After working on his novel Family Lifefor seven years, Akhil Sharma began to lose his mind. Whenever he sat down to write, he began having panic attacks, the kind that left his chest feeling “constantly bruised” for months on end. Eventually, he hit on a solution: he learned to take his mind off his novel by praying for other people.
When I heard that my 21-year-old son, a student at Harvard, had been stopped by New York City police on more than one occasion during the brief summer he spent as a Wall Street intern, I was angry.
On one occasion, while wearing his best business suit, he was forced to lie face-down on a filthy sidewalk because—well, let’s be honest about it, because of the color of his skin. As an attorney and a college professor who teaches criminal justice classes, I knew that his constitutional rights had been violated.
As a parent, I feared for his safety at the hands of the police—a fear that I feel every single day, whether he is in New York or elsewhere.
Moreover, as the white father of an African-American son, I am keenly aware that I never face the suspicion and indignities that my son continuously confronts. In fact, all of the men among my African-American in-laws—and I literally mean every single one of them—can tell multiple stories of unjustified investigatory police stops of the sort that not a single one of my white male relatives has ever experienced.
Ms. Marvel, the Marvel superhero comic that debuted last month, has gotten a ton of media coverage because of what makes it unique. Mainstream superheroes are almost all white and almost all guys, and women of color virtually never carry their own titles. Even the X-Men’s Storm, a widely recognized and popular character, hasn’t ever headlined an ongoing series. So the fact that the new Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim girl named Kamala Khan is, for superhero comics at least, a long-awaited and much-welcome innovation.
The great thing about Ms. Marvel, though, is not how unusual it is, but how familiar. The second issue came out this week, and as the story goes on, it’s only becoming more apparent that Kamala’s narrative fits neatly into traditional superhero narratives. Like many a Peter Parker-esque nerd before her, Kamala is out of place and uncomfortable. Her parents don’t let her go to parties, and her acquaintances make clueless/mean-spirited comments about her background (“Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you? I’m just concerned.”). The first scene of the first comic shows Kamala sniffing a bacon sandwich that she can’t eat because of her family’s dietary restrictions—wanting but not quite able to do that thing everybody else does: eat American. She’s the unpopular kid, and then she gets superpowers so she can be admired by all those who rejected her. Thus, it’s an empowerment fantasy.
I envision a world where I can walk past fraternities without someone screaming sexual obscenities repeatedly in a high pitch as one would a pig. Where women aren’t berated for ignoring the advances of drunken strangers. Where does your entitlement come from, that you cannot see that our silence is a kindness?