Tune in Tonight as Roseanne Meets Her Muslim Neighbors

Tune in Tonight as Roseanne Meets Her Muslim Neighbors

Rachel Peric | May 8, 2018

In tonight's episode of the ABC comedy series, Roseanne, tune in to see Roseanne Conner experience a change of heart after encountering her new Muslim neighbors.   It’s a potent reminder of the fears that many Americans harbor, and of the power of personal encounters - whether in communities or through familiar characters in Hollywood -  to move past them. 

The show opens with Roseanne in a panic, worrying that a new family that has moved in across the street might be terrorists.  Her suspicions are allayed when she gets to know Salim and Fatima Al Harazi, who also help her see what the family is experiencing as a result of the fears and hatred of others in the community – their little boy is so afraid after being targeted that he has taken to wearing a flak jacket to bed. When Roseanne later encounters Fatima at a supermarket checkout line in a moment of need and witnesses her being on the receiving end of a cashier’s cruel insults, she intervenes to help Fatima - and to deliver a cutting takedown of the bigoted bully.

This kind of evolution – from fear to empathy, bystander to upstander – resonates deeply for the moment we are in, one in which Muslim Americans face rising attacks and growing incidents of young people being targeted, with over half of Muslim students reporting that they have been bullied.  It is also a time when more Americans are speaking and acting in support of core values like religious liberty and inclusion, recognizing that our communities are strongest when everyone who lives in them feels welcome.   

It is also the case that a majority of Americans, like Roseanne Conner, don’t have a personal relationship with a Muslim, a fact that, when coupled with how Muslims are often portrayed in media and in Hollywood, underscores why encounters like the one on Roseanne are so needed to counter misperceptions.  The episode also speaks to the well documented power of intergroup contact to reduce prejudice and even shape perspectives around immigration and related policies that draw on fears surrounding changing demographics.  And it echoes an instinct we have seen and documented in our work at Welcoming America, to bring neighbors together to find common ground.

Of course, all this in a show whose star, Roseanne Barr, is the subject of controversy for her own statements about Muslims and many other groups, while the show itself has received both praise and its fair share of criticism for both taking on issues of race and othering while also putting out some dog whistle zingers of its own.  Like its predecessors, Roseanne both challenges and reinforces the stereotypes of its time, sometimes swimming in the same waters it aspires to surface above.

It will be important for this episode to be a starting point, not an end point, for shifting perspectives along a continuum from fearful to tolerant to truly welcoming.  It is important for an ambivalent America to not only recognize new neighbors as friends who share common values, but ultimately to aspire and work toward equal opportunities and outcomes for all Americans.  But the reality is that as America has become more diverse, our neighborhoods remain deeply segregated – meaning that for many, especially those being targeted with Islamaphobic messaging, the kinds of encounters that Roseanne experiences with a neighbor are not only crucial, but can only take place through a familiar surrogate on television, with many encountering people like the Al Harazi’s for the very first time.   And as they do, it will ultimately be important for those bridge figures to also be as multiracial as the American public itself.

Hollywood plays an important role bringing these stories into the living rooms of Americans and reminding us of values that are important.  But Hollywood can never be as powerful as the experience of these same encounters in real life.  Perhaps the culture shapers in Hollywood can also find ways to broadcast the authentic accounts of the people working in their own hometowns to share their deeply personal experiences and fears, and their humanizing and transformative encounters with neighbors.  We have seen the power of those kinds of encounters in the daily encounters taking place across America, and also captured for audiences in shows like Queer Eye, and in films like The Muslims are Coming.  

Yet for all that, I believe that the episode serves an important role, offering a reminder of the power of our ability to see each other as neighbors and how that instinct can overcome our desire to view each other with suspicion.   It offers a hopefulness that is sorely needed, of the ability of those who are fearful to open their doors, and of those who are passive in the face of injustice to be moved to act.

Go Back