In a White Supremacist Society, Middle Eastern Peoples Are Not ‘White’
A separate official category for Middle Eastern-North American (MENA) peoples on census forms is necessary and despite decades of Congressional lobbying efforts, has not been granted. Efforts to lobby the Office of Management and Budget have been ongoing since the 1980’s, and despite that, the latest attempt in 2018 has been unsuccessful. This designation includes a wide range of countries in the Middle East and acknowledges that, in the context of white supremacy which characterizes racism in the United States, Middle Eastern peoples are perceived as ‘brown,’ as essentially ‘other’ rather than the backdrop of social dominance, or ‘white.’ The decision to keep MENA peoples ‘white’ is made by a predominantly-white government, indicating a high degree of prejudice in the decision-making. An observation of this fact prompts consideration of motive, and one may be that the white-led government of a country that already benefits from discrimination against ME peoples does not need to codify it, because this codification would decrease the population of white people.
The notion that a government primarily comprised of white people have the capacity to decide the racial and/or ethnic category of another group of people in itself results in flawed conclusion. This maintains dominance because the ones with power do not have the direct, lived experience of the peoples for whom they make these decisions. This situation results in a denial of Middle Eastern peoples as distinct, which renders invisibility. Ultimately, invisibility for any group of people cannot be an end point with which they are satisfied. Obviously, if people with the power paired with a distinct inability to understand racism and ethnocentrism because they do not experience it cannot make these decisions properly, the power to resolve this dilemma should be handed to people who do face the discrimination. In other words, why are white people deciding the racial or ethnic statuses of others when they are the least qualified to understand the dilemma and have shown, historically, a distinct devotion to writing rules which benefit themselves as a group while excluding others?
The issue of a distinct census category for Arab-Americans is not a new ideal. Helen Samhan wrote about it in an essay published in 1985. Continuous attempts to establish such a category characterize the approach to these changes. Because ‘whiteness’ as a codified and contractual political system was established to privilege Europeans at the expense of all non-Europeans, history itself offers a definition which automatically excludes Middle Eastern peoples at the time of the construction of ‘race.’ The colonization which followed the establishment of race included areas in the Middle East in which people were considered ‘Oriental,’ ‘other,’ and ultimately inferior. More recently, decades of war have resulted in ugly stereotypes of a wide range of Middle Eastern peoples, including Afghanis, Iranians, and Iraqis. The fact that centuries of ‘othering’ precede our current time argues strongly against placing Middle Eastern peoples in a ‘white’ category and strongly for distinguishing them from European peoples.
The invention of whiteness required an ‘other,’ and that diametrically opposed ‘other’ is black. But ‘brown’ is also ‘other,’ as the dictates of the binary of white supremacy require. This doesn’t assume the sort of institutionalization that African-Americans are forced to endure, but it is still not white. Middle Eastern peoples are brown by any evaluation of social and cultural reality. Two examples of many include the plethora of movies which frame Middle Eastern peoples as ‘other,’ most often as ‘terrorist’ or as a manipulative ‘Arab’ harem whore, and the hate crime murder of Khalid Jabara.
In his book Reel Bad Arabs, the late Jack Shaheen explores the racism specifically aimed at Middle Eastern peoples, usually classified as a monolithic, big-nosed, greedy, and always LOUD-TONED ‘Ali Baba’ gypsy or ‘Rashid the terrorist.’ Other stereotypes in both books and movies include the seductively deceptive harem dancer and the Muslim extremist. Often, these stereotypical characters are set up as evil against the binary goodness of a white Western character, typically framed as a messianic savior of the rest of the world, and even as recently as the last few years in movies such as the Sniper. Images of ‘Arabs’ abound, literally bound by white people showing them off like dead animals at hunting season: see, for example, the behaviors of white soldiers in Abu Ghraib, the rape, murder, and immolation of a 14 year old girl, Hadeel Qasim Hamza, which the soldiers bragged about while pointing to streaks of her black flesh on the wall where they had set her on fire.
Cultural examples such as these abound, ALL of which frame ‘Arabs’ in negative terms. Perhaps the most cogent and extreme example, one which illustrates clearly that Middle Eastern people are not white, is the execution-style murder of Khalid Jabara. Stanley Majors, Jabara’s neighbor, repeatedly taunted the family with racist statements over a period of years, calling them ‘Mooslems’ and ‘dirty Arabs.’ Ultimately, Majors used his white supremacist beliefs to justify climbing onto Jabara’s porch and shooting him, execution-style, on his own property, because he is not white. Ultimately, Jabara lost his life as a result of racism towards Middle Eastern peoples, which illustrates that Middle Eastern peoples are perceived as ‘other.’ ‘Other’ = Not White.
Toni Morrison has famously stated that “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate,” illustrating the way in which white people form the invisible backdrop against which everybody else is compared and rendered inferior by comparison. This conundrum, a result of overt privileging through historical codification of laws that subordinated others and elevated white people on the basis of a European background, persists in myriad ways and elaborates itself in some fashion with each group of non-white peoples, reflecting the persistence of the establishment of ‘whiteness’ as a binary.
Arab-Americans are no exception. Note that, in the examples above, the behavior includes high reliance on stereotypes and repeated, deliberate attempts to frame Middle Eastern peoples as criminal, manipulative terrorists and as ‘dirty,’ as if the ‘Arab’ body is intrinsically ‘dirty’ by design. Note how the racist above used, as his justification for murder, overt racist language that leverages ugly stereotypes: ‘Mooslem’ and ‘dirty Arab.’
His conflation of ‘Arab’ with Muslim is very common despite the fact that it isn’t accurate: many people of Arabic descent are not Muslim, and a non-Middle Eastern country — Indonesia — has the highest number of Muslims of any country in the world. This conflation persists because it takes what is actually a highly heterogenous population of people — Middle Easterners — and creates a false monolith which simplifies the process of discrimination, making the process of derogating Middle Easterners much easier. It also indicates that ‘Arabs’ and ‘Muslims’ are all inferior peoples, thus capturing a very wide range of ‘brown’ people inclusive of millions of non-Middle Easterners. Majors was able to justify murder on the basis of leveraging society’s racist views of ‘Arabs.’ This is most certainly not white.
Reading this, ask yourself what pops into your mind first when you hear the word ‘terrorist’? Is it somebody like Majors, whose behavior is hate crime terror? Or is it the image we, as Americans, have been told is ‘other’ and also ‘Arab’ and/or ‘Muslim.’ Other = not white.
A careful analysis of circumstances may indicate why a government dominated by white people does not want to acknowledge the obvious distinction between ‘whiteness,’ the exalted backdrop against which any hyphen is inadequate by specific, intentional design of white supremacy, and the ways Arab-Americans are treated: the de facto racism required to keep a heavy foot on these necks is already highly functional. Racism against ‘Arabs’ and ‘Mooslims’ is already so penetrated in American society. Therefore, from the standpoint of white people, the task of ‘othering’ Arab Americans has already been done and does not require acknowledgement. Thus, ‘white’ population numbers stay falsely high while the population as a group continues to encourage anti-ME sentiment, and as a result the de facto (and highly penetrated) prejudice continues without acknowledgment.
This conclusion serves one purpose: white supremacy. It does so at the expense of ME peoples just as it does against any other group of ‘other,’ and it renders ME peoples invisible in order to keep white people, as a group, in a position of dominance. A census category for ME peoples would render visible the disparities in these Arab-American communities and lower the census for whites. Note that, in the final analysis, a white-led government pays no attention whatsoever to the needs of the discriminated group and, once again, chooses only on the basis of what will benefit white people.
How convenient. Again, the fact that a group of white people decides this is a core issue, and possibly the main problem. White people as a group have not only the benefit of white privilege in this white supremacist society/world, they also employ the means to deny it. They erase not only their very real, longstanding privilege but also the profound disadvantages which this behavior continues to force upon a wide range of people of color.
The absence of a separate census category for ME peoples is white supremacy at some of its very finest: it promotes the active ‘othering’ of another group of people through denial that it exists, and thus never takes accountability for its own behavior as a group. This stance is neither unique nor appropriate: it is white supremacy; that is, white people as a group defending their dominance.
Here is one way to clarify whether or not Arab-Americans are ‘white:’ a survey asking the first thought comes into the minds’ of most Americans when they hear the word ‘terrorist.’ Is it an ‘Arab,’ or is it someone who looks like Stanley Majors, who felt so justified in his discriminatory stance that he executed his neighbor in cold blood?
Honest answers would reveal that ME peoples are most definitely hyphens, and thus most definitely not white, which would indicate a separate category has been needed for quite some time. One way to eliminate the constant obstacles placed in the way would be to create a committee with a minority of white people or none at all, because as a group, white people have shown a continued inability — as recently as 2018 — to respond in a comprehensive fashion which considers minority peoples and their needs seriously.
It should be obvious that a group of people which consistently designates themselves a priority at the expense of a wide range of peoples of color — ME peoples included — cannot be the main decision-makers in this regard: by observation, they are simply unable, as a group, to drum up the morality necessary to look beyond their racial and ethnic privilege.