My Fight Against Intolerance As Captain America

My American nationalism is built on a dream I still cling to, even in these trying times.

Though I was born in our nation’s capital, I am often not seen as American.

My parents are Indian, and out on the streets of America — especially since the tragedy of 9/11, and now during the divisive infancy of our current president’s reign — I along with many South Asians have become a target.

Some of us have been assaulted. A few of us have been killed. Many of us have been told time and again, “Go back home.” And at least one high-ranking employee of the administration considers us lucky just to be allowed to live in this great country.

I rebuke the bigoted delusion that I am not American — and so I have taken on the most unlikely of missions. I’ve decided to don the uniform of that quintessential American superhero: Captain America.

With the Star-Spangled Banner

Now, I get to live through the question mark of what it means to be American.

The genesis for my idea dates back to 2012, following a Sunday morning attack by a White supremacist on worshippers at a Sikh temple. My friend Fiona Aboud, a Brazilian-American photographer, convinced me to wear the uniform based on a vision I had penned on paper almost a year earlier: a bearded Captain America with a turban, battling hate and intolerance.

My first outing turned out to be a life-altering experience. As I walked all over New York City for a photo shoot, countless strangers came up to hug me. Tourists hailed me down for directions. NYPD officers took pictures for their kids. FDNY officers provided their trucks for use in photos. I even got pulled into a wedding.

Our mythology of comic superheroes created a strange sacred space where I became the most patriotic of Americans in the eyes of my fellow denizens.

Our mythology of comic superheroes created a strange sacred space.

Since that day I have been on a campaign from New York to California, Kansas to Mississippi, Ohio to Pennsylvania, visiting schools, universities, conferences, retreats, camps, conventions, and marches. Requests for these missions come from teachers, students, librarians, diversity officers, artists, cosplayers — basically anyone who sees my performance as a clarion call for action.

I have received love letters from those serving in the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A veteran painted a full body portrait of me. First-generation immigrants have sent missives of gratitude. Teachers from across America have shared stories of incorporating my work and message into their curriculum. In my travels to schools across the country, elementary and middle school kids have embraced my vision to the point of personalizing the turban and beard into their art.

With veterans against the war, in Cleveland.

More surprisingly, self-professed white conservative Americans have sent messages of appreciation, too.

Countless Republican delegates at the RNC convention captured my vision of Captain America on their camera phones. Police officers from Texas and Iowa hollered me down to take selfies. Some who came to Washington, DC from across the nation to celebrate the inauguration gave a welcoming nod. A few acknowledged that they did not agree with everything coming from the mouth of the man entering the White House.

With the simple act of donning a superhero costume, I offer an alternate view of what it is to be American. One could argue that this is, right now, of particular importance.

The United States today is a nation grappling with its past and struggling with its present. Hate is on the rise again. It was always there, of course, but it has been emboldened by our current administration. Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Indians, Sikhs, Asians — they are all targets today.

It should come as no shock that there have also been those who have recoiled at my presence. They have called me all kinds of names — Desert N*****, Raghead, Goat humper, ISIS, Osama, Terrorist. A few have told me to go back home.

But the truth is, I return home everyday. And this home leaves me feeling at times uplifted by the embrace of my fellow Americans, and at times anguished over their bigotry.

The America I fight for is the one I found that first day on the streets of New York City, and the one I continue to find in my travels. In this time of historical urgency, we find ourselves impregnated with the hope for change, dreaming of a better world — trying to live the vision of our founding fathers. A vision to uphold the values of justice, freedom, and equality. A vision of a nation made mostly of immigrants, defined by its diversity.

What gets me out in uniform time and again is this America — the one I get to experience that lives at the constant precipice of hope, optimism, and greatness.

While shooting the short film, ‘Red White & Beard’

This greatness is defined against the backdrop of conquest, slavery, and an experiment in democracy. It is emboldened by lofty humanistic ideals, and at times confined by self preservation at the cost of these very ideals. It is marked by an embrace of intense social, cultural, and technological innovation. It inspires people to come to our shores for a better future, one marked by the ebullient conviction that you can be anything you want to be.

What you look like and where you come from does not matter in America.

Except it does.

Transcending this contradiction through the maze of race, opportunity, insecurity, determination, jingoism, acceptance, patriotism, and diversity is what makes our stories a legendary compilation of dreams.

It is this dream narrative that I cling to.

This is the nationalism of my Captain America.