Monthly Archives: October 2008

Race Thinking: Muslims in America

Laurie and Debbie say:

Early this month, Fatemeh Fakhraie wrote an excellent post for Racialicious. Fakhraie was reviewing Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics by Sherene H. Razack, a book we both want to read.

[Razack] first argues that Muslims are racialized through “race thinking”, which “divides up the world between the deserving and the undeserving, according to descent.”

Islam is represented in mainstream media as South/West Asian brown-skinned people who are bearded and turbaned or veiled and hidden: this racializes Islam.

There are Muslims in every country in the world, and they are all colors and sizes. But Western media representation of Islam and Muslims simplifies this world-wide group of people into one picture: that of a brown guy with a beard and a keffiyeh. His female counterpart is a brown woman with a veil. Reducing an entire group of people to these static images that have to context or history creates flat attributes (such as the incorrect assertion that West Asia = Muslim) that can be applied to anyone deemed in the “Muslim” category.

The concept of “race thinking” is an extremely important one. Every time you hear someone counter the criticism that Obama is a Muslim with “no, he’s a decent Christian,” that’s race thinking. Let’s look at Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama.

I’m also troubled by…what members of the party say, and is permitted to be said, such things as, ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’

But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’

Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.

Here’s a quotation from Razack’s book, as reproduced by Fakhraie:

“The close connections between assertions of cultural difference and racism has meant that in white societies the smallest references to cultural differences between the European majority and the Third World peoples (Muslims in particular) triggers an instant chain of associations (the veil, female genital mutilation, arranged marriages) that ends with the declared superiority of European culture, imagined as a homogenous composite of values… Culture clash, where the West has values and modernity and the non-West has culture…”

The culture clash argument uses the flat, racialized images of Muslims and puts them in inherent opposition to the West, as if all Muslims everywhere are this one way and the only possible explanation for their being “this way” is because they are Muslims and that’s “their culture.” Razack sums this up nicely: “Cultural difference, understood as their cannibalism,their treatment of women, and their homophobia, justifies the savagery that the West metes out.”

We think this points neatly to one of the most important issues about race thinking: it permits “us” first to do what Razack is discussing–generalize about a group that isn’t “us,” based on the most extreme practices of members of that group–and second to decry the behavior of “not us” as if it was something “we” are immune from. In this context, one thing that happens is a confusion between racial/cultural behavior and religious/cultural behavior. Muslims are in no way, shape, or form a “race,” and yet the cultural default is to behave as if they are. Undeniably, a characteristic of contemporary extremist fundamentalist behavior is the inexcusable mistreatment of women: whether the extreme fundamentalists are Christian, Chasidic, or Islamic will affect the shape and details of that mistreatment, but not its existence.

More from Fakhraie:

[Razack] draws great historical parallels between camp mentality in other times and what’s going on now, giving excellent analysis on how Southern plantations, Japanese internment camps, the Spanish Inquisition, etc., were earlier forms of the “race thinking” that is being enacted now in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the suspension of civil liberties of Muslims and South/West Asians in Western countries. In her comparison between Guantanamo Bay and Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, refugee camps, etc., I learned the Guantanamo Bay had previously been used as a “holding center” for Haitians deemed an HIV threat under President Clinton.

Read the whole post. Both Razack (and Fakhraie) are talking in extremely useful ways about subjects not frequently raised.

Thanks to Stefanie M. for the pointer.

Baby Boys, Baby Girls

Debbie says:

Does anyone else remember the famous 1970s Doonesbury cartoon in which the arrival of a baby was greeted with cries of “It’s a baby woman!”? The point, of course, was to exaggerate the linguistic shift from “girl” to “woman” to describe adults, which many feminists were arguing for then (and now).

I hadn’t shopped for baby clothes for quite some time before last year, when Body Impolitic’s webmaster and his wife had twin boys. To get the boys a present, I started clicking around the web, and I was horrified by how many sites divide their newborn offerings between clothes for “baby girls” and clothes for “baby boys,” before I could even look at an item of clothing.

Earlier this week, when Laurie and I were doing research for our “blog love” post, I noticed that Rachel at Rachel’s Tavern had been thinking along similar lines in September.

I like the clothes made for boys better than I like the clothes made for girls. It’s not that I don’t like frilly dresses and ruffles. What I like about boys’ clothes is the bright primary colors that are more common in clothes marketed for infant and toddler boys and the themes used in both boy clothing and gender neutral clothing. My favorite themes are usually animal themed clothes, and above all else I like ducks and frogs–probably because yellow and green are my favorite colors. In my view frogs and ducks are generally androgynous, but many animal themed clothes are marketed for boys. For example, dogs, dinosaurs, lizards, bugs, and turtles are often found in boys clothing. I’ve also noticed two other common sets of themes that I like in baby boys clothing–occupational themes and activity themes.

What strikes me about baby boys’ clothes is how much they promote activity and paid labor force work. Even as infants, we start to socialize baby boys into occupations. You rarely find occupation themed clothes for girls. Little girls’ clothes often have flowers, frills, and some animals (i.e. butterflies), but they don’t have occupational themes. They also rarely have activity themes outside of shopping or cheerleading. .

There’s more, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Close friends of mine now have infant girl twins. The parents kept the babies’ gender to themselves until birth, and instructed “no pink and blue” for shower presents. Being around the babies makes me very aware of baby clothes when I see them, and a surprising percentage are, in fact pink or blue. (Of course, pink has not always been the “girl color.” I thought it changed after Victorian times, but both Wikipedia and this site say that gendered colors came in in our culture in the 1910s or 1920s and “dress him in masculine pink” was around until the 1940s.)

I did a little research for this post, checking all the top Google sites for baby clothes. A couple of them, generally the upscale, “organic” ones don’t gender at all. A few others have a tiny assortment of ungendered clothes for newborns, or the wonderful three categories, “boys,” “girls” and “unisex.” (I suppose this is a step in the right direction, given how much I would like to see a third category on forms that make me provide my gender.) But on most sites, you still have to make the gender decision before you look at a single piece of clothing. (This was what drove me to buy brown corduroy Carhartt overalls both for our webmaster’s twins and for the new twins. It also makes me think that online shopping for babies of more than one gender would take longer and be more of a pain.)

In the course of the research, I found something that bothers me even more than the things Rachel points out, or the existence of gendered newborn clothing at all, and that is the phenomenon of “X” and “Girl X.” As I was looking at pictures of gendered baby clothes, I found several times a pattern that goes like this: a black or bright-colored onesie says “baby rock star” or “I [heart] my daddy” or something. Right next to it, the identical pattern on a pink onesie says “baby rock star girl” or “I [heart] my daddy” with a caption that says “for girls.”

Katha Pollitt famously said, “For me, to be a feminist is to answer the question ‘Are women human?’ with a ‘Yes.'” Looking at these baby clothes makes me think that the current social answer to “Are girl babies human?” may be “Almost, but … not quite.”