Sunday, March 26, 2017

The New White Flight

Arwa Mahdawi has a thoughtful column on an upcoming change in the US census that would create a separate category of "Middle Eastern" (currently, they're considered "White").

The title and subtitle imply that this is an act of exclusion and marginalization (Mahdawi's own words are considerably more measured); but much of the history behind this change is campaigns by Middle Eastern Americans to "check it right; you ain't White!"  Meanwhile, last year I linked to an interesting article in Ha'aretz interviewing Middle Eastern Jews in America regarding how they felt about the change -- their thoughts were interesting in their ambivalence (identifying as Middle Eastern, but frequently not identifying as "people of color").

There is something intriguing about this -- for the most part, the racialization process in American history has been about groups struggling to "become" White and to preserve that status once attained. Yet now we're seeing at least some groups try to resist being identified as White, a new and novel form of flight from Whiteness. I've seen it before (at an earlier age identified with it) amongst Ashkenazi Jews, and now we're seeing it from many Middle Eastern and Arab Americans. At the very least, this suggests some level of improvement in racial egalitarianism ("some", of course, not being a synonym for "adequate") -- we've moved from a world in which non-Whiteness was flatly incompatible with being an equal American to one in which people can at least conceptualize "choosing" to be non-White without it coming off as a death wish.

Still, that doesn't explain the motive of why persons would proactively view Whiteness as mischaracterizing their identity. What makes it not the right box? What I suspect is going on here is the sense that being viewed as "White" is thought to diminish or negate the existence of significant ethnic oppression. "White" people are privileged, and so to the extent that Arab Americans are not privileged on account of their ethnicity, coding them as "White" misrepresents their social status in significant ways. Now, one might wonder why this would be so: we can talk of gay Whites as being simultaneously privileged (as White) and subordinated (as gay); so too we might be able to say that White Middle Easterners are privileged (as White) and subordinated (as Middle Easterners). But the idea seems to be that Whiteness absorbs certain types of marginalization -- particularly those based on ethnicity (this is probably related to the loose borders between "race" and "ethnicity" as concepts). Gayness and Whiteness are in different domains, but if a Middle Easterner is White, their Middle Easternness is a subcategory of their Whiteness.

3 comments:

Binyamin Arazi said...
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Binyamin Arazi said...
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Binyamin Arazi said...

I feel there's another dynamic missing in your analysis, at least where Jewishness is concerned.

Another key reason many of us (both Mizrahim and non-Mizrahim) are moving away from identifying with whiteness is that it serves to disconnect us from our ethnic heritage, specifically our indigenous origins in the Middle East. And as the argument goes, if Middle Easterners are "brown" and Jews are "white", then we can't possibly be from Israel (which is in the Middle East), therefore we shouldn't be there at all. Our alleged "whiteness" is also tied up in notions of "Jewish privilege", so it is a dangerous slippery slope. While I believe Jews (and anyone else of Middle Eastern descent) should be able to identify as white if they choose to, it certainly isn't something that should be forced or imposed on us, especially when the crushing majority of those who *insist* that we are white have strong antisemitic feelings.