Tag Archives: Barack Obama

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.

Pores, Wrinkles, and ‘Unwanted’ Facial Hair: How to Photograph a Real Human Being

Debbie says:

The Republican Party has invented a whole new way to insult a candidate (or at least to claim that a candidate has been insulted): print an honest picture.

Here’s the picture:

close-up of Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek

Let’s start by stating two things up front: first, I have absolutely no reason to believe that Governor Palin has been in any way upset or offended by this picture. In fact, I believe there’s some indication that she doesn’t consider this a problem.

Second, Laurie–who isn’t available to blog this with me–has devoted her photographic career to the proposition that “making the invisible visible,” photographing people as we are is important social change. I’ve been working with her since before she started taking photographs, so in one sense I’m not the least bit surprised. (If you don’t know Laurie’s photographs, look here, here and here.)

Ordinarily, I don’t like to embed sources I deplore, but in this case, the Fox News excerpt is worth watching, because it’s worth analyzing.

Note that the clip has two talking heads, other than the newscaster, who hardly has a “fair and balanced” view of the question. On the right, with the title “Republican Media Consultant,” we have Andrea Tantaros, who is outraged. “This cover is a clear slap in the face to Sarah Palin. Why? Because it’s unretouched.”

Tantaros goes on to claim that the cover highlights “every imperfection that every human being has. Pores, unwanted facial hair, wrinkles.” Later in the clip she says of herself that if someone took a similar closeup of her, “it ain’t pretty.”

On the other side, we have Julia Piscitelli, from the “Women and Politics group at American University.” So we don’t know if she’s a student, a professor, or what her role is. Tantaros is a professional; Piscitelli may not be. It will not escape Body Impolitic readers that Piscitelli is also fat. Anyone think that’s a coincidence?

The clip rapidly turns into an arguing match, with the newscaster both agreeing with and giving precedence to Tantaros’s side. At one point, the newscaster says that retouching photographs is what magazines do.

I see three things going on here: first is the photograph itself. Ironically, Tantaros is very very close to right in how she describes it. The picture is unretouched. Once upon a time, before Photoshop, we would have called it … a photograph. Notice that there isn’t any easy way to describe an “unretouched photograph” without using a negative adjective. It does show pores and a few wrinkles around the eyes. Now, pores are not only something that everyone has, they are essential to life. Your skin breathes through your pores. If you don’t have any, that doesn’t make you a high-def porn star, or Miley Cyrus: it makes you dead. As for wrinkles, well, Governor Palin is 44. (The minimum legal age at which she can run for VP is 35.) Many people in their 30s have wrinkles around the eyes, more pronounced when they laugh or smile. As for “unwanted facial hair,” who says it’s “unwanted”? If it was truly unwanted, couldn’t she pluck it, or wax it? Maybe she likes it that way. I would think she would have people around her who prepare her for photo shoots; they could easily have removed any unwanted hair.

Second is the question of the caption, and comparable pictures of Barack Obama. Here, I think the critics have somewhat of a point. The “and that’s the problem” tagline of the caption is not complimentary to Governor Palin, and if you want to hook it to wrinkles and pores, I guess you can, although I doubt it’s what the magazine was trying to do. The comparison cover photo of Obama shown in this newscast is a completely different kind of photograph. I don’t think they’ve given him a halo, but they have gone out of their way to dehumanize him, just as they’ve gone out of their way to humanize Palin. Is one kinder than the other? More fair to a candidate? Less of a slap in the face? Questions worth pondering, if you think Newsweek covers are important enough to ponder. If I were going to examine this in depth, I’d want to look closely at covers not of Obama but of Hillary Clinton. (You can see one here, that looks as though it may be retouched, but also shows wrinkles.)

Third, and most important, is the underlying question of “what is a flaw”? Both Tantaros and the newscaster repeatedly say that “everyone has these flaws.” They also repeatedly say women will be shocked and horrified to see them. By an easy extension, this means that every woman is shocked and horrified every time she looks in the mirror and that every woman really wants to believe that the people in the pictures–movie stars, models, and apparently politicians–don’t have real skin and real hair, that somehow fame confers what Tantaros would call “flawlessness.”

Bottom line: hatred of pores, wrinkles, and facial hair is self-hatred. Tantaros says it herself, when she says a close-up of her “ain’t pretty.” I can only hope that her lovers, friends, and family like looking at the real Andrea Tantaros better than she likes it herself; and that they tell her frequently that they think she’s beautiful the way she is … unretouched.