Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

In Passing: Arab American Poetry and the Politics of Race

Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

In Passing: Arab American Poetry and the Politics of Race

Article excerpt

THE POLITICS OF PASSING, OR BEARING WITNESS THROUGH THE BODY

Incident #1:

Gulf War 1991-I am an undergraduate college student working part-time in an academic department. A male professor, whose wife is pregnant, is taken with my name, playfully singing its syllables and thrilled to tell me that his wife, too, agrees that they will name their baby girl Anissa. We banter about the uniqueness of my name and why it is just right for his daughter. Weeks later he asks in passing: "My wife and I assume that your parents just made up your name, right?" "No," I respond, without hesitation, "it's an Arabic name." He stammers, his face reddens, and he stutters, "What? But you're not; you couldn't be." "Yes," I say, "I am. My father was Iraqi." He avoids me for the rest of the semester. We never talk of my name or of his baby girl again. I learn later that they name her Emily.

Incident #2:

Gulf War 2003-I am a professor at a Catholic university who must somehow face my students and colleagues the day after President Bush wages what I perceive to be an unjust and immoral war against Iraq. I am speaking to a graduate student who recently converted to Islam. She covers, and is therefore marked as "other" in the West. A faculty member rapidly approaches us only to turn to the student with concerns: "I thought about you all last night through the bombing. Do you have family there? Is everybody okay?" The student explains that her family is not Arab; they are living in America and many of them are supporting the President's decision. As an American of Iraqi decent, I stand motionless: alone, erased, silenced and passing.

Racial passing has a long history in America. In fact, there are manifold reasons for passing, not the least of which is to reap benefits-social, economic and legal-routinely denied to people of color. Passing is conventionally understood to be a volitional act that either situationally or permanently allows members of marginalized groups to assimilate into a privileged culture. While it could be argued that those who choose to pass are, in a sense, race traitors, betraying familial, historical and cultural ties to personhood,1 Wald provides another way of reading passing, or "crossing the line," as a "practice that emerges from subjects' desires to control the terms of their racial definition, rather than be subject to the definitions of white supremacy" (6). She further contends that racial distinction, itself, "is a basis of racial oppression and exploitation" (6).

Underlying Wald's argument is the slipperiness, unreliability and instability of race as a category of identity, arbitrarily assigned to the physiognomy of bodies that conform to racial taxonomy.2 While W.E.B. Du Bois' prescient prediction that the problem of the 20th century is that of the "color line" is irrefutable and has, in fact, extended to the 21st century, the basis for this discrimination is the existence of the social category of race and not some transcendent notion that race is a biological given. Numerous scholars have undermined essentialist notions of race; however, as Browder argues, "Race may be a construction, but color remains a visual cue; and most Americans use visual, physiological cues to make their judgments about a person's racial identity. The constructions of racial and ethnic identities have the psychological weight of reality" (9). While it is not our intention in this essay to reify race as an essential category of selfhood, we do contend that racial distinction continues to signify in direct and often totalizing ways, and thus Arab Americans' fraught history of racial classification underlies the politics of their current negotiation of racial registries in America.

Arabs have been classified within the racial rubrics of the United States government as "white" since 1978, despite, as Majaj cogently argues, being "popularly perceived as non-white" ("Arab-Americans and the Meanings of Race" 320). …

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