Arab Americans and U.S. Racial Formations


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Arab Americans and U.S. Racial Formations

By Nadine Naber

Up until the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, several Arab American writers used the trope “invisibility” to refer to the place of Arab Americans within dominant U.S. discourses on race and ethnicity. A common theme in this literature was that while most government definitions classify Arab Americans as “white,” popular U.S. discourses tend to represent “Arabs” as different from and inferior to whites. Exemplifying this perspective, Helen Samhan referred to the racialization of Arab Americans within U.S. govern­ment racial schemas as “white, but not quite” (1999); Joanna Kadi argued that Arab Americans are the “most invisible of the invisibles” (1994); Therese Saliba published the essay “Resisting Invisibility: Arab Americans in Academia and Activism” (1999); and Nada Elia used the trope “the white sheep of the fam­ily” to analyze the ways in which Arab American women have been positioned among U.S. women of color feminist movements (2002). 

Some scholars have argued that the aftermath of September 11 consolidated the racialization of the category “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” as a signifier of nonwhite Otherness1 or that a “racialization of lslam” has underlain the post-9/11 backlash against persons perceived to be Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and/or Muslim. Exemplifying this perspective, Minoo Moallem argues that “In the wake of the horrific events of September 11th, ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ a discourse which has been decades in the making, has finally come into its own. The representation of Islamic fundamentalism in the West,” she contends, “is deeply influenced by the general racialization of Muslims in a neo-racist idiom, which has its roots in cultural essentialism and a conventional Eurocentric no­tion of ‘people without history.’ Islamic fundamentalism has become a generic signifier used constantly to single out the Muslim other, in its irrational, morally inferior, and barbaric masculinity and its passive, victimized, and submissive femininity” (2002, 298). 

Alongside the proliferation of hate crimes against persons perceived to be Arab, Muslim, or South Asian after the attacks of September 11, 2001, educational institutions, government officials, and nonprofit organizations fervently reached out to Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities with a series of diversity ini­tiatives. In this sense, the “invisible citizens” became “visible subjects.”2 In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a series of essays referred to Arab Americans with terms such as “no longer invisible” (Cainkar 2002a) or as having “hyper­visibility” (Alsultany 2006). The terms of “visibility” have required that an in­dividual or community be “seen” as a potential victim of racism in order to be “included” in liberal multicultural diversity initiatives. Yet they have promoted “tolerance” through the condemnation of hate crimes while remaining silent on the federal government’s targeting of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim immigrants (without evidence of criminal activity). Similarly, within months following Sep­tember 11, most media coverage of the backlash focused on individual hate crimes that took place in the public sphere while downplaying attacks against those tar­geted by state violence at detention centers, airports, immigration and naturaliza­tion service centers, and the workplace. In this sense, the terms upon which Arab Americans became “hyper-visible” within dominant public U.S. discourses on multiculturalism after 9 /11 paralleled the rhetoric of the Bush administration and the corporate media that distinguished between “good Arabs or Muslims” and “bad Muslims.”3 Mahmood Mamdani argues that within official U.S. discourse after 9/11, “‘bad Muslims’ were clearly responsible for terrorism…‘good Mus­lims’ were anxious to clear their names and consciences of this horrible crime…and unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim was presumed to be ‘bad’” (2004, 15). Government policies, such as the PATRIOT Act, special registration, and FBI investigations put the logic of “good Muslim/bad Muslim” into practice by tar­geting noncitizens as “potential terrorists” or “bad Muslims,” and distinguishing them from “citizens” or “good Muslims.”4 Within liberal discourses on tolerance and diversity, the privileging of individual hate crimes over the institutionaliza­tion of state violence facilitated official U.S. narratives that sought to reduce the post-9/11 backlash against persons perceived to be Arab, Middle Eastern, Mus­lim, or South Asian to the acts of a “few bad apples” and to cover up the sys­tematic institutionalized nature of the violence. The Abu Ghraib torture case is but one example in which the “few bad apples” argument served to overshadow state accountability in promoting violence against persons perceived to be Arab or Muslim. In this case, the Bush administration argued that the abuses were iso­lated acts committed by low-ranking personnel—even though authorities either ordered or implicitly condoned the abuses (Mayer 2005; Hersh 2004). 

The aftermath of 9/11 not only illustrated what critical race scholars have been arguing for decades—that “visibility” is a power-laden project that has the effect of silencing critiques of state violence and the structural inequalities that produce hatred and racism—but also revealed the objectification that often ac­companies “inclusion.” Moallem and Boal argue that multiculturalism “consis­tently evades engagement with three pressing issues: the enduring heritage of Eurocentrism, the question of justice, and the connections between national and global domains.” Multiculturalism, they argue, “contrives to efface all historic­ity in its consumption of the present” (1999, 244).5 After decades of silence on Arab American issues in U.S. academia, September 11 sparked discourses on the “new targeted communities” that framed attacks against persons perceived to be “Arab,” “Muslim,” or “South Asian” in the public sphere as a “new” crisis—as if September 11 was a dividing line of history; as if the only “targeted communi­ties” were Arabs and Muslims; and as if the Bush administration’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim state policies were not located within complex histories of European colonialism and U.S.-led imperialism in Arab homelands and decades of state­-sponsored harassment of Arab American individuals, particularly those who are politically active. Along with discourses on “the new targeted communities” came an increased interest in and funding for Middle East and Islamic studies, partly owing to the intelligence needs of the U.S. war machine. In the 1990s, I learned of several cases in which academic advisors told their Ph.D. students specializing in Arab American Studies that they were committing academic suicide because they would never land academic jobs in this area. Perhaps the heightened interest in Arab American studies on university campuses and the growing number of tenure-track positions in this field has diminished the need for such concerns. 

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  1. See Volpp (2003, 147) and Naber (2000), who write about the construction of the category Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim. 
  2. See Kien Lee (2002) for an analysis of how communities across the United States have initiated activities to build solidarity with Arabs, Muslims, and other Middle Easterners.
  3. Here I build on Mamdani (2004) and Alsultany’s (2005) analyses of Good Muslim/Bad Muslim. 
  4. Here I build upon Volpp’s analysis of the ways that racism has operated within the context of the post-9 /11 backlash in terms of a bi nary opposition between the “citizen” and the “terrorist” (2003). I also build upon Kent Ono’s analysis of “potential terrorist.” Ono argues that “‘potential terrorists’ serves as a useful concept to begin to address political and media discourses that pro­duce a creative, if fictional, ‘network’ or interconnection along racial, gender, national, sexual, political, and ideological lines. Hate crimes, surveillance by the repressive apparatus of the state, and surveillance and disciplining technologies have erected a powerful discursive barrier to full participation in society by those marked as ‘potential terrorist’” (2005, 443). 
  5. Here I am building on Moallem and Boal’s definition of U.S. liberal multiculturalism: “[M]ulticultural nationalism operates on the fault line between a universalism based on the no­tion of an abstract citizenship that at the same time systematically produces sexualized, gen­dered, and racialized bodies, and particularistic claims for recognition and justice by minoritized groups” (1999, 245). 

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