Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Identity

In a 2004 cover story “Jose Can You See?” in the Foreign Policy journal, political scientist Samuel Huntington posited that the greatest threat facing America was not terrorism, but an erosion of values brought upon by the waves of Latino immigration to the United States. This would result in two Americas – “two peoples, two cultures and two languages.” This argument was in essence an extension of his “clash of civilizations” theory. To put it simply, future conflict would not be waged between nation-states, but between cultural civilizations, whose core values would be so dissimilar as to provoke conflict.

Huntington, who died in December 2008, was hinting at a sociological phenomenon that he never mentioned by name, but that does frame much of how elites in the United States judge American identity; that is by “white performance”. To truly be an American and to be accepted in America is to do certain things, “perform” in a certain way in order to be considered as part of the white, Eurocentric majority. These include speaking English, following some form of Christianity or Judaism and of course, looking or acting “white”.

Although sociologist Charles Gallagher has pointed out that the significance of being white has actually declined among the white ethnic community – many of whom he labels as “symbolically ethnic” or “name-only ethnic”. The implications of being labeled as white in order to be accepted by the greater American community are still profound. Almost every non-white candidate for higher office is measured against a yardstick of “white performance”. Taken from this perspective, the electoral success of current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal seems to make more sense. Although Jindal is a first-generation American of Indian origin, he is a Republican, Catholic (by conversion) and goes by Bobby (though his real name is Piyush). Are these not all elements of “white performance” in order to attain assimilation into the dominant racial hierarchy in the United States?

And what of the issues of white versus black performance during the campaign and election of President Barack Obama? Almost every day, Obama’s “blackness” or biracial identity was under scrutiny by everyone. Is Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and white mother, black or white? Political scientist Ronald Walters caused a fair share of controversy in a 2007 Journal of Black Studies article by suggesting that although Obama was African-American, his deracialized campaign strategy led him away from the usual model of African-Americans running for office. Therefore, Obama did not embody, according to Walters, “political blackness”.

Obama’s religious background also became fair game for the entire world it seemed, which delighted in engaging in a battle over his faith. Was Obama, who studied in a Muslim school as a child and had an Arabic name, Christian or Muslim? Or asked from the “white performance” perspective, was Obama Christian enough? The most infamous incident involving Obama’s religious and racial identity occurred at an October 2008 campaign rally in Minnesota, when 75-year old Gayle Quinnell told Senator John McCain that she didn’t trust then Senator Obama because “He’s an Arab”. McCain infamously responded with the quote — that led many to wonder if McCain knew what an Arab was — when he took the mic from Quinnell and said, “”No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Wait a minute — was McCain implying that Arabs were neither decent nor family people? What was he thinking? McCain’s statement, however farfetched, was representative of the typical of the modern American’s thought process (whites and others) – the total and omnipotent association of the phrase “Arab” with some sinister purpose. If Obama faced a mountain of scrutiny over popular acceptance of his racial, cultural and religious identity, then he was only briefly subjected to the systemic and sometimes unconstitutional scrutiny that has plagued the community that Ms. Quinnell alleged that he belong to: the Arab-American or more broadly, the Middle Eastern American community.

That Americans of Middle Eastern descent could be Arab, Persian, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Kurdish, Pashtun or other tribal affiliations or ethnicities and drawn from an extremely diverse mixture of languages and religions is lost on many Americans. Or that people from the Middle East have long been immigrating to the United States is seldom realized. Or that many from this large, “panethnic group” (in the words of Yen Le Espiritu) have “made it” in America tends to be forgotten. What does matter is that since the attacks of September 11, Middle Eastern Americans have been reduced to a single grouping: the Other.

In describing South Asian-Americans, Rajiv Shankar has made a similar conclusion. “They [South Asians] find themselves so unnoticed as an entity that they feel as if they are merely a crypto-group, often included but easily marginalized within the house of Asian America,” writes Shankar. “[They] ask why are they a part, yet apart, admitted, but not acknowledged?”

What is unusual and somewhat shocking, however, is that according to almost every formal American governmental system of classification, Middle Eastern Americans are white. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Census, Middle Eastern Americans, who might even derive their origins from African nations like Egypt and Algeria, are considered to be white because they do not have their own racial classification.

And therein lies the rub, according to lawyer and author John Tehranian, in his new book, Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority. “The dualistic and contested ontology of the Middle Eastern racial condition therefore creates an unusual paradox,: writes Tehranian, “Reified as the other, Americans of Middle Eastern descent do not enjoy the benefits of white privilege. Yet, as white under the law, they are denied the fruits of remedial action.”

If Middle Eastern Americans are white by law, then why are they treated like second-class citizens? (Notably, the argument of second-class citizen status can be taken out of the racial context, e.g., gender, sexual orientation, certain disabilities, and so on, although that’s not the focus of this book.) This paradox frames much of Tehranian’s eye-opening book, which follows two parallel narratives: a history of the American immigration experience and simultaneously, the legal and cultural battles that have accompanied said immigration and the defining of who was American and what constituted “white”.

The author points out that as early as 1790, Congress had defined that naturalization was only available for “white persons”. To define this term, the courts relied on arguments that today would be considered heretical: “white performance” cultural achievements, eugenics, racism and my favorite, “common knowledge”, i.e., the petitioner would be considered white for purposes of citizenship or naturalization if the common, everyday American considered that person to be white or acting white. The constant waffling and inability for the federal judiciary to create a clear precedent on the issue of whiteness dots much of the opinions in some of the classic cases from this period, such as United States v. Balsara (1910), Ex parte Dow (1914), Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Thind (1923).

Tehranian highlights two particular cases – In re Hassan (1942) and Ex parte Mohriez(1944) – as an example of the judicial confusion of the time. In the former, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that an Arab male was not white for purposes of naturalization because of religion and assimilation. Astonishingly, two years later, another federal judge, this time in Massachusetts, held that an Arab male was white because of the cultural and scientific achievements of the community in history, such as the invention of algebra and the architecture of Spain.

But when Congress ended the system of race-based naturalization in 1952 and then the national original quota system in 1965, the battle for Middle Eastern American identity seemed to jump from the court room to the stage, as this particular American community struggled to maintain its identity in television, film and music. For every American of Middle Eastern descent who “made it” in Hollywood or popular music, there was an actor who was always forced to play the same role or a film that exploited stereotypes. So, for every actor like Danny Thomas (Lebanese origin) and F. Murray Abraham (Syrian origin) or band like System of a Down (all members are of Armenian heritage), there have been grossly inaccurate films like Not Without My Daughter (1991), Rules of Engagement (2000) and the most recent, 300 (2006).

But the invisibility of the Middle Eastern American community in pop culture is not just the fault of the American legal system and studio execs. Tehranian does attack the members of the community itself for carrying out seemingly innocuous, though ultimately detrimental, ethnic practices of masking identity in order to assimilate and attain “white performance”. These include trying to be something or someone else (conversion), acknowledging one’s identity, but still hiding it (passing) and actively hiding one’s background to assimilate (covering).

This has resulted in what Tehranian calls “selective radicalization”, whereby successful Americans of Middle Eastern origin are allowed to become white. Take for example Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame. Shalhoub, who is of Lebanese origin, has for much of his career played non-Arab roles. Although he did play an Arab-American in the film, The Siege, he has attained fame for playing an Italian-American on the television show Wings and the lead character on Monk, whose ethnicity is never discussed. With all that said, Shalhoub has been allowed to be Arab-American because he has played the game and has become successful.

Tehranian even goes one step further by citing Iranian American writer Gelareh Asayesh, who introduces the concept of “race laundering” – “the right clothes, the right car, the right neighborhood can help compensate for that fundamental imperfection: nonwhiteness.” ( “I Grew Up Thinking I Was White”, My Sister, Guard Your Veil, My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices) Asayesh’s comment brings to mind one profound, recent image of race laundering – Ben Kingsley’s character of Massoud Amir Behrani in House of Sand and Fog. Behrani, a former Iranian colonel living in California, works a series of menial jobs, but maintains a presence as a white-collar worker by leaving the house in a suit every morning and driving an expensive car, in order to not bring shame on his family. Although a Farsi-speaking Persian refugee, Behrani tries to perform the ‘right’ way in order to be accepted in America.

But since September 11, “Middle Easterners have been irretrievably associated with Islam,” writes Tehranian. “They appear to hail from a decidedly unfriendly foreign land imagined to contain nothing but terrorists, obstreperous mobs … unabashed misogynistic polygamists and religious fundamentalists.” Simply put, as the Middle Eastern American community has been perceived to be less Christian and more Muslim, so too have the stereotypes increased and the popular view that this particular American community is less able to assimilate because of religious differences.

Tehranian highlights a few of his own personal experiences with racism and bigotry. He discusses being stared down at an airport while waiting for a plane. When he tries to be friendly to the woman and explain he is a lawyer, to assuage her fears and showcase his white-collar profession, she replies accusingly, “You don’t look like a lawyer.” And then there are his unfortunate job interviews – one where he is not hired because he’s perceived to be “white” by a department looking for a minority candidate, and another where a woman asks him what it is like to be “studying our law”, when she finds out he is of Iranian origin.

In the post-9/11 climate of fear, the author cogently points out that to be Middle Eastern is to automatically be Muslim and Arab in the mind of the American public. But, as he writes, “I am neither Arab nor Muslim, but both of these identities are frequently imposed on me when I am perceived as being Middle Eastern.” Like the author, I have been questioned regarding my heritage and motives. We are both US citizens, yet we are identified by the nationalities associated with our last names. As such, he will always be Iranian and I will always be Indian, despite our protests to the contrary.