worse. I’m likely getting paid less than them too.
I check with a White castmate. Yup, I’m getting paid less than she is.
The production asks me to use an accent.
Now my character is suddenly Muslim too.
I don’t get included in press, posters, or reviews in the same way my White castmates do.
I want to strangle this question mark for gaslighting me all these years. I want to strangle it, just like I want to strangle every White person who told me I was lucky for looking White. They are the same people who later told me I was lucky for looking ethnic because “ugh, everyone just wants diversity these days.”
Either way, they say I’m “lucky.” So you think it’s my luck that got me here instead of my talents? You think I only get hired because I’m a check mark for diversity? Thank you for reducing me to a statistic.
Or am I lucky to be working because you don’t really think I should be? You say I’m lucky to be here, as though it is not my place to be here.
I want to strangle that question mark with all of the knowledge and history that proves to us how systemic and ingrained racism is in our culture. But no matter how hard I try to erase it, I can still see the faded mark where the question used to be.
I cannot erase it because I cannot erase its history. If I want it gone, I must transform it.
Was that racist?
That was racist?
That was racist?
That was racist!
Finally! At last! I scream it so loud that the question mark gets startled and springs up into an exclamation point. I have finally set it straight!
It tries to wiggle its way back into a curve, but I grab it by the neck and tighten my grip. It wiggles aggressively, but I will not let it loose. This time I have come too far. This time I have my ancestors with me. At last, the question mark dies in my fist. Rigor mortis sets in and it stiffens, finally and forever, turning into an unbreakable exclamation point.
I stare at it for a while.
Sometimes an old adversary can feel like a fucked-up friend; a toxic abusive relationship that has gone on for so long that it’s become intimate.
I stare at it. Enough years of trying to tame the snake, and I finally did it. It is an undeniable statement now. It does not matter how micro the aggression is. From now on, when I experience discrimination, explicit or implied, it is racism!
Wow. It’s not a question anymore.
Featured image of Sheila Vand by Nick Grau, used with permission.