Rad Brown Dads is a tribute to fathers in all their vintage photographed glory, with images of dads across the decades sporting 1930s swimsuits, 1970s bell bottoms, impressive mustaches, sideburns, sunglasses and much more. Graduate student Ahmed Ali Akbar, born in Michigan to two Pakistani immigrant parents, started posting the photos on the site in October 2013, and he invited others to submit photos too with comments and descriptions. “This blog was designed with the idea of fostering self-love and retrospection on the struggles, beauty and power of our parents,” he wrote. “Generally, this was conceived of as a resistance to de-sexualized stereotypes of Muslim and South Asian men as sexist, dweeby and abusive.”
Rad Brown Dads may inspire you to dust off the family photo albums (or bust out your digitally archived images), take another look at old photos of your dad and think about him in different ways. In this interview with The Aerogram, the site’s founder tells us more about himself, his dad, and his loving tribute to “the rad brown dads who are often forgotten or villainized in the search for identity.”
What makes a brown dad, or any dad, rad?
It’s really just perception, isn’t it? I think the whole issue is that we often automatically assume our dads aren’t rad because most depictions of them are not of as heroes of their own stories. So all it requires to think of a dad as rad is… to think it? Weirdly, that seems like a radical concept.
The flip side of this question is more interesting to me — am I maybe falsely endorsing the idea that all dads are rad? What makes them not rad? I was privileged enough to have a very happy childhood, where my parents took care of me and never hit me or anything. I wonder how individuals who have had more difficult relationships with their fathers relate to the blog. There are definitely some NOT RAD dads out there, and I don’t want to act like everyone’s dad is just swell. By and large, I am surprised with the love that people have shown to the concept. But I don’t want to step on the toes of anyone who has not-rad dads who may be abusive or absent.
How do you decide which photos and submissions to share on Rad Brown Dads?
Mostly, I think: “would my older sister call me up and confront me about why I posted x-y-or-z photo? If not, post it!” It is a pretty low criteria in that sense. But my sister is super critical and I am scared of her.
When we first got in touch, you mentioned that you had finals coming up. What are you studying?
I’m a Master’s Student at Divinity School, focusing on Islamic Studies. Basically, I’m interested in American Muslim culture and religion, as well as issues of race, class and unity. I’m also trying to pick up as much Arabic as possible. If I do end up continuing on in the academy, I’ll be focusing on ethnography in American Muslim communities, most likely.
Why did you start Rad Brown Dads? Who is it for?
Probably, initially, I started it for myself. But by now, it has ended up being an analogue for kids of color and kids of immigrants in America. It’s also for dads to feel a little love, you know? My experience growing up (and that of my friends) was that I hero-worshiped my mother. She was a doctor, activist, leader and feminist, the person I wanted to grow up to be. If I were 15 and you asked me if I were to make a Rad Brown Dads blog, I’d probably have laughed. My father was often away at work and difficult to relate to. I thought dads everywhere were a disappointment, and moms were the best. I’m sure 15 year old me would have been much more into the concept of rad brown moms.
So I started it as a loving tribute to the rad brown dads who are often forgotten or villainized in the search for identity. I am happy to say that for the most part, it has now been taken over by submissions. People seem to identify with the concept. I’m glad it extended beyond just me. It’s a real joy to see the love and care people put in describing their dads.
A contributor to the site mentions “a lot of immigrant kids grow up hella internalizing that racist shame about their parents’ cultural idiosyncrasies as really weird, embarrassing and generally uncool.” Was that something you experienced when growing up?
I wouldn’t have called my own experience internalized racist shame. I was always super into my Pakistani/Muslim identity cause my parents were — I brought Qur’ans to elementary school, did presentations on Malcolm X, wore kurtas to class, all that stuff — but I also got told I had ‘poop-brown skin’ and was a ‘terrorist’. So I was probably insecure but confident at the same time. I never associated any shame with my parents though. They still are some of the most incredible, inspiring people I know. I always got very angry when people acted like my parents spoke bad English, considering my mother was probably one of the most well-read persons I knew. She would on the reg read two whole books in one night, while still holding down a job as a medical professional.
What is your dad like? Is his photo on the site? What does he think of Rad Brown Dads?
Yep! He was one of the first people I posted. My mom actually shows up more than my dad. I’m kind of sitting on a bunch pictures of him right now for if submissions dry up. I’ve described him a bunch above, but he’s, I don’t know. I think of him as kind of a traditional Punjabi male, but he’s definitely very forward thinking. Grew up in a somewhat traditional Rajput family, but had a love marriage with my Urdu-speaking mom. He’s super cool on class, gender and race stuff. Also, a pretty good storyteller. All my friends describe him as ‘very cute,’ though growing up I was a little scared of him. He’s extremely generous and probably one of the least materialistic people I know. He is kinda mediocre (but not horrible!) with technology, so even though I sent him the link, I don’t really think he has spent much time on the site. He approves though. Recently, I asked him if I could share some story/picture of him online, and he goes “of course beta. You know me, I have no secrets.” Which is, I think, actually a pretty fair statement about both of us.
What kinds of things are you doing when you’re not working on Rad Brown Dads?
Well, for one, trying to figure out what I’ll do after grad school. That involves a lot of writing, though I don’t do as much as I’d like to think. I unfortunately don’t have much else going on in my life besides grad school, the job search, RBD, and my family. I guess I read comics and fiction, listen to hip-hop and punk and play video games? I’m a nerd, is what I’m trying to say, a nerd.
Oh, I also have an essay coming out about my parents in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy. You should check that out.
In one post you mention that you wore an outfit inspired by a rad brown dad. Are the dads on the site generally speaking fashion or style inspirations for you? If so, in what ways?They wear their stuff with panache, you know?I think my personal style was already trying to capture the type of clothing my dad and his friends wore in the seventies and eighties in America, but the overwhelming diversity of the posts I receive means its pretty hard to emulate a lot of the guys I post. Occasionally it makes me think about possibilities. Like the Guyanese father and son I just posted. He makes pleated-high-waisted pants with short sleeves shirts look SO GOOD.
In another sense, I’m inspired by the way these guys seem to have a confidence and self-assuredness that sometimes I don’t see my (specifically desi) peers having. They wear their stuff with panache, you know? I want all my dude friends to have that.