A Rant ;-)

My mother has never made it through an airport without security selecting her for “random” security checks. Nothing–not her American citizenship or the near-imperceptibility of her accent–has ever been able to protect her from the seemingly inherent criminality of her Egyptian birth certificate. It is a sad reality to which my mother has grown numb; even the novelty of a new airport loses its charm after a while. Swedish racism looks no different from Italian racism, or French, or German; after a while, it all blends together. 

When Professor K brought up the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, she mentioned that Jared Diamond classifies Egyptians (and other North Africans) as white. From my little corner of the classroom, I overheard a few people’s surprised reactions and couldn’t help feeling a little jaded: as shocking as this revelation might be to some, I’ve grown depressingly accustomed to checking little boxes that read “Caucasian, including people of Middle Eastern descent.”

The fact is that the US government, despite stark differences in physical appearance and in culture, despite racist travel bans and years of discrimination hailed as a “war on terror,” despite my mother’s sad inability to make it through a single airport unmolested, classifies Middle Easterners as white when, in reality, Middle Eastern people have never enjoyed the privileges American society affords white people. 

There’s a historical basis for this, of course: the Naturalization Act of 1790 defined eligibility for citizenship as confined to “any alien, being a free white person who shall have resided within the limits . . . of the United States for a term of two years.” Various ethnic groups attempted to achieve legal whiteness and therefore obtain American citizenship, but most failed. Dow v. United States, however, expanded the definition of white to include Middle Eastern heritage. 

This reminds me of two discussions we’ve had in class: the first, of course, is that of the Black/white binary and all the ways it erases outlying racial subgroups–Egyptians, for example. The push to exist as “oppressor” rather than “oppressed” directly relates to the Dow v. United States case. While the ruling might have immediately benefitted Middle Eastern people, it has since only suffocated Middle Eastern culture and facilitated discrimination against Middle Eastern persons; after all, it is difficult to explain to your friends exactly how Donald Trump’s travel ban is racist when the inhabitants of the eight affected countries are “white.”

Second (and pertinent to our most recent lectures), I wonder why everyone seems so eager to lump Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) in with other Causasians. I’d never really considered this before Professor K mentioned it in class, but Jared Diamond’s destructive misclassification might reference some desire to claim Egyptian achievements for the white man. The pyramids, the Temple of Amun Siwa, the Valley of the Kings–that Ancient Egypt accomplished any one of these feats is impressive enough, but that the list is so much more comprehensive is almost unbelievable. 

This, in turn, reminded me of Baldwin’s assertions that “[t]he story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans” (CE 19). Our entire nation has been built on Black backs; this entire country is the ultimate achievement of African Americans. Why don’t we learn more extensively about slavery in America, or the racist attitudes to which most of our founding fathers subscribed? Why do we ignore African-American literature in favor of white authors in our American Lit classes? Why do we so violently whitewash our history–that is, African-American history? Could it be that we are trying to discredit the enterprises of the African-American community, just as Jared Diamond discredits Egyptians? Could it be that “the white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long” is not actually the model, but the modelled (CE 657)? I certainly don’t have the answers, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to think about.

One thought on “A Rant ;-)”

  1. Hii,

    I love this post. This idea is one that has affected me personally as well–not being Black but also not being white, being lumped into a racial category that doesn’t fit you or rather that intentionally excludes you and actually kinda hates you. When Professor Kinyon has mentioned her Chicana friend a few times who doesn’t know how to answer the census, I’ve internally been like “that’s exactly how I feel.”

    The questions you ask at the end are some that I also have. In terms of why the U.S. dichotomizes Black and white, I think the answer may just be that their priority is (and has been) marginalizing the Black community. The more that they allow other communities of color to feel a proximity to whiteness, the more marked the Black community becomes. An example of this that I have seen play out in my own life is LatinX communities being extremely racist. There are many Cubans who are also Black, but they will go to extreme lengths to disassociate themselves from Blackness. I know other LatinX people who are not Black, but are very dark, and they also cling to the idea that they are white. I think this is very telling of the reality of what it means to be Black in America.

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