Ruby Hamad on Arabs and Whiteness

As part of SBS’s Face Up to Racism (FU2Racism) week, writer Ruby Hamad published an article arguing that Arabs are not white. I was a bit annoyed. Some wanted to know why so I’ve jotted some preliminary thoughts down here. While I agree with her overall claim (that Arabs are not 'white' in the present) she prosecutes her case via historical inaccuracies, cherry-picking arguments/facts, while sniping other minorities in the process. Part of the bitterness though comes from a wider set of disappointments. I consider Hamad to be one of the more prominent and informed writers on race issues in Australia so I have come to expect more of her than others. It comes during the week of FU2Racism's disappointing programming on SBS (Australia's multicultural channel) featuring two problematic documentaries that left me dejected at the state of discussions of racism in Australia. When Hamad's piece popped up on my newsfeed I had a brief flash of hope that was quickly dashed.

To start with, the article is often vague and poorly defines key terms. For example, it’s not clear what the distinction is, or if there is a distinction, between whiteness, white, European, Western European, western, race, racism, colonialism and imperialism. Early on the article claims that 'whiteness' was used to "justify everything from slavery to Terra Nullius to the war on terror". But this simply isn't true. Indeed, one of the reasons why we study the doctrine of Terra Nullius is precisely because it underscores how modern racism justified itself through legal categories of property and ownership in contrast to the Spanish conquistador's use of the divine mandate to justify Christian colonisation during the Age of Discovery. Granted, the point may seem overly finicky to some, but it's a really important way for those of us who study racism to trace racism's extraordinary adaptability. Terra Nullius was grounded in the liberal framework of natural rights while the Christian mandate was grounded in theological notions of divine rights and ordained responsibilities. What this shows is that racism, as the differential distribution of rights and resources according to a hierarchy of Europeanness, was able to function effectively under completely different political regimes. 

One of the reasons this is important is because contemporary debates about racism in public life tend to assume that racism is only about skin colour - something Hamad is also critical about. I agree that neither racism nor whiteness is just about skin colour. However, Hamad's conceptual move is to expand 'whiteness' into such an expansive ideology that it covers all instances of racism, colonialism and imperialism. This will always encounter problems once you test it against the archive. Take the War on Terror, one of the examples she raises. As the name implies, one of the striking things about the war on terror is that it used potential terrorism and weapons of mass destruction as its primary justification for its pre-emptive invasion. After it was clear there were no WMDs a new justification conveniently emerged in conservative and mainstream media primarily focused on gender and sexual equality and rights in the Middle East/Islam. Whiteness was not a central concept in these justification. It was racist, sure, but not because of 'whiteness'. White people benefited, sure, but whiteness itself was not a primary concept for mainstream mobilization. This is what makes the work of scholars of racism difficult, because we often have to painstakingly deconstruct the rhetoric of the time and trace out the power relations in order to prove that racism is at play. The lack of 'whiteness' in the official War on Terror rhetoric is also what makes the rise of populist nationalism so prominent in the political landscape because what we are witnessing is a bold and in-your-face return to the language of race, and 'whiteness' in particular, to justify state actions.

Throughout the piece one of her central contentions is that whiteness is fluid. One the one hand, this emphasis on the fluidity of whiteness fails to recognize that its fluidity only oscillates between ‘whites’ and ‘honorary whites’ (eg. Eastern Europeans and East Asians), while failing to note that there has never been a period of history where descendants of Africans and Southeast Asians were considered ‘white’ (except in instances of 'passing' and/or 'mixing'). In other words, whiteness is fluid for some groups, but other groups are always excluded. Whiteness is far more fluid for an Arab, who can at least weave in and out of the category depending on historical, geographical and cultural context, than it is for an black African. On the other hand, her main concept ‘Arab’ is never defined, although I think we can presume she is referring to an ethnic group from the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. The problem here is that while she devotes much time to showing that 'whiteness' is fluid there's no self-reflection on how 'Arab' identity might be fluid as well, in which case it is possible for Arabs to be considered white in some contexts.

In addition the piece is riddled with factual inaccuracies. She claims early on that whiteness wasn’t invented until the early decades of European colonization of the Americas. (I want to emphasise that this particular thesis is a favourite of white socialists who are desperate to believe that racism is simply a divisive tool to separate the workers. The argument that whiteness was invented by the ruling elite in the American colonies in order to suppress worker riots by splitting the workers conveniently fits their core political ideologies.) Anyway, the article she cites as proof actually talks about colonial Virginia in 1600, pinning the emergence of the language of race around the 1680s and claiming that it was codified in Virginia law in 1691. It is strange, to say the least, to describe 1691 as the ‘early decades of European colonization’ given that extensive European colonization began after 1492 spearheaded by the Spanish expedition of Christopher Columbus. But rather than challenge this historical claim, let’s just accept the claim that whiteness was invented in 1691 in colonial Virginia USA for the sake of the argument. Later on Hamad argues that the Irish were colonised “on the basis that they were not ‘real’ white people”.  Again, presuming this was true, and failing to couch this in the political, social and economic history of that region played out in courtly intrigue, conflict, war and conquest, there is no evidence provided for this significant claim. In fact, the book she cites in her article as ‘proof’ relates to the racialisation of Irish migrants in the USA in the 1800s. It is not even about Irish colonisation. But let’s assume that she made a simple citation error and that there is a book she can later show that does proves the Irish were colonised on "the basis" that they were not 'real' white, and let’s assume that she’s referring to the English colonisation of Ireland from 1536 to 1691, rather than say the Norman invasion of the 12th century. According to her own argument, whiteness was the pretext for colonising Ireland in 1536 but was only invented in Virginia, USA in 1691. This is impossible unless they are Time Lord colonisers!

What is also missing is an understanding of the different histories of colonisation. Her assumption throughout is that whiteness is somehow necessary for colonisation. Yet one of her first claims is that whiteness was invented after the colonisation of America. How is this possible, unless there are other categories used to justify colonisation other than, and prior to, whiteness (and I would argue co-extensive with and after it as well)? And if it is the case that other concepts were used then her major contention falls apart. The picture she paints of a monolithic ideology governing colonisation and imperialism from 1492 until the War on Terror across all geographies, all European empires, all colonies, in all languages and in all time periods, is just breathtakingly simplistic. Missing are categories central to the history of colonisation and imperialism, like ethnicity, culture, civility, civilization, nationality, religion, character, progress, barbarism, divinity, order, and more recently democracy.

Furthermore, there's just no reflection on the different geographies that her article crosses over. The claim that Arabs are not white surely has to be read within specific contexts. Some polities recognize Arab as an identity and others do not. Some record it in their official records and others do not. Some categorise Arab as a variation of 'white' while most do not. We cannot make a blanket claim about the status of Arabs across the world, especially between places where Arabs are minorities and places where Arabs are the ruling majority and elite. These require very different analyses of power because of their relationship to the ruling hegemony. It is therefore striking that almost all of her references are from the US, perhaps the one place where her argument just doesn't hold. It's striking because the argument could have been much easier to make in the context of Australian history, where Hamad resides. This reflects the general Americanisation of racial politics in Australia, which I have been struggling against (and losing).

But let’s leave aside such moments – and there are many – and focus on what I believe is the core of her argument.

As I understand it, her main argument is that even though Arab Americans are classified as white by the US state, and even though some Arabs identify as white, and even though Arabs may exploit workers from Africa and South Asia, she contends they aren’t white because Arabs face discrimination and therefore ‘fall short’ of whiteness. It bears reminding that this same argument is used by white people to deny they are racially privileged. For example, some Irish people argue that they do not have white privilege because they were victims of colonization too.

On a more fundamental note, it’s her own definition of whiteness that undermines her main thesis. She argues that whiteness is not just skin colour, nor does it pertain to “people themselves but to an ideology that set European (now more broadly “Western”) culture and ancestry as the benchmark by which all others are judged”. Later, she argues that “whiteness is a social construct not a biological reality, it is fluid rather than rigid, the boundaries separating those with privilege from those without constantly shifting”. Thus, from her own words, who counts as white is historically contingent. It follows then that it is possible that Arabs may count as white depending on whether they occupy that position of white privilege. This means that if you can prove that Arabs occupied that position of privilege then they would be 'white' within such a timeframe.

This is precisely what her own account suggests. As she rightly notes Arab Americans were considered white by the US state through the census and some Arab-Americans, to her dismay, even identify as white. In other words, not only are they structurally privileged by being conferred the status of whiteness within a white supremacist state, they even identify with that position. How is this not ‘white’ according to her own definition? Her dismissal of such moments of affinity through the metaphor of seduction is telling: “the appeal of whiteness is so alluring, they succumb to the temptation to win favour in a racist system”. The Arab, here, is portrayed as being reluctantly mislead by the succubus of whiteness to oppress others less racially privileged.

What she conveniently leaves out is that this came about because of several court cases from 1909 to 1915 involving Syrian immigrants to the US that specifically argued for their status as ‘white’ rather than ‘Asian’ to circumvent the effects of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented them from gaining citizenship. In other words, this wasn’t an accident, a random happenstance that they became ‘white’. It wasn’t thrust upon them by the fate of history, nor were they mislead by some seductive temptress. They actively pursued and argued for their status as ‘white’, pooling their money togetherto fight across several courts, to ensure their designation as ‘white’ in the US. This isn't an "appeal" of whiteness. Arab Americans purposefully occupied the positionality of whiteness for a century.

These cases are briefly mentioned in the resource Hamad herself links to her article. Yet rather than pursue this line of inquiry before her, Hamad chose to portray the “attempt to position [Arabs] as white” as some kind of external imposition, when in fact they pursued it for their material benefit and maintained it for about a century. What is even more shocking is when you realise that the example that Hamad cites as an unfair imposition is actually an article by a Sudanese-American Muslim, Isra Amin Ibrahim, who is at the time critiquing anti-black racism from Arab Muslims. It would be completely different, and I would be far more sympathetic, if Hamad was arguing against white authors who were unfairly coopting Arab Muslims identities. What this reveals is that Hamad’s article is a response to being positioned ‘white’ by Black Muslims critiquing racism.

If, on the one hand, Hamad's attempt to dissociate from whiteness is done to protect against accusations of anti-black racism, on the other, she happily draws on model minority myths to portray Asian Americans. At the same time that she denies Arab Americans as white, despite legally fighting for this classification in state apparatuses and even self-identifying as 'white', she then cites approvingly the claim that Asians in the US are increasingly grouped with white people. If we leave aside the ludicrousness of such a claim (the news article she cites is a hyperbolic observation of the model minority myth), this ends up undermining her own thesis. If she can so readily agree that Asians can be white, why is she so adamant to dismiss the facts before her about the historical whiteness of Arab Americans?

This raises some uncomfortable questions. Why choose now to claim the category of People of Colour? Why are Arab Americans so insistent now that they are not ‘white’, rather than, say, during the Civil Rights Era or during the Vietnam War? Consider, for example, Arab American, Kayed Hassan, recounting favourably his service in the US military during the Vietnam campaign in 1967:

I didn’t feel any discrimination at all during my service, even after the Arab-Israeli wars and the politics of it all […] And with a name like Hassan, it’s not like you can hide from it. I didn’t. I was proud to be Arab and also proud to be American. […] The other soldiers always respected me as an Arab and as a Muslim […] I was too busy being an American and an Arab to allow anyone to attack me.
— Kayed Hassan, 69yo, Syrian American Veteran

Compare that to Muhammad Ali’s response to conscription in the same year:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
— Muhammad Ali

The response by two different Muslim Americans to the Vietnam War couldn't be more divergent in their political modes of racial identification. It's one of the reasons I was struck by the number of young non-black Arab Muslims in America and Australia who attempted to coopt Muhammad Ali as ‘one of their own’ upon his death, oblivious to the racial specificities of his life struggle.

This leads me to another glaring absence in her argument. The smooth causal ties she creates between whiteness, colonialism, slavery and Islamophobia is undercut by the existence of the Arab slave trade from the 7th century onwards. Hamad’s attempt to pin the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE squarely on the European ideology of 'whiteness', while completely ignoring the history of slavery and indentured and forced labour in the Arab world is probably the most obvious attempt to whitewash history in her favour. That strikes me as a rather disingenuous way of dismissing Arab privilege in systems of exploitation that are sanctioned by Arab states. I don't have enough knowledge or time to go into the differences between the Transatlantic slave trade and the Arabic one, but it is possible to recognise the existence of the Arab slave trade without falling for false equivalences.

Are Arab Americans white now? No. But they were white for almost a century, and happily so from what it seems. A century is a long time to occupy privileged spaces to accrue access to resources, education, jobs, etc. I can understand that many Arabs across the West definitely do not feel 'white' right now. And it is valuable for Hamad to give voice to this political shift. But why can’t she just make a case for dissociating from whiteness in the present rather than pretending they never had it? Why not focus on the excellent writing by Arab Americans that are currently challenging and resisting the label of whiteness? Or if her goal is to highlight the contemporary plight of Arabs, then why not simply cite the growing body of literature charting and tracing the contemporary formations of Islamophobia across the West? Why not simply cite the important body of work tracing the colonial and imperial struggles over the Middle East and North Africa and how these shaped the contemporary political, economic and social instability of the region? It strikes me as a rather underhanded and convoluted way to claim oppression by denying the history of one's privilege in specific contexts, especially when the author does so by pushing back against other racialised minorities.

[NB: A far more nuanced account of the racialisation of Arab American's at the turn of the twentieth century can be found in Sarah M. Gualtieri's Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. She provides a more in-depth and sensitive account of their decision-making within the context of America's racial order than what I provide above.]