Academic journal article MELUS

The (Il)legible Arab Body and the Fantasy of National Democracy

Academic journal article MELUS

The (Il)legible Arab Body and the Fantasy of National Democracy

Article excerpt

Although it has become quite common to use the term "Arab American," one must ask how such a category has emerged historically. What is the relationship between the constitution of this category and the developing field of Arab American studies? This article begins to unpack the dense cultural logic of this field. To examine this cultural logic, I move between three discrete textual sites: the political debates of the last decade around the demographics of Arab America, US court rulings from the early twentieth century on the relationship between Syrian immigrants and the legal definitions of the term "free white persons," and the introductory essay to a recent anthology of Arab American fiction. I argue that the category "Arab American" has been implicated historically in the maintenance of exclusionary practices of US racial nationalism, even as it has revealed the contradictions of such practices.

The rulings in George Dow's 1914 petition for naturalization used what we might call "racial visibility" to categorize Arab bodies as distinct from an abstract form of citizenship. The courts first ruled that Dow was non-white, before reinscribing him as white. Paradoxically, this inscription was inverted in the 1990s census debates. Advocates for a revision of the US census claimed that Arab bodies had become politically invisible when classified as white, yet all too visible in the national imaginary; Arab Americans should therefore be re-categorized (as "Middle Eastern," "Near Eastern," or "Arab") in order to more securely access the rights and protections guaranteed by national citizenship. In today's post-Patriot Act climate and the seemingly permanent War on Terror, such a political strategy is impeded by the state-sanctioned juridical and military practices that continue to inscribe "Arabness" (and its problematic twin "political Islam") as a racialized identity cordoned off from access to these same rights and protections. The introductory essay to Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology of Arab American Fiction suggests ways of productively destabilizing this contradiction through a feminist, diasporic articulation of Arab genealogy. By unpacking this logic, I underscore the critical importance of thinking about how the term "Arab American literature" both sustains and undermines US racial nationalism. (1)

Classifying Arab American Citizenship

Like other ideological formations, whiteness has emerged from a nexus of social and historical relationships. As scholars like Matthew Frye Jacobson have demonstrated, in the US whiteness has historically emerged as both a theory and a practice of citizenship; as such, it has provided for social invisibility (Whiteness 223-44). Whiteness has allowed for the practice of individual social and economic mobility by offering a theory of the right to own one's body. It has promised a higher social class, a more secure community, and a political voice taken more seriously. (2) Classic narratives of racial passing like James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Nella Larsen's Passing, and William Peter Blatty's farcical Which Way to Mecca, Jack?, among many others, depict how being read as white, unmarked and unremarkable, "normal," typical, and therefore excused from the practice of being read, involves an historically-specific struggle to gain access to the dominant national fantasy. Passing, in this sense, is a strategy that reveals the complex disciplinary apparatus that polices the boundaries of whiteness (Mullen 72). One must pass into whiteness, pass as white, and therefore pass as invisible by fading into equivalence. A citizen in this context must paradoxically struggle to be read as unreadable.

Given this historical emergence of whiteness in the United States, recent debates about "Arabness" take on particularly weighted meaning. These debates entail an important inversion of normative reading practices and clarify how US racial nationalism--the linkage of abstract citizenship and racial exclusion--is tied to social, political, and economic forces operative both within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. …

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