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‘You Don’t Sound American’

A 2018 interview showing two local television news presenters ambushing an Iranian-American activist — and then getting rebuffed — received renewed attention in August 2022.

Another activist, Dr. Arash Daneshzadeh, posted (and later deleted) footage from Hoda Katebi’s encounter with WGN-TV personalities Robin Baumgarten and Larry Potash, explaining:

Hoda Katebi was being interviewed on TV abt her work in Chicago [with] Afghan refugees there. Then sh*t goes sideways. The anchor asks her about nuclear weapons like it was remotely related to the discourse on fashion & Afghan resettlement:

The clip from the February 2018 interview began with Potash saying, “Let’s talk about nuclear weapons. Our viewers say, ‘We cannot trust Iran.’ What are your thoughts?”

“I don’t think we can trust this country,” Katebi replies. “What has this country done for the majority of the countries in the Middle East? I don’t think of Iran having nuclear weapons; I’m a pacifist, I don’t believe in violence.”

As Katebi continues, mentioning the “legacy of imperialism and colonization” of the United States in the region, Baumgarten interrupts.

“A lot of Americans might take offense to that,” Baumgarten says. “You’re an American. You don’t sound like an American, know what I mean?”

“That’s ’cause I’ve read,” Katebi tells her. “I think that it’s really important that we look beyond these really simple narratives that we’re told, whether it’s about Muslim women; whether it’s about the legacy of this country and knowing that this country literally was built on the backs of Black slaves and after the genocide of indigenous people. I think there’s a lot that we can be proud about, but I think that we shouldn’t let that blindside us for the reality of the situation.”

As the Chicago Reader reported at the time, the segment had been pitched to Katebi as a 5-minute interview on her book Tehran Streetstyle.

Katebi said in her own blog that in hindsight, she felt she should have stopped the interview when Potash mentioned “nuclear weapons,” and questioned him on why he felt the need to make the “ridiculous comment.”

She then said of Baumgarten’s claim:

Not to mention that what, then, must an American “sound like”? Are they saying that Americans must not question their government, must see the world in black & white, and chose simplicity over nuanced understandings? In that case, you all are doing it right. But furthermore, what an incredibly loaded statement to say to a visibly Muslim woman on live TV, pushing every stereotype of “other”, “foreign”, and “incompatible with America” that Muslims are so systematically characterized as–and therefore used as justification to commit violence against, both here and abroad. If a white person said the same things as I did I guarantee you their “American-ness” would not have been questioned.

‘You Don’t Sound American’
‘You Don’t Sound American’

Two days after the interview aired, Katebi said on Twitter that Baumgarten had apologized to her in a follow-up call:

“It was big of her,” Katebi told the Reader. “I don’t think the interview was malicious necessarily—it comes mostly from a place of ignorance.”

The Reader further reported:

Katebi claims she arranged a second interview with Potash and Baumgarten (scheduled to air tonight and Friday morning) about “what went wrong” in January. But she says WGN changed the terms of that interview because it “didn’t trust her.”

“I was going to break down that interview with Larry and Robin and place it within the larger anti-Muslim and Islamophobia sentiment happening in this country,” Katebi tells the Reader.

Instead, Katebi said, WGN’s then-news director Jennifer Lyons told her that instead of being part of a follow-up interview with both Baumgarten and Potash, Katebi would appear in “a brief edited segment with Baumgarten” as part of a story on microagressions that would be published on the station’s website. Katebi refused, saying that unlike his co-host, Potash had not been in contact with her following the interview.

“He didn’t even shake my hand — I shook Robin’s hand and he didn’t shake my hand,” Katebi said. “I felt actual hostility on his part.”

The station said at the time

We are committed to fostering education and a deeper understanding of race, religion and identity struggles. This is an important issue and we will continue to focus on this in our reporting. Both Robin and Larry have contacted Hoda personally and have apologized. WGN-TV management has also spoken with Hoda several times and has invited her twice to participate in a follow up interview.

As Daneshzadeh’s tweet gained attention in 2022, WGN posted a similar statement in response:

In Feb 2018 WGN Morning News hosted blogger Hoda Katebi. Post-interview Robin apologized to Hoda & they had a constructive dialogue about micro-aggressions. WGN ran several stories after this teachable moment to encourage deeper understanding of race religion & identity struggles.

Katebi also responded to the tweet prior to its deletion, writing, “Just a friendly reminder that this happens to esp women of color all the time & this isn’t particularly special! It was just live so they couldn’t edit anything out as is usually the case. Also I feel the need to clarify that I am not a ‘pacifist’ as I misspoke and claimed in the interview.”

The original 5-minute interview can be seen in full on Katebi’s YouTube account.