Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: race

stuff white people do: mistake greeks for arabs, arabs for muslims, and muslims for terrorists

This is just a little something the wonderful Macon D of anti-racism blog stuff white people do allowed me to guest post over there…For those of you who may have missed it.


Last week, a few days after the horrific events of Fort Hood, a Marine reservist in Florida mistook a visiting Greek Orthodox priest for a “terrorist” and beat him with a tire iron.  The reservist (who was indeed white) made all sorts of wild claims — that the priest yelled “Allahu Akbar,” that he made a lewd hand gesture. . . claims that have been widely refuted.

What really happened is this: The Greek priest, Father Alexios Marakis, was visiting Florida for the purpose of blessing another priest.  He got lost while driving, and pulled over to ask for help.  He was dressed in a robe and did not speak English very well, so the Marine, Jasen Bruce (who is sticking to his story and refuses to apologize) got freaked out and beat the crap out of him.

Because he looked like a terrorist.
Which really means he looked Muslim.
Which really means he looked “Arab.”
Which really means he looked different, and that scares white people.

I don’t know exactly what it is about white Americans. . . I can say, from anecdotal personal experience, that Europeans and other white people traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa often make silly orientalist comments, and I’m fully aware of the idiotic British BNP (and other European right-wing parties) that would happily rid Europe of all Muslims. However, there seems to be a special kind of ignorance amongst white Americans when it comes to Muslims and Arabs.  It goes something like this:

1. They don’t know the difference between “Muslim” and “Arab.” Remember last year during one of McCain’s town hall meetings when a middle-aged white woman objected to Obama by saying, “but he’s-he’s-an ARAB!”?  It was obvious to many of us that what she really meant to object to was his religion — after all, it was part of the zany right-wing public debate at the time — but instead she just somehow got confused and cried “Arab.”  You know, because it doesn’t really matter right?  Which brings us to McCain’s response . . . “No, he’s not, ma’am, he’s a DECENT family man.” As if being an “Arab” disqualifies a man from being a decent family man.  Which leads to:

2.  They think “Muslim” and “good person” are mutually exclusive. McCain was quite aware that the woman meant to say “Muslim” and yet chose to defend Obama not just by saying “No, ma’am he’s not,” but also by feeling compelled to add “he’s a decent family man.”  The implication?  That one cannot be both an Arab (or Muslim, since that’s what we all know the woman meant) and a good man. I often hear comments about how obesity is the last acceptable prejudice in this country, but I’d like to argue that Islamophobia is far more widespread and accepted. Can you imagine if white people blatantly still said such horrible things about Black people? It’s completely unheard of in many parts of the United States for someone to say “nigger,” but “sandnigger”?  In many places in this country, that’s totally okay.

3. They don’t realize that most Muslims aren’t Arab. Going back to point #1, the imagery of what it means to be Muslim in the United States is so tied in with our images of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (not even the Arab world on the whole!) that even on progressive blogs, you will often see people refer in blanket terms to Muslim women’s dress as “the burqa.”  What they don’t seem to realize is that the countries with the largest Muslim population are all in Asia (where, mind you, women don’t even wear the burqa), and not Arab at all!

4. They mistake non-Muslims and non-Arabs for Muslims and Arabs.  In the years since 9/11 (though before as well), many groups have become collateral damage in racist attacks against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.  Iranians, Greeks, Sikhs, Hindus, and sometimes, anyone with a beard seems to be a target. 6 years ago, a Hindu was mistaken for a Muslim in Boston and beaten. . .and just last week, as noted above, it happened to a Greek priest.

5. They think “Middle Eastern” is a race.  Except on the census. While the region also known as the Middle East and North Africa is often referred to as “the Arab world,” the latter is somewhat of a misnomer and more accurately refers to a shared language (kind of like the way Latino is often used).  From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, there are Arabs, but there are also Amazigh (Berbers), Moors, Bedouins, and plenty of other native groups that prefer not to be referred to as “Arab.”  But when they come to the United States, it doesn’t matter anyway, as they’re expected to check the “White” box. . . imagine arriving from Mauritania, on the continent of Africa, and being told you can’t check the “African-American” box.  True story.

6. They assume that all Arabs are Muslim. I love this one. . . It never ceases to amaze me the blanket statements made about “that part of the world,” and “their practices.”  Nevermind the native Coptic, Maronite, and Orthodox Christian populations, the converts, the Jews, the Druze, the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i.  And if on the off chance you do meet someone who is aware of those other populations, they’re still likely to try to convince you that they’re those populations are all oppressed by the Muslims, anyway.  Which brings me to my last and most important point. . .

7. They pretend it’s not racism.  So, Islam is not a race, and to many, “Arab” isn’t either. . . It doesn’t matter: there is plenty of evidence of racism against all of the aforementioned groups. In fact, there’s significant evidence to suggest that systematic racism is practiced against Muslims and those with Muslim or Arab-sounding names (regardless of actual faith) in a number of places.  This BBC article discusses the racist practice of not hiring Arabs and Muslims based on name alone (in France). Though I’m not aware of any study, I’ve seen the same happen in the U.S. And the exclusion of North Africans from being qualified as “African-American” on the census and on scholarship applications (again, they’re supposed to check the “white” box) means they’re doubly discriminated against: Not really white, but not non-white enough to benefit from certain programs.

And that’s only the beginning — as we saw in a video Macon posted last week, Muslims (especially Muslim women who wear hijab) are often assumed not to be American, even when they were born here.  Arabs are pulled to the side for “random checks” nearly every time they fly.  And more often than not, when an Arab or Muslim does commit a crime, the entire Arab and Muslim communities are expected to speak out against it (ask yourself: would we expect the same every time a Christian or white person committed a crime?).

Here’s a thought: Perhaps if people, and the media, made more of an effort to know the difference between a Muslim, an Arab, a Persian, a Hindu. . . or better yet, a Moroccan, a Syrian, a Saudi, a Kuwaiti. . . Perhaps if everyone made more of an effort to see people as unique peoples from particular countries and cultures, or better yet — as individuals! — they would be less likely to commit atrocious acts against them based on assumptions.  Perhaps they would be less likely to expect Muslims as a group to speak for one individual Muslim, and perhaps they’d be more likely to understand that an entire mass of 325 million people who just happen to share a common language most certainly do not share a common perspective.

Because Colonialism and Immigration are Basically the Same Thing

It’s common knowledge that birth rates tend to be higher in economically less developed places and lower in economically developed ones. For example, the birth rate in Italy is so low that the government offers money for fecundity. On the other hand, Niger, among the poorest countries in the world, is also the country with the highest birth rate, has the highest rates of illiteracy, and ranks sixth for infant mortality (the country also has a very high general death rate, ranking 7th in the world).

One could argue that it’s also common knowledge that, amongst the more diverse of ‘western’ nations, such economic trends continue to play out. Apparently that’s angered some white British folk – Melanie McDonough, writing for Britain’s Telegraph, complains of the inequities of the birth rate in her country, saying:

The people most likely to take their [groups which promote reproduction] views to heart are the agonised Anglo-Saxon liberals, for whom excess fecundity is never going to be much of a problem in the first place. They don’t seem to cut much ice with the Somali mothers you see in West London.

Right…because that’s so problematic. Oh noes, the world’s turning brown!

The comments, of course, are no less racist. Ms. McDonough, like many Brits and Americans alike, would simply love it if the “native whites” of their countries would start reproducing and the immigrants slowed it down a bit, or even stopped altogether (somehow reminds me of the Israeli attitude toward the Arab birthrate – “but they just have so many BABIES!“).

My favorite comment, however, is this one:

Think how Europe’s former colonies felt being dominated by a minority – now think replace “colony” with Britain. We want a place we can call our own, be ourselves, and want the right of self-determination – is that a familiar mantra? The problem when it comes out of the mouths of whites it’s racist. When it comes out of the mouths of non-whites though it is an inalienable right – a virtue.

I have to say, I really love it when white people compare the migration of non-whites (immigrant minorities) to wealthy countries to the colonization of other lands by whites as if those two concepts were simply reversals of the other (kind of like when white folks bring up “reverse racism”). They are no such thing: One involves wealth, power, and privilege, and the other – more often than not – involves escaping a place with few opportunities for one where there is (at least theoretically) more opportunity and freedom, and often very little power at all.

But hey, what do I know?

(Side note: If this kind of thing is interesting to you, I highly recommend my new favorite blog, Stuff White People Do, in which a white man deconstructs racial stereotypes, often snarkily).

On Racism and the Northern Elite

So there’s this video circulating the viral Web; a bunch of American Jews in Tel Aviv are interviewed by Max Blumenthal on the eve of President Obama’s speech in Cairo and are shown on camera spouting racial epithets and hateful words, directed at the president.

I’ve actually heard people express surprise at such racist outbursts. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “Blacks aren’t supposed to be serial killers, in much the way Jews aren’t supposed to be racist.”  Having heard plenty of American Jews go on racist diatribes against Arabs, I’m not surprised in the least that such hatred could be extended to black people. Neither is Coates, who says:

It’s true that you may expect certain classes of people to be less direct, but you don’t have to say “nigger” to make a man feel like one. You don’t have to say “white power” to exercise it. We don’t need videos to tell us this. It’s all out there.

I’m not surprised.  Not in the least.  After my SUNY educational experience, I’ve heard people of every demographic insult people of every other demographic.  I’ve heard white people look down on Asians,  Asians look down on Latinos, and Latinos look down on black people.

And I’ve been in a sociology course where I heard a group of Jews call the professor a “nigger” after she expressed support for Palestine.  But that was an isolated incident, just like the one in the video, right?  Sure, they both were.  Just as all incidents of racism are.

While trying to decide what I could possibly say on this matter, one comment on a post by Coates struck my eye:

These kids were all raised in the United States. This is not really about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is about American bigotry, for us Americans to think about and deal with. While these Jews too often move to Israel and contribute to the problems there, it’s a fundamentally American problem that needs to be thought about and dealt with by Americans. What about America is making this happen? How is the rubric of classic American racism changing? How do we deal with it differently? What does it mean when a historically marginalized group produces bigots who migrate to the right wing?

It’s way too easy to fit this into a rubric of Israeli racism.  The fact is, this is indeed an American problem – not one that is confined to Jewish communities by any stretch of the imagination, mind you, but one which is, unfortunately, not isolated in the least.

While much of the onus has been on the fact that these kids are Jewish (or mistakenly, Israeli), I’m more alarmed by the fact that the kids are of “a higher socio-economic class,”  have downstate New York accents, and with the exception of one or two, appear not to have been in Israel for very long (one of the girls, when asked what she thinks about Benjamin Netanyahu, says “Who’s Benjamin Yahoo?”).  They are the epitome of the Northeast elite.  There’s no more turning up our noses and calling this a problem of the South or the Midwest.

With our first black president in office, and our first Latina supreme court judge on the bench, one might think America has rid itself of racism forever.  But while behaviors have changed, and institutionalized racism might be disappearing (or at least on the downswing), I don’t think we’ve changed much at all.

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