English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TED2016

Safwat Saleem: Why I keep speaking up, even when people mock my accent

Filmed
Views 1,398,183

Artist Safwat Saleem grew up with a stutter -- but as an independent animator, he decided to do his own voiceovers to give life to his characters. When YouTube commenters started mocking his Pakistani accent, it crushed him, and his voice began to leave his work. Hear how this TED Fellow reclaimed his voice and confidence in this charming, thoughtful talk.

- Artist, graphic designer, filmmaker
Safwat Saleem uses satire and art to bring to light stories of adversity. Full bio

I used to have this recurring dream
00:12
where I'd walk into a roomful of people,
00:14
and I'd try not to make
eye contact with anyone.
00:18
Until someone notices me,
00:22
and I just panic.
00:23
And the person walks up to me,
00:26
and says, "Hi, my name is So-and-so.
00:28
And what is your name?"
00:30
And I'm just quiet, unable to respond.
00:32
After some awkward silence, he goes,
00:37
"Have you forgotten your name?"
00:39
And I'm still quiet.
00:41
And then, slowly, all the other people
in the room begin to turn toward me
00:44
and ask, almost in unison,
00:48
(Voice-over, several voices)
"Have you forgotten your name?"
00:51
As the chant gets louder,
I want to respond, but I don't.
00:56
I'm a visual artist.
01:02
Some of my work is humorous,
01:04
and some is a bit funny but in a sad way.
01:07
And one thing that I really enjoy doing
01:12
is making these little animations
01:16
where I get to do the voice-over
for all kinds of characters.
01:19
I've been a bear.
01:22
(Video) Bear (Safwat Saleem's voice): Hi.
01:24
(Laughter)
01:26
Safwat Saleem: I've been a whale.
01:28
(Video) Whale (SS's voice): Hi.
01:29
(Laughter)
01:31
SS: I've been a greeting card.
01:32
(Video) Greeting card (SS's voice): Hi.
01:34
(Laughter)
01:36
SS: And my personal favorite
is Frankenstein's monster.
01:37
(Video) Frankenstein's monster
(SS's voice): (Grunts)
01:40
(Laughter)
01:43
SS: I just had to grunt
a lot for that one.
01:44
A few years ago,
I made this educational video
01:46
about the history of video games.
01:49
And for that one, I got to do
the voice of Space Invader.
01:52
(Video) Space Invader (SS's voice): Hi.
01:55
SS: A dream come true, really,
01:57
(Laughter)
01:59
And when that video was posted online,
02:00
I just sat there on the computer,
hitting "refresh,"
02:02
excited to see the response.
02:05
The first comment comes in.
02:07
(Video) Comment: Great job.
02:08
SS: Yes!
02:09
I hit "refresh."
02:11
(Video) Comment: Excellent video.
I look forward to the next one.
02:12
SS: This was just the first
of a two-part video.
02:16
I was going to work
on the second one next.
02:18
I hit "refresh."
02:20
(Video) Comment: Where is part TWO?
WHEREEEEE? I need it NOWWWWW!: P
02:21
(Laughter)
02:25
SS: People other than my mom
were saying nice things about me,
02:27
on the Internet!
02:30
It felt like I had finally arrived.
02:31
I hit "refresh."
02:33
(Video) Comment: His voice
is annoying. No offense.
02:35
SS: OK, no offense taken. Refresh.
02:37
(Video) Comment: Could you remake this
without peanut butter in your mouth?
02:40
SS: OK, at least the feedback
is somewhat constructive. Hit "refresh."
02:44
(Video) Comment: Please don't use
this narrator again
02:48
u can barely understand him.
02:51
SS: Refresh.
02:52
(Video) Comment: Couldn't follow
because of the Indian accent.
02:53
SS: OK, OK, OK, two things.
02:56
Number one, I don't have an Indian accent,
02:58
I have a Pakistani accent, OK?
03:00
And number two, I clearly
have a Pakistani accent.
03:02
(Laughter)
03:05
But comments like that kept coming in,
03:08
so I figured I should just ignore them
03:10
and start working
on the second part of the video.
03:13
I recorded my audio,
03:16
but every time I sat down to edit,
03:17
I just could not do it.
03:20
Every single time, it would take me
back to my childhood,
03:23
when I had a much harder time speaking.
03:26
I've stuttered for as long
as I can remember.
03:29
I was the kid in class
03:34
who would never raise his hand
when he had a question --
03:35
or knew the answer.
03:38
Every time the phone rang,
03:39
I would run to the bathroom
so I would not have to answer it.
03:40
If it was for me, my parents
would say I'm not around.
03:44
I spent a lot of time in the bathroom.
03:48
And I hated introducing myself,
03:51
especially in groups.
03:54
I'd always stutter on my name,
and there was usually someone who'd go,
03:55
"Have you forgotten your name?"
03:59
And then everybody would laugh.
04:00
That joke never got old.
04:02
(Laughter)
04:06
I spent my childhood
feeling that if I spoke,
04:09
it would become obvious
that there was something wrong with me,
04:13
that I was not normal.
04:18
So I mostly stayed quiet.
04:21
And so you see, eventually for me to even
be able to use my voice in my work
04:24
was a huge step for me.
04:27
Every time I record audio,
04:29
I fumble my way through saying
each sentence many, many times,
04:31
and then I go back in
04:35
and pick the ones
where I think I suck the least.
04:36
(Voice-over) SS: Audio editing
is like Photoshop for your voice.
04:42
I can slow it down, speed it up,
make it deeper, add an echo.
04:46
And if I stutter along the way,
and if I stutter along the way,
04:49
I just go back in and fix it.
04:53
It's magic.
04:55
SS: Using my highly edited
voice in my work
04:56
was a way for me
to finally sound normal to myself.
04:59
But after the comments on the video,
05:04
it no longer made me feel normal.
05:06
And so I stopped
using my voice in my work.
05:09
Since then, I've thought a lot
about what it means to be normal.
05:13
And I've come to understand
05:19
that "normal" has a lot to do
with expectations.
05:21
Let me give you an example.
05:25
I came across this story
05:26
about the Ancient Greek writer, Homer.
05:28
Now, Homer mentions
very few colors in his writing.
05:30
And even when he does,
05:34
he seems to get them quite a bit wrong.
05:36
For example, the sea
is described as wine red,
05:38
people's faces are sometimes green
and sheep are purple.
05:42
But it's not just Homer.
05:46
If you look at all
of the ancient literature --
05:48
Ancient Chinese, Icelandic, Greek, Indian
05:50
and even the original Hebrew Bible --
05:52
they all mention very few colors.
05:55
And the most popular theory
for why that might be the case
05:58
is that cultures begin
to recognize a color
06:02
only once they have the ability
to make that color.
06:04
So basically, if you can make a color,
06:07
only then can you see it.
06:09
A color like red, which was fairly easy
for many cultures to make --
06:11
they began to see that color
fairly early on.
06:15
But a color like blue,
which was much harder to make --
06:18
many cultures didn't begin to learn
how to make that color
06:21
until much later.
06:23
They didn't begin to see it
until much later as well.
06:24
So until then, even though
a color might be all around them,
06:27
they simply did not have
the ability to see it.
06:31
It was invisIble.
06:33
It was not a part of their normal.
06:34
And that story has helped
put my own experience into context.
06:38
So when I first read
the comments on the video,
06:42
my initial reaction was to take it
all very personally.
06:44
But the people commenting did not know
06:48
how self-conscious I am about my voice.
06:50
They were mostly reacting to my accent,
06:54
that it is not normal
for a narrator to have an accent.
06:56
But what is normal, anyway?
07:01
We know that reviewers will find
more spelling errors in your writing
07:03
if they think you're black.
07:06
We know that professors are less likely
to help female or minority students.
07:09
And we know that resumes
with white-sounding names
07:14
get more callbacks than resumes
with black-sounding names.
07:17
Why is that?
07:21
Because of our expectations
of what is normal.
07:23
We think it is normal
07:26
when a black student has spelling errors.
07:27
We think it is normal
07:30
when a female or minority student
does not succeed.
07:32
And we think it is normal
07:35
that a white employee
is a better hire than a black employee.
07:37
But studies also show
that discrimination of this kind,
07:41
in most cases, is simply favoritism,
07:44
and it results more from wanting
to help people that you can relate to
07:46
than the desire to harm people
that you can't relate to.
07:50
And not relating to people
starts at a very early age.
07:54
Let me give you an example.
07:58
One library that keeps track of characters
07:59
in the children's book
collection every year,
08:03
found that in 2014,
only about 11 percent of the books
08:06
had a character of color.
08:12
And just the year before,
that number was about eight percent,
08:14
even though half of American children
today come from a minority background.
08:18
Half.
08:21
So there are two big issues here.
08:23
Number one, children are told
that they can be anything,
08:25
they can do anything,
08:27
and yet, most stories
that children of color consume
08:28
are about people who are not like them.
08:31
Number two is that majority groups
don't get to realize
08:33
the great extent to which
they are similar to minorities --
08:36
our everyday experiences, our hopes,
08:39
our dreams, our fears
08:42
and our mutual love for hummus.
08:44
It's delicious!
08:45
(Laughter)
08:47
Just like the color blue
for Ancient Greeks,
08:49
minorities are not a part
of what we consider normal,
08:52
because normal is simply a construction
of what we've been exposed to,
08:57
and how visible it is around us.
09:02
And this is where things
get a bit difficult.
09:05
I can accept the preexisting notion
of normal -- that normal is good,
09:08
and anything outside of that very
narrow definition of normal is bad.
09:13
Or I can challenge
that preexisting notion of normal
09:17
with my work
09:22
and with my voice
09:24
and with my accent
09:26
and by standing here onstage,
09:28
even though I'm scared shitless
and would rather be in the bathroom.
09:30
(Laughter)
09:33
(Applause)
09:34
(Video) Sheep (SS's voice):
I'm now slowly starting to use my voice
09:45
in my work again.
09:48
And it feels good.
09:49
It does not mean I won't have a breakdown
09:50
the next time a couple dozen
people say that I talk
09:52
(Mumbling) like I have peanut
butter in my mouth.
09:55
(Laughter)
09:57
SS: It just means I now have
a much better understanding
09:58
of what's at stake,
10:01
and how giving up is not an option.
10:03
The Ancient Greeks didn't just wake up
one day and realize
10:08
that the sky was blue.
10:11
It took centuries, even, for humans
to realize what we had been ignoring
10:13
for so long.
10:16
And so we must continuously challenge
our notion of normal,
10:18
because doing so is going
to allow us as a society
10:22
to finally see the sky for what it is.
10:27
(Video) Characters: Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
10:32
Frankenstein's monster: (Grunts)
10:38
(Laughter)
10:39
SS: Thank you.
10:40
(Applause)
10:41

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Safwat Saleem - Artist, graphic designer, filmmaker
Safwat Saleem uses satire and art to bring to light stories of adversity.

Why you should listen

Safwat Saleem is a Pakistani-American visual artist, graphic designer and filmmaker. He's best known for making politically-charged satirical art. Safwat's artwork has used a variety of media, including illustration, writing, animation, audio, film and sculpture. He often combines several media to create multimedia storytelling experiences that get his audiences talking -- and laughing -- about subjects that tend to otherwise make people feel uncomfortable. Saleem is also the founder of Bandbaja, a Pakistani music magazine that promoted the use of modern popular music as a socio-political tool.

Saleem has a penchant for doing voiceovers in his films for all kinds of silly characters like a bear, sheep, greeting card and a whale to name a few. His work is shown regularly in galleries around the U.S. and has been featured in publications such as Wired, BoingBoing and Brainpickings. Safwat is a TED Senior Fellow and he likes pizza (like, a lot).

More profile about the speaker
Safwat Saleem | Speaker | TED.com