September 7, 2019 0

Jamil Khoury’s Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness

(speaking in Arabic and Polish) Whenever I hear
people speaking Arabic or Slavic language no matter which dialect of
Arabic or which Slavic language it could be in the streets, in a mall, at a
restaurant, in an airport I turn around to see who they are always I want to
blurt out hey folks you may not know this but uh hey I’m one of you, kinda. You, are not one of us. I hate to break the news to you pal but you’re white You’re like really white You don’t look like a Jamil You’re polish you remember This is what an Arab American looks like When you’re an American with Arab and
Slavic blood and an Arabic name and white skin it makes for some rather
interesting conversation and a fair amount of confusion Jamil Khoury? You’re Arab? Yes, well I’m.. I’m half Arab I never would have guessed. You look like an American. Oh well, I am an American . I mean a real American. Your parents
they’re from … My father’s originally from Syria. He came to the U.S. back in the 50s My mother was born in Chicago of Polish and Slovak heritage. You look Syrian. Thank you Your eyes….Arab. The clips you are watching are from my quasi
autobiographical short play WASP. White Arab Slovak Pole in writing WASP I set
out to explore my relationship to Arabs and Slovs and yet along the way I ended
up exploring the issue of whiteness so I decided to investigate my race in a
documentary and to speak with others who have also
considered what it means to be white in America and with whom I share Arab and
Slavic backgrounds I’m a wasp a white Arab Slovak Pole well I define myself as
of course as a white American of Polish descent Lebanese with the diasporic
history that extends into Brazil as well I identify with the Polish American
working class who were then called ethnics white ethnics I also identify
with their predecessors who were not yet white ethnics I am a wasp I am a white
Anglo Spanish Palestinian my father is from Honduras where his Palestinian
parents went. My mother’s half Costa Rican and the ancestors that came from
my mother’s side were all Jews so I’m a white Anglo Sephardic Palestinian okay
we’re playing with acronyms now interesting angle Semitic Slav Slavic
Semite think kibeh and kielbasa You’re like all-american white. Midwest farm boy white. Chicago cop white. Isn’t racial profiling generally
considered a bad thing? In this country being born white it’s like hitting the jackpot You won the lottery boyfriend. Whiteness is it’s like membership without the application process an automatic
upgrade to first-class instant access to the secret code Whiteness has a
persistence to it there’s no doubt whiteness has legs
it’s the trusted brand the market leader and there are many people both in the
United States and around the world who wish they were white is this wish
political material aesthetic or is it something else? Whiteness as a category ultimately has no objective basis it is about power ultimately whiteness is a constructed identity that benefits some and doesn’t benefit others whiteness proceeds and sort of qualifies one as
fully American Jamil is it true that Arabs are considered Caucasian? Yes. I call it white without the benefits. good thing you’ve got that Slavic blood to
fall back on not exactly Poles, Serbs, Russians, we Slavs were banished to the
outer reaches of the white stratosphere eons ago Jamil are you saying that anglo-saxons the real deal no Slovaks or Pollack on the Mayflower that’s for sure maybe whiteness did find its ideal mate
in anglo-saxon Protestants or at least non poor anglo-saxon Protestants but
when whiteness hooked up with Arabs and Slavs the courtship turned rocky the
same can be said about the Irish the Italians the Greeks the Jews. Whiteness plays favorites. The first wave of European immigrants are mostly from Northern Western Europe they had an easier assimilation than people with
names that you couldn’t pronounce like mine and so there was a clash right from
the very beginning Southern and Eastern European immigrants as a larger group were not considered white when they first arrived historians sociologists
around ethnicity will refer to the category PIGS poles Italians Greeks and
Slavs these groups were considered racially inferior they were not white
but they were also not african-american so they benefited from racial apartheid
and but they also were not considered white Finally in the 1920s immigration
from Europe was cut off basically to stop these eastern and southern
Europeans from coming into the country Arabs maintain a honorary white status
we can selectively claim whiteness when it benefits us and we occasionally are
as well stripped of whiteness sometimes arbitrarily We’ve been struggling to be seen as white people because white people are winners and to quote don’t
back no losers which is to say that Arabs would get in the winning line
which was to be white so why would you identify with anything less than what
would make you and your children the most successful Americans you could
possibly be? When Arabs came in the late 19th century and early 20th century they
themselves had really no prior understanding of race they didn’t think
of themselves in racial terms Arabs as a group drew a lot of scrutiny from U.S.
American elites because he was white but didn’t know how to define Arabs racially speaking and so Arabs were claiming whiteness because in order to gain US citizenship one had to be a white person in good moral standing or of African
nativity when they applied for for citizenship in several cases in the
early 20th century they were denied on the basis that they were of Asiatic
birth and so there was a concerted effort on the part of Syrian immigrants
elites to hire lawyers consult with scientists to try to prove their whiteness they
would say well Arabs are white because we come from a part of the world that
Jesus came from therefore is Jesus not white and in many
of these cases they quote unquote won Eventually Slavs and Arabs were afforded
whiteness but it was a qualified whiteness a conditional whiteness they
were not quite white white with an asterisk aspiring White’s acclimating
White’s honorary White’s titular Whites in between Whites
transitioning Whites not quite yet fully almost sort of Whites it was believed that the new immigrants were too dirty to foreign either too Catholic or too
Jewish, depending on which group they were talking about, well-suited to manual
labor, perceived as docile, too ignorant to ever fully be assimilated into the
racial superiority or of northern and western europeans I found one
sociological study that claimed that Slavs are immune to certain kinds of
dirt that they could quote stand what would kill a white man There’s a wonderful book by Madison Grant called The Passing of the Great Race
in which he warns that the Jews and the Poles and the Slovaks and all are going
to intermarry with white anglo-saxon Protestant women in destroy the
anglo-saxon race I understand Hitler enjoyed the book quite a bit himself and
had it translated It’s fascinating to me how two groups as seemingly different as
Slavs and Arabs have both experienced white racism while ostensibly being
white themselves and this official classification of Arab Americans as
white does carry a bitter irony the relentless persistence of anti-arab and
anti-muslim racism in this country does not see white Arabs confronted this sort of biracial
order within the United States in the first half of the 20th century the case
is the lynching of Nola Romey this Syrian in Florida this was the Jim Crow South him and his wife began talking to an officer as if they were equals the officer obviously did not view them as as equals and so
when this white police officer saw this Syrian this foreigner talking back to
him the Syrian man ended up lynched My own heritage has been spelled back to me in a way that’s completely fraudulent The mainstream news media coming out from
the day that we were all born my generation indicating that Palestinian
is synonymous with terrorists the two words married very naturally because of
the way that that story is constantly told in the mainstream news media it was
almost cartoonish so it really wasn’t until I started hanging out with a
middle-eastern person that I learned quite to the contrary US foreign policy
is endorsing a racist apartheid system to keep the Palestinians completely
suppressed (speaking in Arabic) Why you must speak Arabic Jamil I know I I know I understand Arabic way better than I can speak it I don’t know a word of Polish or Slovak Why would you? In many ways whiteness tells Arabs and Slavs to stop being Arabs and Slavs American mainstream culture has has awarded white
ethnics white status and partially through trade offs on the part of the
group sometimes willingly abandoning their
names their language I was raised in a family that was spanish-speaking on both sides of the family my parents had eight children who were not encouraged to
speak Spanish a house full of barefoot people speaking Spanish not cool
it wasn’t the surest way to become financially successful or socially
successful You know some of these American-born Arabs they never go home they’re lost they want to be more American than the Americans yeah it’s the whole assimilation thing and they kind of screwed it up I see World War
II really is a big assimilating event people went off being Polish and
Lithuanian and German and Irish and Bohemian they came back Americans and
also as people’s worlds widened they began to intermarry what other groups
begin to see other things and of course also of being assimilated into the bad
parts of being American to become American and white is to become racist
that’s part of the assimilation process the Poles begin to realize like wait a
minute become American is to know that blacks are to be kept away from blacks
should be kept out of your neighborhood to become American to be accepted is to
make that separation Arabs are victims of racism and victimizers as well Instead of allying with African-Americans, with Asians Arabs, threw everyone else under
the bus, said ok we’re not like you we want to be like the whites that is in
order to become American that immigrants must adopt racism against blacks you’ve got Polish Americans participating in the Trumbull Park riots
in 1950 you got Polish Americans participating the Market Park riots in
the 1960s like all so-called white Americans they reacted to integration.
Why? The American Dream is one of upward mobility they had just crawled up to the
middle-class status and here came the blacks and there were arguments between
the black community over jobs, housing,and politics wants these blacks because
you want to crawl over them to the top there’s this very interesting
triangulation where the white ethnic knows that they are in a different
social position than the African American who is despised but they also
know that they’re despised as white ethnics There’s nothing inherently about
Arabs that would have them hate other other peoples of color but it’s a world
that was colonized by Europe we were all put on different rungs of the ladder and
Arabs claim that they’re on a higher rung and therefore adopt a racism
against others in order to maintain their own position There was no special
gene for bigoted miss in Slavic people but the Polish joke in maligning Slavs
did other work by having a compressed cultural category that quickly can point
out as a marker this group is bigoted, backwards, uneducated – that actually
shifts the attention from the larger racial politics of the culture and
says the racism in this culture isn’t really found in the structure of the
culture that reproduces and maintains white supremacy
and inequality the real problem of racism is to be found in those backward
Pollacks who as we all know are bigots. It said that the problem with, especially
urban racism, was white ethnics not the people who profited from real estate
deals and redlining Is it true you consider yourself a race
traitor? I’ve always felt like an impostor at the white party Party’s about to end white boy. A poser a gate crasher Don’t even try playing that game Stealth brownie in white face One day being white won’t command the premium that it does now. Do I consider myself a
person of color do I look like a person of color my husband Malik he’s a person
of color now I understand why for some people it’s important or even strategic
to describe me as a person of color as a political stance I get it I’m there but
as an aesthetic or experiential descriptor I feel like I’m being
dishonest Being born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana I was most certainly raised to think of myself as white The fact that there was this Palestinian
stripe was an odd color nobody quite knew what to do with and then when inventions of social distinction like brown come around you sort of measure yourself against that and that’s what I found myself doing As a white person
that always had the feeling that I didn’t quite fit that description but I
didn’t know why I started to identify as a brown person and quite proudly so I
found that certain members of my family didn’t appreciate my referencing myself
as brown because if you get away from being brown then you should be glad and
then celebrate the fact that you didn’t have to be in that pool of suffering be
glad and then run with it but I never understood that I understood myself as
being now a member of a community of brownness that gave me a sense of belonging a sense of place a sense of community I identify myself as a person of color but I recognize as well that I benefit from
white privilege that I personally hadn’t fought for claimed but that previous
generations of Arab immigrants to this country had fought for from the
standpoint of Arabs I can certainly understand why it was at one time very
important to identify as white but there was a cynical turn when the census came
out and it was possible to lobby for a change in access to social services on
some level that comes with being a member of a minority and so check it
right you ain’t white became the rallying cry for Arab Americans it was
certainly a shift in the consciousness to a more utilitarian approach to
whiteness or non whiteness Arab Americans today want to claim an
identity as people of color but without acknowledging the fact that we’ve
selectively benefited from from white privilege and today it’s easier to
identify with other peoples of color the Jim Crow era has ended the explicitly
anti Asian immigration policy ended In the history of creating the category of
whiteness some of that history has been forgotten and covered over and I don’t
want to forget that Poles and Slavs generally were highly involved in the
labor movements in the fight for working justice in very bold ways when you
consider how much an immigrant had to lose and put their lives on the line and
sometimes lost their lives I think one thing that happens with Americans
especially Americans have let’s say the second or third generation you have an
emptiness a yearning a sense of community that is not there
that you yearn for sometimes I think if only I could go back to Babcia’s green
kitchen you know I could be warm and safe again yeah (overlapping speaking in Arabic and Slavic languages) Ultimately we’re all not quite white
we’re all failed whites because whiteness lies to white people and it
especially lies to poor whites because whiteness defines us in opposition to
the very poly cultural world in which we actually exist in a few decades
there will be no ethnic or racial majority in the United States we will
all be minorities and frankly that America already exists I live in that
America you know I do feel like a genuine American in the fact that I’m a blend and Americans do use the expression melting pot often enough so
I’d like to identify what is American as what is our best selves and so being
their best would be people who would stand up for the underdog slowly but surely we keep redefining the American Revolution to be inclusive and
inclusive and inclusive so now women have the right to vote African Americans
have the right vote and people from China can become naturalized citizens people
from Nigeria can become naturalized citizens we’re now giving gay people
rights that’s a redefinition of the American
Revolution we redefine the American Revolution every time we have a new
generation I tell my students you have to redefine it. It’s your job now and my
job is over I’m in my 60s I’m done

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