When I was a kid I had a huge poster of Paula Abdul on my bedroom wall. I also had a picture of her on the back of my door, in my trapper keeper, and owned every tape she ever recorded [Though not a very discerning fan to be clear since for years I thought her song ‘Rush Rush’ was in fact titled ‘Mush Mush’ about a snow-dog race in Alaska]. It was less about the music and more about the last name- Abdul. A Muslim last name. I analyzed her clothing, her accent, pored over interviews in Tiger Beat trying to figure out where she was from. Morocco? Turkey? [I quite frankly still don’t know since by the time the internet was ever present I lost interest].
I admired this woman because her last name was similar to names I knew in the small circle of my life. And considering back in my day there were hardly any South Asian or Muslim people on the large or small screen, or anywhere really- I longed for a face to identify with. In school we celebrated Hanukkah, Christmas, and later Kwanzaa, but where was Eid? It wasn’t. I felt I practiced a secret faith, that I belonged to an invisible minority- where were we when I turned on the TV? [You know, normal versions of ‘me’ not mustachioed bandits or terr.orists in action films] And while now, for the life of me, I can’t understand why it was so important to me to have a person who reflected me on television or in any media, period, I do remember how earnestly I longed for it. I imagine children today are no different in this regard.
My son is growing up in a different world. Aziz Ansari, Dave Chapelle, Talib Kweli, Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Russel Peters, are just a handful of famous faces who in some way, resemble him. He also is born into a world where Eid Stamps are a given. Seems silly but such an important and hard-earned milestone that did not come easy. It’s a whole new world from the one I grew up in and I’m glad for it. [though let’s be honest, he will not be watching any Aziz, Chapelle or Kweli material for some time to come].
When I see dates at Sam’s Club and Krogers, not just any dates, but Mejdool dates just in time for Ramadan, I don’t take its presence lightly. Seeing variations of my face or race reflected in the media, seeing something as small as dates, to me they are a silent acknowledgment to Ramadan and on a bigger scale an acknowledgment of me: you’re a part of the fabric of this society, we see you, we recognize you.
Which is why when Whole Foods decided to explicitly state in internal e-mails that we should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered ‘Celebrating or promoting’ Ramadan, it felt like a punch to the gut.
Whole Foods, in years past, sold items from Muslim distributors during Ramadan. They advertised this with small crescent and star logos above the items, just as they have passover signs over relevant products, just as they celebrate many other holidays. Apparently some people didn’t like this, and shared their bigotry with Whole Foods which made them decide to remove any mention of Ramadan from their stores this year. A Q&A for store clerks explicitly covered the issue as well: Is Whole Food Market hosting a campaign to celebrate Ramadan? No. Whole Foods Market is not promoting Ramadan.
To be clear, I don’t expect grocery stores or malls to have Ramadan banners or any sort of accommodation for this time. It’s a corporate world and its up to the corporation who they acknowledge. But. Its one thing for a company to simply not consider Ramadan for it to be just an afterthought. It’s another to make it a store policy not to acknowledge it because some bigots told you not to, especially when you did so in the past.
When I see Asif Mandvi, or Moz Jobrani, and their mainstream success, I see an implicit message that says you exist. And when I hear about Whole Foods taking affirmative steps to make sure that they in no way, shape, or form acknowledge Ramadan, I see an explicit message that says: but we really wish you didn’t.
And while I’m not outraged, shocked, or devastated, and nor am I planning to boycott or toss [cage-free] eggs at their store fronts, this news story saddened me. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say, I’m a little hurt, and most certainly disappointed.
UPDATED TO ADD: Since I know Whole Foods has issued statements denying any of this and saying they are still running promotions for Ramadan based items, I went to Whole Foods today. I asked them for their Ramadan related items, the seasonal items. They stared at me like I was asking to locate the aisle for skewered koala bears. Five sales clerks later, Customer Service said that while they have some Saffron related products they aren’t carrying anything different than they ordinarily would and were definitely not doing anything related to Ramadan. Riddle me that Whole Foods?