"Off Color" is an occasional series exploring the intersection of race and comedy in Asian America.
It's hard to make racism funny. Yet somehow 31-year-old Aamer Rahman has built a career in comedy doing just that.
"I don't think if you're a person of color that you have to talk about race," said Rahman. "But for me, that's what I want to talk about."
The awareness that life could be different for people of different races arrived early. Rahman was born in Saudi Arabia, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, and raised in Australia and Oman before his family settled in Melbourne for good when he was 13. Those early days in Australia, as one of few children of color at school, were punctuated with moments of discomfort -- what Rahman years later identified as latent, low-level racism.
"The first time I felt it I was too young to understand what was happening," said Rahman. "It was me finding everything strange and everyone finding me strange."
Throughout his life, Rahman's family took regular trips to Bangladesh to visit family and keep him and his younger sister, Rasha, connected to their parents' country of origin. His father, Mushfiq, was an engineer, and first left Dhaka after getting married to teach at a university abroad. Rahman's mother, Rezina, was raised between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Even far away from extended family, Rahman was raised in a tight-knit clan with a strong sense of cultural pride. Thrust into an Australian society that considered him "other," he says he never considered playing down or diluting his heritage.
"I had such a strong connection with my parents' country, it just kind of never occurred to me," he said. "That's who I was. That's who I was comfortable being. That's the way I was raised."
"Without 9/11, I wouldn't have been a comic"
Rahman went on to earn a law degree. He stayed in Australia, dabbling in social and community work, never quite finding his footing. He had, as he puts it, "no idea," what he wanted to do with his life. An unexpected chance to step on stage at a 2007 open mic night changed that. Rahman signed up to perform on a whim, following the lead of his friend, Nazeem Hussain. The comedy pair took off, under a brand they created called "Fear of a Brown Planet."
The name, for them, encapsulated the political climate they felt swirling around them at the time. Islam -- their religion -- was suddenly the topic of every news talk show. Their "otherness" carried with it the additional burden of misunderstanding and suspicion. Comedy gave them cover to talk openly about the things they discussed privately with friends.
"Before 9/11, a lot of people didn't know what Muslims were. People still don't really have a concept of what Islam is. But without 9/11, I wouldn't have been a comic," said Rahman. "We did what we found funny, and what our friends found funny."
"I came into comedy around the same time as the War on Terror," he notes, before pausing briefly and smirking. "Two parallel success stories."
For someone who trades in relatively heavy topics, Rahman is relaxed in his delivery. He is earnest, often wide-eyed, as if flummoxed by the absurdity of the stories he's telling. He gestures often to his audience, inviting them into a conversation he's having with himself. But he doesn't pull his punches.
"Things happen in Australia that the rest of the world decided was racist like 50 years ago," he jokes in one performance. "Australia is so racist, other white countries are embarrassed by us."
During another show, he jokes about creating educational workshops for white people. "I have another workshop, it's for white women only," Rahman says. "It's called 'Why Do You Clutch Your Handbag When You See Me?' We can see you doing it, by the way."
After a solid few years of building a name and a fan base around Australia, Hussain and Rahman eventually decided to part ways. Hussain's comedy television show took off. Rahman felt like he'd "hit a wall." Last year, he says, he was close to quitting, and decided to post one last video online -- a stand-up bit entitled "Reverse Racism."
It's a single joke, nearly three minutes long, in which Rahman responds to those who accuse him -- and many do -- of being racist towards white people. The result is a detailed, blow by blow, historically-informed take-down of a criticism that's hounded his career. The clip went viral. There was an audience, he saw, for his kind of comedy.
"There's no way to plan these things, especially in this industry, things kind of happen to you," said Rahman. "I've learned to be 100% realistic about not getting my hopes up too high about things and just take opportunities as they come."
That latest opportunity came in the form of his first North American tour -- six weeks on the American East Coast and Canada. Shows in New York sold out in hours. His jokes, inspired by observations from Australia, found traction abroad.
"I think the reality is that in the western, English-speaking world, a lot of the experiences are just so similar," said Rahman. "A lot of the ways people experience racism are just identical regardless of the fact that we lives miles and miles apart."
He pauses for effect before finishing with a laugh.
"That's what brings us together!"