I can’t count the number of times people have mispronounced my last name. (Hiyama. Hee-YAH-muh.) I’m shocked if someone says it correctly the first time. My 93-year old grandpa has pronounced it wrong on purpose for a lot of his life so he doesn’t have to constantly correct people. It’s really not hard to say once you know how to say it, and people generally get with the program quickly, but there is still something that feels crappy about having to explain myself and how I came to be whenever my last name comes up.
Our names beget our personhood and confirm our existence. To have a name that is consistently fucked up by other people is to always feel like you’re abnormal, other, less. You feel simultaneously conspicuous and invisible. Everyone notices the difference, but nobody sees beyond it. In the United States, family names are important, but as an unapologetically individualistic nation, our first names are even more essential to our being. So as much as I identify with that experience of people mispronouncing my last name, it is a wholly different experience to not only have people mispronounce your first name but also to make fun of it. And while anyone can have a name that is tricky to pronounce by American English standards, names are racialized and the mockery is certainly a racialized experience.Everyone knows where I’m going with this by now. To have your name mocked during an international awards show after you’ve been presented with the highest honor of your career is humiliating. For a white man to do that to a black man after the presentation of the highest honor of his career is quintessential toxic whiteness. Jimmy Kimmel is not known for making particularly enlightened or interesting jokes, but surely anyone can understand why mocking the name of Mahershala Ali, a black Muslim actor (the first Muslim actor to win that honor, and for his performance in a film that centers blackness and queerness; radical in every way) perpetuates the idea that white names are “real” names while names that are racially marked are not. Making fun of Mahershala Ali’s name at a ceremony during which he won Best Supporting Actor reminds Mahershala and everyone watching that no matter how much you achieve, an extremely mediocre white dude comedian can ridicule you in front of a huge audience if you are black. Jimmy, who clearly wants to be known as a good, liberal dude, went for an old white supremacist tactic: erase someone’s accomplishments and personhood by delegitimizing the word that brings them into the realm of existence.
Hosting the Oscars is generally not about pushing the boundaries of comedy; it’s about creating a lighthearted atmosphere for a show that a wide variety of people watch. In a generous interpretation of Jimmy Kimmel’s fuck up, he (ignorantly) thought he was making harmless jokes that everyone could relate to. While most people can relate to it in one way or another, the jokes are only funny if you’re the Jimmy rather than the Mahershala. The message of the joke was clear: that Mahershala Ali is not a real, strong American name, while Patrick is a real one, regardless of the fact that Mahershalalhashbaz is a Biblical name and that he was born in Oakland, California. It is staggering that in the same show, someone who literally said, “I want to say thank you to President Trump. I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” and who is ostensibly opposed to the white supremacy Trump represents could fail to understand the kind of white supremacy he himself represents. Without Jimmys there would be no Donalds. Without the Donalds of history who were leaders in building white supremacist institutions, the Jimmys would be out of a job because there would be no one to laugh at their unfunny (racist) jokes. It is truly mindboggling that Jimmy could not understand this. He is rich! Surely he has access to Audre Lorde’s complete works or at least to EverydayFeminism.com! I always believe that people can learn and change, but it is hard to know what to do with white dudes who want others to think of them and to think of themselves as fundamentally good (liberal) people but who are completely unwilling to put in any of the necessary work to unlearn their own toxicity.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Jimmy Kimmel as an individual understands the intricacies of white supremacy or whether he can have an insightful dialogue about queer black masculinity, but it does matter that he affirmed white supremacy and mocked an incredible black Muslim artist in front of the whole world. That is unacceptable. If Jimmy won’t do the work, others will. We can learn about black artists and their work, their legacies, how they define the artistic landscapes of the United States and the world. We can support black artists financially instead of buying things from Amazon. We can question our aesthetic sensibilities (which, for me, are certainly imbued with white supremacy). We will keep doing other racial justice work. Congratulations to Mahershala Ali and everyone else who worked on Moonlight for a beautiful and much-needed movie and well-deserved Oscars! And congratulations to Jimmy Kimmel for embarrassing himself internationally!