GOATMILK introduces its original and exclusive month long series entitled “Facing Race: Muslims and Islam” featuring diverse Muslim writers from around the world discussing race, ethnicity, prejudice, stereotyping and multiculturalism in the post 9-11 world.
WHO’S AFRAID OF A MUSLIM PLANET?
“The word “Muslim” is the polite way of niggerizing someone now. Of course, this elision between “Muslim” and “nigger” was established much earlier on with the entry of “Black Muslims” into the American consciousness.”
After 9/11, Dr. Cornel West, one of the pre-eminent racial critics of our times, said that all of America is now nigger. He elaborated that:
That since 9/11 all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated, and that’s been the situation of black folks for 400 years. So that sense of, you know, I mean, in that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated. And now the whole nation niggerized, and everybody got to deal with it.
What Dr. West highlights is that “nigger” is not just about being Black anymore. It is it’s own distinct racial category that encompasses anyone who is at the bottom of the pile of American racial hierarchy. After 9/11, he saw all Americans as being niggers. I think this conception of the term offers productive way in which we can think about niggers in American public life and who the current niggers are. If we think about Black Americans as the “whipping boy,” all meanings fully intended, of empowered, white America, we understand how whiteness is constructed in this country.
Whiteness is not just skin color, but also class, economic status, and social belonging compared to other groups. In the early 20th century, Irish and Italians were not considered “white,” but because Blacks were still systematically marginalized, there was no one against whom Irish and Italians could compete against except each other. They eventually became “white,” no one would now say that they are not. In this construct, race was a defining characteristic, where “whiteness,” was not based only on appearance. The idea of “white” needed to be defined against an “Other,” and that other was simply “Black.” In England, for example, there is a more sophisticated hierarchy with “niggers,” and “Pakis,” but ultimately both are not “white,” and therefore “Black.”
In the US, Jews are constantly straddling the line of “whiteness” in this country. Anti-semitism runs deep, but they are generally, albeit conditionally, accepted. When Blacks were threatening to enter the avenues of “whiteness” in the 1960s, the “model-minority” was created as a wedge group could be leveraged to make sure Blacks knew they were niggers, the bottom of the race pile. Asian-Americans, specifically East Asian, and later South Asians, were held up as people who could become “white” because they had a culture that encouraged hard work, education, thriftiness, and most importantly, subservience. The reality is that while the promise of “whiteness” was held out, it has not manifested itself structurally. In the 1980s the Japanese were vilified as an economic threat to America. Vincent Chin paid the price. Wen Ho Lee was an easy target decades later because of his phenotypic difference. Navroze Mody was killed for his skin color, even though he was part of the model-minority that could become “white.” Now the Chinese are our enemy. I fear the fallout from that designation.
As long as Asian-Americans were better than Blacks and could become “white,” Blacks would always be the only niggers. Both whites and Asian-Americans had a vested interest in that status quo. Then something interesting happened. Second-generation Asian-Americans realized how they were being played. They did not want to be part of that game anymore. Now a spade was being called a spade, and cracker was being called a cracker. When the veneer of respectability over race talk was exposed, the ugliness was revealed. Since overt discussion of race was no longer acceptable, a transition was made to culture talk. Instead of saying that there were deficiencies in a group of people that were innate in their race, the criticism was shifted to their culture. Culture could be overcome if everyone simply acted “white.”
Ironically, the idea of “whiteness” became obviously less racial at the same time racial attitudes were re-hardened in order to preserve the idea of “white.” This transition to culture talk was easy because it was embedded in race talk. If Asians were hard-working, educated, thrifty and subservient, than Blacks by implication were lazy, ignorant, extravagant, and uppity. They were also over-sexualized and Black men wanted to have every white woman they saw as a sexual conquest.
The advantage of culture talk is that it can quickly absorb another group to being the nigger or the Other. When Pres. Obama was running for office, I argued repeatedly that no one can call a Black man “nigger” publicly and be taken seriously. However, you could call him “Muslim” and implicit in that were all the negative culture talk issues. Muslims are violent, uneducated, shifty, interested in taking “our” women, extravagant, dirty, irrational. It was a great way of attacking Pres. Obama for being Black, without calling him “nigger.”
The word “Muslim” is the polite way of niggerizing someone now. Of course, this elision between “Muslim” and “nigger” was established much earlier on with the entry of “Black Muslims” into the American consciousness. In the 1960s, Islam entered the popular imagination through movements like the Nation of Islam and figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. It is an easy jump to say “Muslims are niggers” in the context of the ’60s to saying Arabs are Muslims in the desert so they are “sand niggers.”
Religion, as a language of control, has replaced overt racial identifiers as well. If Muslims are the new Blacks, Jews are the model-minority, and Christians remain white. [When people can tell the difference between Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc., and Muslims, then they are lumped together with Jews]. I spoke about this issue and how damaging it is to all the communities involved. As long as there is a language of control that keeps communities apart, then there is an interest in maintaining the appearance of respectability around subjugation. If Muslims want to stop being an other against which “whiteness” is measured they need to actively reach out and build coalitions and alliances. To be a “nigger” may not actively tied to race anymore, but it doesn’t mean that race is not one of the key factors involved. Blacks, Asians, Latinos, even “White Muslims,” are still at the bottom of the racial heap. Dropout rates, incarceration rates, criminal penalties, police brutality, the “War on Terror,” all show the various ways in which we are subjugated. Whether a person is shot in the back on the BART or sent to Syria for rendition, the means of oppression do not matter as much as the acknowledgement that this part of the same oppressive system. Muslims need to educate themselves and others. We cannot try to get out of being on the bottom by sacrificing others. It’s un-Islamic and strategy that has historically proven unsuccessful. The community needs to understand how it is being played and get out of the game.
One only needs to look at the Pew survey that shows the same number of people think Obama is a Muslim now as before the election, to understand how being called “Muslim” is a slur. It sticks to create a narrative about that person, even though facts, such as extended discussion about his preacher, clearly show a different story. ABC did a survey that shows 48% of American have a negative view of Islam, with 53% of Americans saying they do not know a Muslim. This negative perception, without actual contact with a person, shows how ingrained the culture talk is. Twenty years ago we would say this is the definition of racism, judging people without having met them. Islamophobia is clearly part of the equation, as are the anti-Muslim actions of al-Qaeda, but more relevant is the idea that America needs niggers/Others, and Muslims are now part of the group, with Black, Latinos, and all other disenfranchised groups.
The question is how much longer are Muslims going to say “yes mas’ah?” We’ve had Brandon Mayfield and Capt. James Yee vilified. Will we wait until we get an Amidou Diallo or Abner Louima to understand how immediate and personally threatening this language is?
(I am indebted to Bryonn Bain [http://bryonnbain.com/home.html] for offering several critical comments on this piece. Errors and argument are mine alone.)