On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, killing five and injuring 264. In the absence of information about who the bombers were, Salon.com published liberal commentator David Sirota’s piece 'Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American'. Sirota argued that if the bombers turned out to be white, Muslims would be protected from an inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. A few days later, the bombers’ identities were revealed as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, children of Chechen refugees who came to the United States when they were 16 and 8 years old, respectively. Interestingly, the brothers were phenotypically white and, as conservative commentators online were fond of saying, quite literally Caucasian (i.e. from the Caucuses). They were also, however, Muslims.
Sirota’s article provoked a firestorm across conservative media, and Sirota was accused of being race obsessed and blind to the threat of Jihadist terrorism. In our Identities article, '‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity', we analysed conservative responses to Sirota’s article, as well as the ensuing debate about whether the Tsarnaevs were, in fact, the white Americans Sirota had hoped for.
Given the widely held view that the brothers were phenotypically white, we were surprised to find that this question was shrouded in ambiguity. On the one hand, conservatives referred to the brothers’ whiteness to affirm a distinction between race and Islam, and to argue that the latter was a dangerous political ideology that people choose to believe in regardless of their race. On the other hand, however, and despite this apparently non-racial criticism of Islam, conservative responses to Sirota were permeated by accusations of anti-white racism, race treachery, white guilt, and even discussions of race suicide. We sought to explain this contradiction between intense expressions of racialised threat with avowed commitments to a non-racial critique of Islam.
We argue that reactions to Sirota’s article, as well as the liberal position he is considered to represent, reflect a deeply engrained view that there is a racial war between American whites and Muslims. The accommodation of Islam by white liberals is therefore cast as a direct threat to the United States, which white Americans are deemed responsible to protect. In other words, participating and agreeing to the terms of Muslim racialisation is central to the performance of a hegemonic white racial identity. Failure to perform this combativeness is deemed tantamount to race treachery and facilitating a form of racial suicide. Our critical contribution is that while previous scholarship on Islamophobia has focused on the cultural or phenotypical characteristics of Muslims that mark them as ‘other’, our argument shows that the racialisation of Muslims also occurs through a contested process of white racial formation.
Moreover, we identify a critical weakness in popular liberal critiques of Islamophobia. The critique deployed by Sirota, as well as other liberal commentators in the debate, hinged on a racial distinction between Muslims and whiteness. It was only through this (racialising) distinction that liberals were able to make operative the view that anti-Muslim sentiments after terrorist attacks reflect a form of racism. Liberals struggled to articulate a coherent critique in the face of the strategic use conservatives made of the Tsarnaevs’ ambiguous racial identity, emphasising the need for political counter-discourses to the white supremacist Islamophobia described in our Identities article. Alongside a more refined concept of racism attuned to relational racial formation processes, a primary goal must be disentangling whiteness from American citizenship -- a struggle with stark dimensions in the current moment.
Blog post by Jake Watson, Boston University, USA; Saher Selod, Simmons College, USA; and Nazli Kibria, Boston University, USA
Read the full article: Watson, Jake; Selod, Saher & Kibria, Nazli. ‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1397964
How much should biology matter to our identities? When it comes to race and ethnicity, many people believe there are biological differences between groups. Actually, despite what many think, geneticists have proven that all humans are more than 99% genetically similar regardless of race. Even though these discoveries made in 2000 were widely reported in the news and in academic settings, most people (including academics!) continue to use assumptions that biology is relevant to determining who we are and to what groups we belong.
In today’s society, many people believe they are 'colourblind' and that we are 'post-race' — in other words, they think race shouldn’t matter anymore, that racism is a thing of the past, and that everyone has an equal chance at succeeding in society. Another part of 'colourblind' thinking is that we have changed the way we talk about race. Today it is far more common to use code words such as 'illegals', 'inner-city', or even to talk about culture as a stand-in for talking about racial groups.
Sometimes, we continue to use the same old assumptions regarding race and ethnicity that shaped some of the most extreme forms of racism (like imperialist invasion by Europeans, U.S. slavery and the Holocaust) but use them in subtle ways. One of these assumptions is the idea that race and ethnicity are biological categories, and my research shows that society is adapting by creating subtle ways of marking racial and ethnic groups as biologically different.
My Identities article, 'Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity', focuses on how major newspapers write about Jewish people in ways that rely on the belief that Jews are biologically different, which I call 'bio-logics' (a play on the words biological and logic). Articles published from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times from 2000–2010 show that there are two major ways that 'bio-logics' are used to talk about Jewishness. First, despite trends in 'colourblind' ways of talking about race and ethnicity in indirect ways, these news articles still occasionally talked about Jewish biological difference from other racial and ethnic groups in explicit ways. Some of these news articles would mention DNA tests that could 'prove' one was Jewish, and even making arguments that having 'Jewish DNA' would compel people to have an unexplained lifelong interest in Jewish culture. But what was more common in these news articles was that there were more indirect or subtle ways that Jews were defined as biologically different.
These subtle claims that biology determines Jewishness included briefly mentioning Jewish family members (parents or more distant ancestors), but never actually referring directly to someone as a Jew themselves. In fact, almost all of the times that news articles wrote briefly about someone’s Jewish ancestors, no other content about someone’s Jewish identity was discussed. Oftentimes these news stories were about a business, person, artist or celebrity, and not about someone’s life as a Jew or experiences of Jewish identity, culture, religious practice, antisemitism or other relevant aspects of being Jewish. In some of the news articles, if someone had distant Jewish ancestors they were defined as Jews, even if they practiced an entirely different religion and were raised in a completely different culture, such as Mormonism.
Some of these subtle 'bio-logics' might seem harmless on the surface, but I believe they are an indication that how we discuss race is shifting, not only for Jews but a variety of racial and ethnic groups. It is crucial that research examines changes in how society talks (or writes) about race and ethnicity, because these shifts will impact how inequalities function and how people experience and define their identities.
Blog post by Emma Gonzalez-Lesser, University of Connecticut, USA
Read the full article: Gonzalez-Lesser, Emma. Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1617529