Zayn Malik And Racism In One Direction

By Guest Contributor Marwa Hamad

One Direction member Zayn Malik. Via IrishCentral.com

I’ll admit it: I am a 22 year old part-time music journalist and full-time social-justice activist who gets relentlessly mocked on a daily basis for my immense and unwavering love for a little boy band sensation known as One Direction. If the glossy poster plastered by my work station of five UK boys grinning goofily at me is any indication, my loyalty as an over-aged fan of these kids is a truth that I’ve come to embrace.

The biggest chunk of this appreciation can be attributed to the fact that, for the first time in a long time, I actually feel represented in popular culture as an Arab, Muslim, and “brown” woman. Zayn Malik, the only Muslim person of colour in the band, is someone I can look to and think, you and I might have a thing or two in common. From reading his bandmates’ tweets about taking him out to Eid dinner, to seeing the Arabic script inked across the 19-year-old’s collarbone, I’ve found somewhat of a happy place in Zayn’s presence within the white-dominated world of mainstream pop music. I am now able to watch TV, listen to the radio, and open magazines to find something I can relate to for a change.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, or at least be horrendously tainted by the obvious fact that the inclusion of a Muslim person of colour in a boy band doesn’t mean the exclusion of racist undertones in the way that the media, the public, and his management choose to pigeonhole him.

In one of Zayn’s most recent interviews with the English magazine Fabulous, he talked about his decision to temporarily deactivate his Twitter in August stemming from Islamophobic comments he’d been receiving.

“Nasty things [were being said on Twitter] like I was a terrorist. How can you justify that? How can you call me that and get away with it?” Zayn said. “We live in 2012 and I thought we’d moved forward.”

I can’t speak on behalf of Zayn with regards to his experiences and wouldn’t dream to, but I can speak of the way that the past few months of being a racialized fan have left me feeling upset, queasy and, quite frankly, more than a little angry. I will even attempt to do so without talking about that one time an extreme right-wing columnist said Zayn was pimping Islam on people’s children through his “boy band Jihad” and that the only direction he was facing was Mecca–because I’m still not entirely sure what in the sweet heavens the author meant and if she was even sober when she wrote the piece.

Money-Making Move: The Mysterious Bad Boy

Via Brit-Asian.com

Since the start of One Direction, it was clear that Zayn’s keepers had hand-picked him to be the mysterious, brooding bad boy with an unpredictable streak. He was the group’s A.J. McLean, the Donnie Wahlberg. After all, Malik had tattoos (gasp!), smoked cigarettes (oh my!), and was caught flipping the bird to a pap one night (sound the alarms–this guy is on the loose!).

At first, I went along with it. As someone who enjoys wearing the occasional pair of combat boots and a good leather jacket that screams “I’m a rebel, fear my wrath,” I enjoyed seeing someone that I could relate to on a cultural level also rocking a pair of Doc Martins, skintight black jeans, and a perma-scowl to make clear his zero-tolerance attitude for any funny business.

Slowly but surely, however, it all became a bit…uncomfortable. I started to wonder why it had to be Zayn that was labeled the mysterious, and even worse, bad one. Why couldn’t any of the other quiet boys be mysterious? Heartthrob Harry Styles, for instance, seemed to speak just as sparingly in interviews and was infamous for his slow, languid drawl that most people attributed to–well, nothing. He wasn’t mysterious. He wasn’t intriguing. He was just Harry: irresistible, charming, and endearing because he was likely to be the last of them to get a joke or crack one successfully.

And then it hit me. Zayn being a half-Pakistani Muslim was what counted as mysterious these days. He was exotic. He was dark. He was different. He was the other. He wasn’t plain and boring like the rest of his pale-skinned, bright-eyed bandmates, all of whom could’ve been the good ol’ boys next door. His name was Zayn Malik, for heaven’s sake. When was the last time you met someone named Zayn Malik at your nondescript local Starbucks on a bland Sunday afternoon ordering a vanilla frap? (Please note: this paragraph is best-read while wearing a pair of sarcasm goggles, preferably with a built-in ‘Long-Suffering Recipient of Racist Stereotypes’ filter.)

Of course, this marketing scheme was never an accident. Somewhere within the hierarchy of people who work to shape boy-band images and mold them into compartmentalized products for easy consumption, it was decided that Zayn, the half-Pakistani Muslim, would play the distinct role of the slightly foreign one. He would be wrapped up in an enigma so fans could get that unique pleasure of trying to understand him, but in the end, the public would be ultimately and perpetually mystified. This plays into the racism faced by South Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American communities and other people of colour in the West, in which they are not perceived as the standard, plain, ‘normal’ folks, but something else — something strange and out of the ordinary. This process is known as Othering, and on the most basic level, it works to alienate people of colour and standardize whiteness.

Danger, Danger: Fan Perception

(L-R) One Direction members Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson. Via Wikipedia.

But all of that wasn’t the worst of it, really. Neither was the now-deleted (but screencapped) Oh No They Didn’t! comment that fetishized Zayn’s race, claiming that his mixed heritage was a) the most attractive thing about him and b) meant he couldn’t be brought home to meet the commenter’s mother. In fact, the YouTube and Twitter users who repeatedly called Zayn a terrorist, along with the Tumblr users who jokingly referred to him as “Mexican Zayn” (hint: Pakistan is not in Mexico, and people of colour are not a monolithic tribe that come from interchangeable countries) weren’t even the worst of it.

For me, the worst of it were the more covert instances of racism that surfaced in the period of time following the band’s first headlining tour.

Zayn, like any pop star who’d gone through three legs of extensive touring and performed over sixty shows in less than a year, was photographed looking out of sorts, worn thin, and under-rested. Nothing out of the ordinary, Zayn was caught with a messy mane of hair, barely darkened circles beneath his eyes, and a pair of slouched shoulders.

The logical explanation would be that he was, perhaps, tired. He was tired from touring. He was tired from beginning to record a second album under the pressure of their unbelievably successful and chart-topping platinum debut. He was tired from doing press and, at the time that some of the photos surfaced, preparing for the band’s massive Olympics performance and their upcoming gig at the VMAs. He was tired from running around doing three photo shoots a day, all the while getting chastised over his choice of tattoos, the way he carries himself, and the unfounded rumours that he cheated on his girlfriend (which emerged after two fans disturbingly got away with filming him talking to a girl through a hotel peephole, but I digress).

Instead of thinking he was tired, though, a portion of his fans took to popular blogging platform Tumblr to call him a “homeless drug-addict,” quick to cite weed and cocaine as plausible choices of pop star poison.

This is especially disturbing when looked at in contrast to the way that fans were reacting to the other boys looking tired: the funny one, Louis Tomlinson, is just a little hungover. The cute one and the sensible one, Niall Horan and Liam Payne, are blessed enough to not show outwards signs of wear and tear. The heartthrob, Harry Styles, with his oversized shirts, low-hanging jeans, dishevelled hair, and dark sunglasses is just a harmless hipster.

In the end, it became sadly apparent that the lens through which a startling number of people viewed ‘bad boy’ Zayn seemed to paint him as the most likely to get in trouble, do drugs, and wind up on the street. For me, an Arab, Muslim, ‘brown’ woman who has gone out with my messy head of curls, an oversized Radiohead t-shirt, skinny jeans, and a pair of scuffed boots, only to be followed around by a security guard as a I browsed through racks of accessories at a local store, I find this kind of subconscious internalized racism to hit too close to home.

I have no doubt that Zayn has agency over his own actions, words, clothing choices, and other aspects of his public persona. They are some of the things I love about him the most, and they are the things that remind me so much of myself. But I also have no doubt that marketing schemes shape the way in which young celebrities grow in the public eye, how they choose to present and protect themselves, and how they are ultimately consumed by their audiences. There is no room for mistakes when it comes to multi-million dollar pop-star contracts, and any attempt to market Zayn as the dangerous loose canon of the band is a very calculated effort to keep things ‘interesting’ at the cost of feeding into incredibly problematic racist and Islamophobic ideologies.

Cyberbullying And Beyond
Ultimately, it was no casual matter that Zayn deleted his Twitter of 5 million followers a month ago due to the ‘useless opinions and hate’ he’d been receiving from the public. At the time, Zayn sent out two tweets that have since been deleted.

“The reason i don’t tweet as much as i use to, is because I’m sick of all the useless opinions and hate that i get daily goodbye twitter,” he wrote. “My fans that have something nice to say can tweet me on the one direction account.”

Whether or not it was his own decision to reactivate his Twitter account a day later despite the attacks, we may never know. But through it all, I can’t ignore my own experiences of discomfort in seeing how the public regards him–and how it’s reminiscent of how society regards me–and most importantly, I can’t ignore what he himself has now spoken up about.

“You can say whatever you want about me, I’m not really that bothered. But when it starts to upset people I care about, or when I hear about it from my mum, then that’s a problem,” he told Fabulous with regards to racist attacks on Twitter. “My little cousin put up a family picture at Eid [a Muslim festival] because she got a photo with [my girlfriend] Perrie and she was so happy about it. But then everybody just gave it to me double barrel.”

Zayn doesn’t owe it to anyone to speak of his experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but I’m grateful that he has. There are many problems that come with young superstardom: obsessive and entitled fan attention, controlling management teams, and growing up in the harsh and unrelenting spotlight. However, racism is a major One Direction problem that isn’t talked about nearly enough, along with the unfortunate fact that “Zayn Malik, the mysterious bad boy” reads too much like “Zayn Malik, the exotic, different, and dangerous troublemaker.”

One Direction will undoubtedly continue to make me dance, smile, and revel in a genre of music that reminds me of my youth. I will continue to look to Zayn with a vast fondness and appreciation, but not because he’s the “mysterious bad boy” with a so-called edge–but rather for his kind-hearted, family-oriented, unapologetic, and young-spirited self, all of which are traits that are oft-ignored about Muslim folks of colour in favour of demonizing them. I hope that next time someone wants to make a comment about Zayn’s appearance or his behaviour, they stop first to think about whether it comes from a place of damaging ignorance, unchecked privilege, and outright racism.

  • Crystal O

    Not to mention it being ageist as well. Plenty of adults listen to what others believe is “bad music” and it never gets attributed to their age.

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  • Anonymous

    Very interesting and pertinent article. As a white-Australian, I’ve never been subjected to much in the way of being racialised (with the exception of once in England when an older fellow picked my Australian accent and had a lot of aggressive things to say about class and intelligence, presumably because of Australia’s convict history; of which, just in case, we convict-descendants are relatively proud to have overcome being sent to the other side of the world as thieves of little more than bread). However, my wonderful cousins are half-Indonesian and my aunt from an Indonesian-Islamic background, so this is still an issue rather close to my heart. While he has handled the attacks he has been subjected to with strength and poise, it disturbs me that he has had to be on the receiving end of such vile commentary, and his bandmates labelled by some as “enablers” of whatever disgusting things they accuse him of. While a large proportion of the criticism that comes from tumblr is intended as ironic humour (the most popular form of humour on the medium and often without underlying sincerity), as there is on all social mediums (youtube and twitter, as you mentioned, for example), there is a proponent that truly feel the vitriol they direct at Zayn Malik. One thing I would also point out is that all of the One Direction boys have been victims of revolting objectification, not necessarily for race but aggressive speculation regarding their sexualities (Louis), unfounded accusations of womanising and sexism (Harry), invasive attempts to find out about their personal lives prior to fame (Niall) and slights regarding intelligence and the company they keep (Liam). All of the above speaks of society’s inability to acknowledge the multifaceted personalities of their public figures which, potentially at its ugliest, feeds into racism and the proliferation of racial stereotypes and vilification. It becomes particularly sad when one remembers that these are just young men who have a lot on their plates even before one considers this irrational hatred.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting and pertinent article. As a white-Australian, I’ve never been subjected to much in the way of being racialised (with the exception of once in England when an older fellow picked my Australian accent and had a lot of aggressive things to say about class and intelligence, presumably because of Australia’s convict history; of which, just in case, we convict-descendants are relatively proud to have overcome being sent to the other side of the world as thieves of little more than bread). However, my wonderful cousins are half-Indonesian and my aunt from an Indonesian-Islamic background, so this is still an issue rather close to my heart. While he has handled the attacks he has been subjected to with strength and poise, it disturbs me that he has had to be on the receiving end of such vile commentary, and his bandmates labelled by some as “enablers” of whatever disgusting things they accuse him of. While a large proportion of the criticism that comes from tumblr is intended as ironic humour (the most popular form of humour on the medium and often without underlying sincerity), as there is on all social mediums (youtube and twitter, as you mentioned, for example), there is a proponent that truly feel the vitriol they direct at Zayn Malik. One thing I would also point out is that all of the One Direction boys have been victims of revolting objectification, not necessarily for race but aggressive speculation regarding their sexualities (Louis), unfounded accusations of womanising and sexism (Harry), invasive attempts to find out about their personal lives prior to fame (Niall) and slights regarding intelligence and the company they keep (Liam). All of the above speaks of society’s inability to acknowledge the multifaceted personalities of their public figures which, potentially at its ugliest, feeds into racism and the proliferation of racial stereotypes and vilification. It becomes particularly sad when one remembers that these are just young men who have a lot on their plates even before one considers this irrational hatred.

  • anon

    I had no idea 1D had a muslim band member. Interesting Article and really sad about the racist comments Zayn Malik has been receiving. He should not have to deal with this at such a young age just because he is from another race, specifically muslim, who have had bad press lately in general.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catherinebouris Catherine Bouris

    Wonderful article! I always assumed the Mexican Zayn this was a reference to their appearance on SNL (in which they pretended to be from the Dominican Republic, so not quite the same thing) but um, evidently not. Obviously when he doesn’t shave, he’s Mexican. Despite being Pakistani. What’s logic??? But yeah, I love the band, and the racism (and homophobia) throughout the fandom is quite distressing. I hate that people tweet him with racist things, nobody deserves that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002629591663 Shahed Kadem

    Like you I am also a 23 year old 1D fan and this is something that I’ve often noticed- how the media and the fan base constantly refer to Zayn Malik as the “mysterious, bad boy.” It’s so contradictory especially since he seems to come from a very stable family home. The whole group is marketed as the “boys next door” that 15 year old girls can like and dream about yet this one guy is alienated as “the bad one.” People of color are either invisible or when are in the media, our/their race and ethnicity is used as a way to profit and create an appeal- it is used as a commodity in which its value is determined by white culture. When it comes to One Direction, Zayn Malik as a man of color is used as a prop for these white boys to derive their masculinity and appeal to white girls.

  • Anonymous

    Great job highlighting the issues faced by this young man that are usually swept under a rug by mainstream pop culture media outlets. Since I thought the boy band craze had died down 10 years ago, I wasn’t aware of 1D’s prominence, much less the fact that they have a Muslim band member so thanks for the heads up! BTW, could it be possible that 1D is the first popular boy band to have a nonwhite member in its cast? Compared to the bands of past (NKOTB, NSync, Backstreet Boys, 98 degrees, etc) that seems to be the case.

    • Anonymous

      Almost. Howie Dorough from the Backstreet Boys has an Irish father and a Puerto Rican mother. He was sold as the “Latin Lover” in a lot of articles from the time I remember. (yes, seriously)
      Here 3 pictures of him for a memory refresh: ;)
      http://www.fanmusical.net/Backstreet_Boys/Imagenes6/howie/fichah12.jpg
      http://i22.photobucket.com/albums/b336/katiebaby_09/Backstreet%20Boys/AJ%20McLean/Kevin%20Richardson/Nick%20Carter/Howie%20Dorough/Howard.jpg
      http://file022.bebo.com/14/large/2007/03/26/22/3798790332a3939249198b257973682l.jpg

      The bands you mentioned are all American and had success in the US. Other American boybands like US5 and Take5 were also all-White. Other than the Backstreet Boys, the only exception I can think of was O-Town: Trevor Penick has a Black father and a White mother and Erik-Michael Estrada is Puerto-Rican. Interestingly enough boybands from other countries (like the British One Direction) have more diversity than American ones: The German boyband Bed & Breakfast had two AfroGerman members: Daniel Aminati (father is Ghanan) and Kofi Ansuhenne (Ghanan); the German boyband Touché had Tunisian (and going back to Zayn and the discussion on Islamophobia here also Muslim) Karim Maataoui; the British boyband 5ive had Abidin Breen, whose father is Turkish (his mother is Irish) ; the British boyband Blue had Afro English Simon Webbe and the German band The Boyz had Adel Tawil (also Muslim, his father is Egyptian and his mother is Tunisian) and Tarek Hussein (Palestinian).

  • Lola

    Hi, what a lovely and well written article. It’s infuriating how Zayn is sometimes treated in the media and by some of the so-called fans. Anyhow, did someone else notice how all the boys in One Direction are suddenly the same skin colour (even Niall)?! Zayn used to be tanner during X Factor. Is there some ‘white-washing’ going on or are they trying to avoid for Zayn to stand out so much?! Maybe I’m just hallucinating but it seems weird.

  • Anonymous

    Funny that you mention THAT instead of Harry Styles’ relationship when he was 17 with 32 year old Lucy Horobin and then when he was 18 with the also 32 year old Caroline Flack. (Gosh, I read the Daily Mail too much…)

  • Mickey

    Don’t forget Jonathan Knight from New Kids on the Block. He was also marketed as the “quiet one” whereas Donnie Wahlberg was the “bad boy”.

  • t678

    Fantastic article. Glad someone finally highlighted some of the issues surrounding “images and race” in mainstream media. It needs to be done. Thanks for doing it.

  • Anonymous

    I checked the “Mexican Zayn” tag now and one of the first pictures to come up is one that is tagged “Zayn is a Mexican drug dealer”. I can’t.

  • Emry

    This article essentially just put into words something thats been on my mind for quite some time now. Very well done. Definitely needs to be shared.

  • Anonymous

    Racist stereotyping AND bad music. The perfect tools to exploit the semi-literate teenage audience.

  • Emma

    This is so interesting! I didn’t know too much about 1D and I liked learning about them from this point of view. I agree that it’s unfortunate Zayn is marketed that way and some of those comments about him–the Jihad, the Mecca–are almost too insane to believe. Agree with Z that by now, everyone, except for the token nut jobs, should have moved on. Truly unfortunate and I wish him the best.

    By the way: I don’t know 1D as well as I could because my musical interests are primarily Swedish-oriented and you might be interested to know that Swedes of North African and Middle Eastern descent are actually really, really well represented (suprising, eh?). A few recommendations:
    Loreen–of Moroccan descent, VERY famous all over Europe for her song “Euphoria”. She’s edgy, avant-garde-ish, and quite the activist, as well.

    Eric Saade–half-Lebanese, half Swedish but since he does have darker skin/hair/eyes than your average Swede and a Lebanese surname, people definitely are aware of his ethnicity. Formerly a cute kid with a very 1D-ish sound, now a bit more into dance. IMO, never considered a bad boy.

    Darin–of Kurdish descent, seems to inspire Kurdish pride all around the world (half the comments on his YouTube videos are along the lines of “proud to be Kurdish!”). Brilliant pop/dance/epic ballads, also vaguely 1Dish. And also never a bad boy, despite admitting to getting his driver’s license taken away in Germany.

    Oh, and in Norway, there’s the Iranian immigrant Tooji. He’s new to the music scene (he’s a former model–ooh!) and is like the least bad boy ever. He’s works as a child protection consultant and his latest single was a song about how much his mother means to him. Aw!

    ^^ Just some tips if you’re looking for more North African/Middle Eastern pop stars. Something clearly went wrong with 1D’s marketing–could this possibly be related to the Spice Girls’ marketing (IMO) gaffe? The only non-white woman in the group was Scary Spice. Completely tasteless.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the artist recs!

  • AD

    Bless this article. Agree with everything.

  • Sarah

    Very well written article. Very thoroughly researched as well! This topic isn’t put into spotlight enough, especially with his outburst on Twitter. I find it quite sad as well that some fans have degraded to calling him racist names and loosely using very offensive terms. They paint him to be a “homeless drug-addict”, solely based on his image, which is quite frankly, disgusting. This misinterpretation of Zayn being the “bad-boy” because he’s “different” and “mysterious” which is tied to the racist ideologies surrounding coloured men and is quite cruel to see. Overall, very well written article. Glad to see someone openly discuss this topic.

  • Blair

    An incredible article, truly written with taste and validity. Thank you for sharing with the public.

  • Anonymous

    The boyband Jihad thing is making me rage stroke right now. I’m a bit lost for words.