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.”
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:
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.
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).
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.