New York, NY – “I was born a poor black child.” So begins Steve Martin’s character (who is white) in the 1979 film The Jerk. Adopted by an African-American family, he only later comes to realise he is white.
I was born a privileged, white, middle-class American. But since 9/11, I have slowly been made to realise that I am a brown person.
I carry the names of a general from the Muslim conquest and of a clan from Burqa, near Nablus in Palestine. But I grew up in Orange County, California, a particularly odious suburb full of Republicans in hot tubs.
My father was light-skinned and my mother as pale as her English forebears – I saw hardly a trace of olive when I looked in the mirror. Before 9/11, most people did not recognise any but the most obvious Arab names, and more than a few people supposed mine was German!
Like Oxbridge graduates at the height of the British Empire, I thought one day that I, too, would play my role in a US-run world, perhaps in the command posts of foreign policy or as a policy intellectual.
It is part of the privilege of whiteness to casually imagine such futures for oneself.
But at university, I learned too much about the human costs of US foreign policy around the world. I learned about millions of dead peasants in Korea and Vietnam; about US-sponsored death squads and fascist regimes; about the coups and assassinations to remove democratic leaders; and about a world economic order designed to keep the West rich and the rest poor.
I read every Noam Chomsky book I could find.
So I became a different kind of white privileged person: the left-wing radical concerned about the fate of brown and black people around the world. And I decided on the career that most left-wing types opt for, if they can get it: the academy.
When I got to the UK, I encountered the extraordinary race consciousness of the average Briton. Taxi drivers would ask me where I was from, and I would say “California”. “No, where are you really from?” they would reply. I would look at my white skin and buzz-cut hair and wonder how they would suspect I was not from the US?
None of this amounted to the kind of racism regularly suffered by people of colour in the US or UK. But I began to figure out that what race you are is imposed on you by the social order around you.
I shifted a little bit: now I was an American, if not necessarily wholly white. I would make speeches to my British friends about how they did not understand that in the United States, unlike in the UK, you could be fully accepted and have a funny name. In order to hang on to my own sense of privilege and belonging, I was now erasing histories of racial oppression in the US, purveying fantasies of multicultural harmony.
Then 9/11 hit. My academic expertise lies in international relations and in the study of war and security. I am not a Middle East expert, as my faculty bios have always made clear. Yet, in the years that followed, countless times I have been asked to speak as a “native informant” by the media and other academics. The natives I was being asked to report on were not suburban Republicans and their desperate housewives but Arabs. People assumed I must study the Middle East because I have an Arab name. Even if I was an expert in something else, I must know the Middle East since, obviously, I was from there.
Even university colleagues would send me students who wanted to study the Middle East, or ask my opinion on matters that only actual regional experts could speak to. No matter how often I said “dude” like a surfer, or cursed like a Californian, or drank like a Brit, I was never again as white as I had been.
I did not suffer from racism in any real sense. The point I am making is more subtle, about how your identity is constructed for you, and how it can suddenly change. Out of the blue, just like those hijacked aircraft over New York, external political events led others to perceive and act differently towards me.
Less subtle was being accused in print, in the prestigious journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, of being a prominent Muslim public intellectual, a “media entrepreneur of Muslim disaffection”, and a threat to public order in the UK because my ideas aided and abetted terrorism. So little concerned with facts were the two scholars who wrote this screed that they identified Edward Said as another such Muslim (Said had an Anglican Christian background).
The journal’s editor assured me the piece had been reviewed by six people, not one of whom picked up on fabrications that should have been obvious, but which were not in a post-9/11 world. Notably, at the time this article came out in 2006, I had no media presence whatsoever. I could not have been a public intellectual of any kind, much less a rabble-rousing Muslim one, but nonetheless that is what some saw me as.
I had to accept that for all intents and purposes, I was no longer white, no matter what I said or wrote, or who I thought I was. I thank the authors of that article for forcing this realisation upon me, and for motivating me to seek a public role. Neither, though, was I fully brown or Muslim. I have suffered little of the discrimination other scholars of Middle Eastern descent have endured, much less that dealt out to ordinary folks of colour on a daily basis. The racial politics of the War on Terror have left me in-between.
That external events rapidly can re-order the political salience of race in the West is something that should scare us all. The Obama administration is busy expelling thousands of Latinos, even as Obama himself has been constructed as a Mau Mau by the right; the European Union maintains a gulag of concentration camps where it incarcerates those African migrants it has not let drown in the Mediterranean; in Norway, a fascist gunman mass murders multicultural youth leaders, while his MP colleague in Greece assaults left-wing parliamentarians on television; and everywhere, politicians stoke fears about immigrants – they will take your jobs, destroy your culture, commit terrorist acts.
Many argue we are reliving the economic events of the 1920s and 30s. Those events, too, reordered the meaning of race in devastating ways. We need to clear our minds of fantasies of Western progress on questions of race and take seriously the possibility that we are heading into very dark times indeed.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.