• When we talk about who is white, we are talking not merely about who has white-coloured skin but about who is privileged by this society. (AAP)
There is rampant racism in Arab societies, but that still doesn’t make fairer-skinned Arabs “white”.
By
Ruby Hamad

28 Feb 2017 - 1:36 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2017 - 3:52 PM

In any discussion of racism, it is essential we acknowledge that race is about more than skin colour.

The term “white people,” used to denote a distinct racial group, was invented in the early decades of the European colonisation of the Americas, firstly to distinguish (Western) Europeans from Native Americans and enslaved Africans, and then to justify the privileges accumulated as a result of white oppression of other races.

When we talk about “whiteness” then, we are specifically referring, not to people themselves but to an ideology that set European (now more broadly “Western”) culture and ancestry as the benchmark by which all others are judged – and inevitably come up short.

This ideology has been used to justify everything from slavery to Terra Nullius to the war on terror, and it is the foundation of the social, legal, and political systems that still exist in the Western world today.

When we talk about “whiteness” then, we are specifically referring, not to people themselves but to an ideology that set European (now more broadly “Western”) culture and ancestry as the benchmark by which all others are judged – and inevitably come up short.

When we talk about who is white, we are talking not merely about who has white-coloured skin but about who is privileged by this society and who is marginalised: who is one of us and who is one of them.

When it comes to Arabs it seems this important point is often lost, as I see more and more attempts to position them as “white.”

Long-classified by the US government as “white,” this is an identity that many Arabs, to my dismay, have assumed. It is certainly true that Arabs, particularly those in the Levant, can be fair-skinned and even as pale as Europeans, with fair hair and light eyes. It is also true that there is rampant racism in Arab societies, which like so many others, has bought hook line and sinker the fallacy that whiteness is the ideal human condition.

Consequently, in the Middle East, darker-skinned Arabs are discriminated against while menial jobs with poor pay and conditions are increasingly filled by workers from Africa and parts of South Asia  (something I witnessed while in Lebanon last year). Anti-blackness, in particular, is pervasive, with black people referred to with such disparaging words such as Al-Akhdam (the servants) and Abeed (slave).

This is a testament to the enduring power of the racist ideology that was created by European colonisers. Despite the very real and deadly racism that Arabs themselves contend with daily, the appeal of whiteness is so alluring, they succumb to the temptation to win favour in a racist system, and so take advantage of their proximity to whiteness in terms of appearance by stomping on those who are further from the “white” centre than they are.

When we talk about who is white, we are talking not merely about who has white-coloured skin but about who is privileged by this society and who is marginalised: who is one of us and who is one of them.

Nonetheless, this does not make Arabs themselves white. If we are talking about – and we should be – whiteness as a system that confers legitimacy and status on certain groups of people while denying it from others, then it is clear that Arabs still fall short.

In the west, as Islamophobia skyrockets, so too do attacks on Arabs, with the Arab language increasingly demonised; simply speaking Arabic – the language of the Quran – is deemed enough of a threat to warrant the removal of some passengers from planes. Meanwhile, people with Arab sounding names are increasingly under pressure to change them to something less foreign and less likely to see them passed over from everything from job opportunities to rental applications.

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Meanwhile, the Arab world itself continues to disintegrate in the wake of a colonialism and imperialism that has seen all political movements save for fundamentalist Islamism and authoritarian dictatorships, effectively crushed.

The Middle East did not become like this because of any inferior culture or religion. Historically, it was a concerted effort by Western powers, and occasionally Russia to retain authority and influence over the region. And this authority was justified on the basis of whiteness, or more specifically, the exclusion of Arabs from whiteness.

Winston Churchill, for instance, when speaking to the Peel Royal Commission on Palestine, regarding whether it was right to establish a Jewish homeland on what was then Arab-majority Palestine, had this to say about Arab claim to the land:

“I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time…I do not admit, for instance that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia…I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, ‘The American Continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these Europeans settlers coming in here.’ They had not right, nor had they the power.”

Clearly, to Churchill, Arabs were in the same category of “powerless” people as Native Americans and Aboriginal people in Australia who were simply no match for the “superior” white man. To designate Arabs as “white” against this backdrop of racist history, ongoing Western interference in the Arab world, as well as rising racism and marginalisation in the west, is to risk losing sight of what whiteness is; a political designation designed to consolidate Western notions of superiority.

Because whiteness is a social construct not a biological reality, it is fluid rather than rigid, the boundaries separating those with privilege from those without constantly shifting. The Irish, for instance, though now accepted into the “white” family, were once persecuted on the basis that they were not “real” white people. Meanwhile, US Asians are frequently grouped in with whites rather than other minorities.

When it comes to racism, the old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” simply should not apply.

Arabs are not white, not because of their skin colour, but because they continue to be positioned at odds with whiteness, and oppressed on this basis. Colonialism has targeted different cultures and continents in different ways. Its destruction of the Middle East is no less potent because it is a destruction that is less visible to the naked and learned eye. Whiteness has stolen the Middle East’s future. It is rewriting its history as we speak. It has helped set its dominant religion on a frightening path by neutralising its progressive and tolerant nature and empowering its once-marginal fundamentalism and extremism.

Do not hide this great crime by calling Arabs “white,” and solidifying the blame the west has placed on Arabs for its own misdeeds. To do so is to lose sight of the historical meaning of whiteness and its enduring legacy.

When it comes to racism, the old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” simply should not apply.

 

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