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May 31 2013

‘Muslimed’ out of being white

When two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon finish line, the simmering xenophobia and racism that lies just beneath America’s veneer of tolerance and enlightenment roared to the surface. The New York Post, a rag long known for its total abdication of journalistic ethics, posted an innuendo-laced front page inviting the dangerous speculation of every red-blooded God-fearing citizen with a gun in one hand and a poor grasp of demography in the other.

CNN, which is now known as a similarly talentless and scruple-less joke of an outfit, adopted much the same stance:

Last night CNN correspondent John King took to Twitter to offer more context on how he ended up reporting that a suspect, described as a “dark-skinned man” had been arrested in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. CNN ran with King’s “exclusive news” of the “dark-skinned” suspect for an hour until they announced their report turned out to be false.

“Source of that description was a senior government official. And I asked, are you sure? But I’m responsible,” King tweeted on Thursday evening. “What I am not is racist.”

King offered his explanation only after the NAACPAl Sharpton, and the National Association of Black Journalists called him out for his inflammatory reporting.

In a climate when exactly nobody knew anything, people who weren’t particularly concerned about facts had honed in on a conclusion that was so obviously true that it didn’t warrant investigation: that the bombs were detonated by dark-skinned foreign Muslims who hate America because of its freedoms. It fit quite neatly into the prevailing narrative of jealous Muslims sitting in their caves, cursing the fact that America stands as a stark rebuke of liberty to their ideology of restrictive megalomania.

Of course, when the photos of the actual suspects came out, the story got a little more complicated. They looked like white people, which conflicted with the narrative. Luckily, America’s talent for special effects and historical revisionism would not be daunted:

The photos released by the FBI stand by a much darker and more 'Arab-looking' caricature photo from a magazine called 'The Week'

‘The Week’ cover after the Bombing

This is how white privilege works in media representations and everyday life: when the criminal suspects are demonstrably white men, seize upon any aspect of difference and magnify it such that they become Othered, non-white, and menacing. If it is too hard to do so, simply dismiss them as aberrations and isolated cases of insanity. This is also how white culture, specifically the process of whiteness in conjunction with white privilege, portrays several non-white identities, including those that are now considered white but at one time were decidedly not so. For example, see here for how the Irish were depicted as violent apes or lazy drunks in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

This is a really important point to keep in mind as we move through this discussion: ‘white’ is and always has been a group whose boundary has been carefully policed. Skin colour is only one facet of the social identity of whiteness, and techniques like this caricature are part of the process of excluding the ‘undesirable’ members from reaping the rewards of white privilege. If they can’t be shown to be “dark-skinned”, then their skin must be darkened by some other means.

Regardless of what the facts are:

The day after last week’s attack in Boston, David Sirota wrote a column for Salon entitled “Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber Is a White American,” arguing that this would limit the resulting crackdown on civil liberties. At first, conservatives were appalled. Then, when police fingered the Tsarnaev brothers, they were triumphant. “Sorry, David Sirota, Looks Like Boston Bombing Suspects Not White Americans,” snickered a headline in Newsbusters. “Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com,” added a blogger at Commentary, “the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not ‘white Americans’.”

And the Tsarnaevs were not ‘white Americans’, despite the colour of their skin and their citizenship, “white Americans” is a constantly-shifting identity that all but precludes the possibility of also being a dangerous person from a foreign country. Much the way that believers claim that any Muslim who commits acts of violence is not ‘really following Islam’, anyone who can be dismissed from whiteness will be dismissed from whiteness. No ‘true white American’ would do something like that, and regardless of how white and American the Tsarnaevs might have been on April 14th, once their behaviour no longer comported, they were de-raced and de-nationalized*.

It is perversely fascinating to me, as a brief tangent, to compare the way that ‘white’ is a shifting identity that may or may not have anything to do with skin colour, ‘Muslim’ is a shifting identity that may or may not have anything to do with religion. Both of these identities are enforced by the majority group, usually to the detriment of the minority. The only operating difference that I can see is that while white people may not live in constant awareness of their whiteness, I’d imagine that everyone who ‘reads Muslim’ is perpetually conscious of that.

Once the Tsarnaevs had been sufficiently robbed of their whiteness, it was time to create a new creation myth for their violence, this time courtesy of the Czech Republic Chechnya:

Muslims face prejudice, but Muslims from the Caucasus face a particular kind of prejudice – the kind born of ignorance so great it perversely imbues everything with significance. “There is never interpretation, understanding and knowledge when there is no interest,” Edward Said wrote in Covering Islam , and until this week, there was so little interest in and knowledge of the Caucasus that the ambassador of the Czech Republic felt compelled to issue a press release stating that the Czech Republic is not the same as Chechnya.

Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaevs’ motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time. Journalist Eliza Shapiro proclaimed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “named after a brutal warlord”, despite the fact that Tamerlan, or Timur, is an ordinary first name in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her claim is equivalent to saying a child named Nicholas must be named in honour of ruthless Russian tsar Nicholas I – an irony apparently lost on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who made a similar denouncement on Twitter (to his credit, Kristof quickly retracted the comment).

(snip)

Still others turned to social media as a gateway to the Chechen soul. Journalist Julia Ioffe – after explaining the Tsarnaevs through Tolstoy, Pushkin, and, of course, Stalin -  cites the younger Tsarnaev’s use of the Russian website VKontakte as proof of his inability to assimilate, then ranks the significance of his personal photos.

“The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent,” she writes . “In front of them is a dish  plov , a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.” Again, it is difficult to imagine a journalist writing with such breathtaking arrogance – why is the Central Asian friend more “revealing” than the African-American one? What, exactly, are they “revealing”? – about the inner life of someone from a more familiar place.

And so, with the cognitive dissonance of “white” and “terrorist” safely evaded, a new story was able to take shape: these foreign Muslims from a war-torn area had decided to follow in the war-glorifying footsteps of their homeland. White America could breathe easy: the threat was once again coming from the Other.

At some point in the future, this saga will be used as a case study of the way in which racial identities are almost entirely socially constructed, and how quickly those identities can change when the perceived threat is great enough. For right now, it is a sad condemnation of our repeated failure to learn from our own histories in our rush to rewrite them.

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*It is worth noting, and perhaps the subject of another post, that this is what happens when you’re “one of the good ones”. Majority privilege will sometimes be extended to compliant members of the minority, but will be immediately stripped once that ‘exceptional’ person demonstrates any kind of non-orthodox behaviour.

P.S. I strongly recommend reading all of the linked articles in their entirety, as each of them has really valuable things to say that didn’t fit into this blog post.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    You’re on a hot streak, Crommunist, another insightful and question-provoking piece. The caricatures were particularly revealing, I think, of the importance of ring-fencing whiteness so it can’t ever be seen as responsible for anything bad (because the dozens of white men who’ve taken up arms against their fellow citizens in the last twenty years were all unimaginable and exceptional).

  2. 2
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    The only REALLY white people are Christians, don’t you know that, Cromm?

    /snark, naturally

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    So, when did “Caucasian” stop being a synonym for “white”? (Because that’s the term I recall hearing for people like me when I was growing up). Kinda’ ironic that recent immigrants from the actual, you know, Caucasus region are suddenly “not-white”, ain’t it?

  4. 4
    Pierce R. Butler

    … it is difficult to imagine a journalist writing with such breathtaking arrogance …

    My goodness me. Where on Earth does Ioffe get her news?

  5. 5
    trucreep

    It’s really embarrassing to belong to this demographic a lot times

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    The only REALLY white people are Christians, don’t you know that, Cromm?

    Snark aside, that claim has been made many times throughout history. And not all types of Christian, either.

  7. 7
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Actually aren’t the only *really* white people albinos? ;-)

    this saga will be used as a case study of the way in which racial identities are almost entirely socially constructed,

    Emphasis added.

    Only “almost”? We are all human and Humanity has no biological, scientific sub-species or “races” at all in my view. The whole notion of “race” is an obsolete cultural / ideological /psueduo-scientific meme withno beraing in reality, surely?

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    We are all human and Humanity has no biological, scientific sub-species or “races” at all in my view

    I can’t imagine a day when any black person is ever going to be included in the ‘white’ race. The differences are socially constructed, but insofar as they are (at least in part) constructed along phenotypic lines, there’s a role that biology plays.

  9. 9
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    I think (& yes, I know I could be wrong and am coming from a very different set of life experiences) that biology – science – says we are all human, its just culture an politics that says otherwise.

    I hope there’s a day when all of us humans recognise that and skin colour and other such phenotypic trivia (eye colour, left handedness, etc.) becomes the irrelevance it is. I hope one day we do surpass this although I admit we’re nowhere near as close yet as we could be.

  10. 10
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    This piece is deeply flawed on a number of questionable premises. In no particular order:

    1. Every use of the accusation of ‘racism’ whether by a leftist or Muslim in response to criticism of Islam, where no actual mention of ethnicity has been made, reinforces the notion of Muslims as universally ‘brown’. FTB has a number of commenters that like this tactic.

    In fact you just posted on this issue so you clearly know how often that the ‘racism’ charge gets brandished about.

    Further you know that people will go as far to smear ex-Muslims as ‘Islamophobes’ showing the reckless use of accusatiosn of general bigotry to intimidate others and stiffle debate.

    2. Similarly leftists often have a very flexible notion of ‘whiteness’ when its suits their own ends, something as a Sephardic Jew of North African ancestry, I feel keenly. Israel is constantly tarred as a ‘white’ or ‘European’, ‘colonialist’ state, etc., etc. to justify disproportionate leftwing rage at it.

    Firstly Jews were constantly cast as ‘not white’ from the 19th century on, to the point of inventing a phony Semitic race. That racist distinction was in turn the sine qua non of the Holocaust, where religious practice was a non-issue by and large (e.g. an ethnic Jewish nun was sent to the camps and died). When some Jews take their exclusion to heart and leave the Euro-American fold altogether, suddenly they became ‘white’ again in the 1960′s when leftwing ‘solidarity’ with the Arabs becomes politically popular and Israel has the audacity to survive.

    Nevermind that in the intervening years a huge portion of Israel population becomes the (usually darker-skinned) Jews of the Muslim world forced out of our ancestral homelands as collective punishment for the establishment of Israel.

    3. It is interesting in turn that you cite an over-compensating white leftist, Sirota, whose premise also overlooked the possibility of a white Muslim perpetrator.

    4. You are grandstanding, with Exhibit A, being a painted likeness of the actual bombers. I also paint, which means I have knowledge of how pigments behave. Getting a realistic skin tone for white Europeans is difficult and examples of darker-than-actual skin tones using warmer pigments are extremely common throughout the world of painting.

    This phenomenon transfers across mediums. In the world of nerds, the premiere 1:6 doll company at present is a Hong kong-based outfit named “Hot Toys”. They have produced many white characters from various geek franchises and their skin tone in person (in appears white in photographs) is always darker than the actual actress or actor in question. And that is what non-white managers and non-white artists, who creating boundary-breaking figures, produce.

    I agree by the way that “dark-skinned” rhetoric in this context was unprofessional at best, probably racist. The irony is the press is incredibly PC about Islam, the voluntary belief system behind this and many other terror attacks on random civlians.

    4. Arabs have been classified as white by the U.S. government since before the Second World War. While it is clear some Islam critics are bona fide racists, I have yet to see any proof that critics of Islam are generally unaware of the large segemnt of white Muslims, especially given the media attention to Bosnia and Kosovo in the decade before 9/11.

    And accordingly, referring back to point No. 2, Winterwind, an ardent Indian-Australian leftist who comments here, explicitly told me once that I was “white” and that people from North Africa were generally seen as such.

    5. “Muslim’ is a shifting identity that may or may not have anything to do with religion.”

    This is postmodernist rubbish. The Shahadah is a very clear internal definition of who is or is not a “Muslim”. Ironically those like you who peddle this new notion of secular Muslims show no respect to Islam, which has every right as a voluntary ideology to set ‘rules of membership’ so to speak.

    Further it increasingly looks like an attempt at obscurantism made to stiffle debate by taking away even the most rudimentary of shared definitions.

  11. 11
    Great American Satan

    Also an artist and I call bullshit on number 4, really hard, Rebekah. Those are fucking racist caricatures, and I know from caricatures, because it’s my specialty. The noses have it. Why use caricatures to illustrate a serious story? So you can play up racial differences, other the villains of the piece.

    I looove that they were literally Caucasian, because this racism really fucking annoys me.

  12. 12
    Great American Satan

    Think the star of this Chick tract is supposed to be jewish? Naw, never.

    http://chick.com/reading/tracts/1063/1063_01.asp

    Racist caricature:

    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/strips/mallard/2000/MFT50708.jpg

    Non-racist caricature:

    http://www.carlsontoons.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/trio.jpg

    And if the brothers’ complexions can be adequately reproduced in a photograph, they can damn well be reproduced with the same ink printing an illustration.

  13. 13
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    @great1american1satan

    Why use caricatures to illustrate a serious story?

    With some basic google image searching, it would clear to you that The Week exclusively uses caricatures and other illustrations on its cover. Your outage on that point is laughable.

    From the UK edition of The Week (more on that specific image later).

    From The Economist to The New Yorker, caricatures are common place in the serious news media, whether right or left or centre. You are as bad as the people who freaked out over the Scarfe cartoon on Bibi and decried it as ‘antisemitism’ (a concept that gets abused as much ‘racism’).

    Besides you must really, really hate political cartoons in general then. I mean seriously are you that far gone into manufactured rage, that you, an alleged caricature artist, overlooked such a ubiquitous use of that style with a “serious” subject.

    Also an artist and I call bullshit on number 4, really hard, Rebekah.

    By “really hard” I guess you mean asserting the caricatures as ‘racist’ ipso facto, whilst ignoring my examples of darker skin tone in both traditional painting and a new genre, highly realistic dolls.

    For example, google “painting skin tones”. The fifth example when I do so is:

    http://studioproducts.com/demo/images/headstud.jpg

    The man being depicted is clearly white but his skin tone is definitely unnatural dark from a pure realism standpoint due to the warmth of the colours. Real white skin has this greyish tone that you get by adding green to balance against the red (e.g. viridian against burnt sienna). If you decline to do so you tend to get darker, ruddier skin tones. Look at some Modigliani portraits for example. He bounced, even with the same model, all over the place with light and dark skin tones when depicting almost exclusively white Western Europeans.

    And now back to the UK Week, I am fairly certain from seeing their faces ad nauseam that neither Mr. Clegg, not Cameron are not as “brown” as portrayed in that image. In other words this happens with non-terrorists whites and your outrage does not even pass a basic hurdle of being unique.

  14. 14
    Great American Satan

    I’m not a fan of political cartoons. The fact a good portion of my professional experience has been caricatures is a side effect of just being more interested in likeness and realism than of any especial interest in that art form. I will say that a racially sensitive artist wouldn’t have used traits associated with caricature of jews and arabs to focus on in these guys, and a racially sensitive publisher would have taken two seconds with the “levels” sliders in Photoshop to make their skin tones closer to real.

    Outrage of any sort is a raw emotion, the statements of which might be supported by reason and facts if they come from a person with the inclination, skill, and time. I’m short on at least a few of those criteria and you have me there.

    But tell me, what are you outraged by? Why does your sole mission on FTB seem to be singling out islam as unusually evil?

  15. 15
    Rebekah, the Wily Jew

    But tell me, what are you outraged by? Why does your sole mission on FTB seem to be singling out islam as unusually evil?

    First of all I was condescendingly dared to come here by Crip Dyke, one of Crommunist’s fans. In turn I made a good-faith, detailed reply to a statement he made. I have received no reply at present and if that remains the case you can rest easy this will likely be one of my last posts here.

    My goal is to make free-thought-blog live up to its name and not just be another echo chamber of far left paternalism when it comes to Islam, a phenomenon that pervades the left media from The Guardian to Huffington Post.

    As a lurker here, I have seen no other religion so routinely and passionately shielded from criticism by a range of recriminations, accusations of bigotry, deflections to other topics, false equivalencies and just straight-up venomous ad hominems as I have Islam.

    Now almost all of that occurs in the comments. I almost exclusively read Taslima, Maryam and Ophelia, whose views I greatly admire. I used to read PZ regularly, but sort of lost interest, not for any particular disagreement.

    And what disturbs me most is that when I pushed the ‘Islam is worse’ issue over the past week, it is not that people disagree with it as a point of truth, but rather as a point of ‘acceptable’ discussion. Hence the venom and theatrical pronouncements of ‘boredom’ that parallel grudging admission that Islam is in fact worse in reality in terms of treatment of women, LGBT people, non-theists, etc.

    I full recognise that there is genuine xenophobic and/or racially-driven dislike of Islam and its adherents out there (and just be clear the often violent tensions between the South Asian and Afro-Caribbean community in the UK show that is not just a white problem). Because America and the UK tend to be much more politically polarised due to our first-past-the-post voting systems, I think it leads to a very kneejerk, dichotomous worldview where people start rejecting any position with which someone at the other pole might even superficially agree.

    In other words those racist and xenophobic critics of Islam, would naturally agree with a liberal/secular-humanist criticism of Islam as the worst religion on its surface. The fact that is where our agreement stops in many cases is not good enough for some on the far left, where only total difference from your opponent is acceptable. The comments here and the constant abuse of the terms ‘racist’ and ‘Islmaophobic’ against moderate and left-of-centre critics speaks for itself.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    I have received no reply at present and if that remains the case you can rest easy this will likely be one of my last posts here.

    I should apologize for that. Your comment was a good one, and I have no response other than to say “yes, those things seem particularly bad”. My point has never been that Islam should not be criticized (I have, at many points in this past week and before, been very clear about that), only to say that the majority of criticisms I hear fall along lines that are not about the specific tenets of the religion, but are germane to all religions. Insofar as anyone (including yourself) has specific criticisms to lay against Islam, have at it. We absolutely should decry them. What I am wary of, however, is what you allude to in your penultimate paragraph: that many so-called “criticisms” are instead broad-side smears that hold out Islam (and Muslims) for particular condemnation for things that other religions escape censure.

    The whole point of this series is “we should have better criticisms, and here’s why”. It is absolutely not “we should not criticize”.

  17. 17
    Adam

    The whole point of this series is “we should have better criticisms, and here’s why”. It is absolutely not “we should not criticize”.

    Indeed, this does seem to have been lost somewhere along the way. Most of the debate appears to be on “If Islam is different in some way to other religions”. It is an interesting discussion, one I have participated in, but it doesn’t move us any closer to making “better criticisms.”

    Even if you believe that Islam is completely equivalent to the other Abrahamic faiths, there will be situations involving the actions of Muslim groups that will require criticism to be addressed towards Islam. Unless we always wish to speak in terms of a generalized “religion.”

    So how do we make it clear (and sincerely so) that we are not addressing a common stereotype of a “turban-wrapped brown person” (insert other tropes as needed)? How do also we ensure, that though our comments might find support among the genuinely racist?

    Are positive suggestions or thoughts on “how to make better criticism” a plan for a future post, Crommunist?

  18. 18
    Aasiyah

    Never ever in my life have °̩ heard of racist muslim ℓ☺ℓ , racism starts at hme from the racial remarks that parents might use while the kids who may be listerning. Racism cannot be taught as school and children don’t see colour .Islam is filled with so many races from malaysian chinese to the nigerian blacks , from the white turks to the indian’s in india and thousands °̩ cud bore u with, and at ª certain of the year we all proceed to the center of the earth to perform pilgrimige in Mecca to praise and thank our god . °̩ was astonish to find myself sitting next to ª muslim french lady. We the only religion on earth that’s staunch in our believes that would stand together from all walks of life had war been inflicted , we are unafraid to die for our beliefs and wud never cowardly convert to another religion had it been forced upon us.

    °̩ once read when the power of love overpowers the love of power the world will know peace # jimi hendricks

    @ Adam (°̩ always seem to be replying to ur post ℓ☺ℓ ) , in my opinion in order to be ª critic u need to equip urself with everything there is to know abt it, and then draw ur own opionion to be able to criticise . °̩ seriously doubt u can ask the next person to teach u sumthing that requires ur own innitive or u’d be argumentive and will loose ª debate. Drawing from ur question to crommunist it seems that if someone told u to dislike something u wud without having to qyestion or reason it out ?

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