Racialization & Middle Eastern Americans

“War, hate, jealousy, racism – what are they but manifestations of fear?”
-F. Paul Wilson, American author

muslimsHave you ever been stopped at an airport because of your appearance? Has a teacher ever called you a terrorist in front of your classmates? Have you ever been publicly told you should die because of your religious beliefs and skin tone?

This and more happens to Middle Eastern-Americans every year in the United States.

We’ve talked a bit about race and social constructs on this blog before. Today, I want to explore the concept of racialization, specifically as it applies to Middle Eastern-Americans.

First, let’s define racialization. According to a quick search, you will find that it means “processes of ascribing ethnic or racial identities to a relationship, social practice, or group that did not identify itself as such.” It’s a bit vague, no?

Since America’s colonial foundations, the country has continued to see more than its fair share of racism. It isn’t surprising, in a country that started its history committed to using “whiteness” as a dominating system. Whiteness has always been, in some way, an essential characteristic of freedom. Therefore, racism establishes non-whites as different, “other,”  a label that begins racialization for any group.

As colonists marked Native Americans and African slaves as nonwhites or the inferior “them,” they also marked whites as the superior “us.” In addition, this racial hierarchy established who was able to own property and who was property. This distinction is not limited to times of slavery:

  • Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882-1943
  • Black Codes, 1865
  • Jim Crow Laws, up to 1965

African-Americans and other groups have made it through the Civil Rights Era rather victoriously. Is it fair to say the fight for civil liberties ended with the era? I think not. Inequality runs rampant; it just finds new ways.

At least there are movements like Black Lives Matter for African-Americans. What do Middle Eastern-Americans have? Who is protesting on their behalf?

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The racialization of Middle Eastern people began long before 9/11, very much through popular culture. They have been portrayed as barbaric, implying the superior civilization of Western culture when compared with the “savage” Orient. (Think, Aladdin!) patriot-act

After 9/11, Middle Eastern-Americans were rapidly and radically racialized and are facing increasing hostility.While the Patriot Act expired last year, the damage has already been done. Racial profiling is supported by many Americans – an means to a “justified” end.


“Much like the impact of entertainment media, American news broadcasts impact public opinion, and not so implicitly.  Only a handful of companies own all the media in the U.S. Each brand works to cater to its audiences, often foregoing actual news reporting for news analysis and commentary.  Most noticeably, Fox News panders to the Republican party while CNN is considered to be more Democratic. The way these organizations talk about Middle Eastern people intensely affects racial division in the U.S. through the sensationalization of American nationalism against terrorists and the misrepresentation of terrorists as Islamic rather than as radical fundamentalists. No less than fifty-five percent of Middle Eastern-Americans are Christian, anyway, yet Muslim has become synonymous with Arabic.

One study looked at talk shows from both Fox News and CNN and found negative depictions of Muslims in every show analyzed including Larry King Live and Fox News Sunday.  According to the study, the talk shows framed Muslims as a threat to western “civilization.” This frames Middle Eastern people as Muslim and Muslims as anti-American.  Forty-two percent of the time, Arabs were brought up in the context of the war on terror.  Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan were discussed as threats to “world peace that it’s now terrorist central” (Pervez & Saeed, 2010).  Further, the news talk shows presented completely inaccurate portrayals of the teachings of Islam. As the general public trusts their chosen networks, the People accept false truths as fact and perpetuate misunderstood interpretations of Islam, additionally implicating Arab- and Muslim-Americans as threats to the American way of life.

Presently, the race for the Presidency is unveiling the true colors of the American constituency, especially as it pertains to presidential candidate and former reality TV star Donald Trump.  Throughout the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly pinned the American people against Middle Eastern and Muslim people.  He’s blatantly advocated for the killing of the loved ones of terrorists, the return of waterboarding suspects, the banning of Muslims from entering the country and the closing and surveillance of American mosques.  As for the banning of Muslims traveling to the U.S., a March poll illustrates fifty percent of American voters support Trump’s plan (Wong, 2016).

The political…rhetoric in the U.S. pins Middle Easterners as America-hating enemies who want nothing more than to harm the “infidels.”  While it is directed at foreign Arabic people and Middle Eastern countries, many Americans who subscribe to the views of political candidates like Trump apply this hate speech to American citizens who fit the popularized physical description of a terrorist.” (DeNardo, 2016)


All the things that create our social reality, such as television, movies, education, news media, lawmakers and more, have a responsibility in this process as well as to reverse it – deconstruct the racial reality. We cannot stand by and allow innocent people to be harassed, innovative 14-year-old boys to be arrested and the like.

death_to_all_arabsWith ISIS/L and the global tensions from the organization’s desire to dominate, there is no wonder there is fear.  However, racism as a reaction to fear does not need to be permanent.

We must:

  • reform the news media
  • facilitate political organization
  • hold authorities accountable
  • dismantle stereotypes
  • highlight the achievements of Middle Eastern-Americans
  • admit there is a problem
  • be better

 

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Applying social construct theory: Race in the News

This week, we talked about social constructs and why they matter. Just yesterday, a story was published about the social construct of race – so we get to apply some of our learning.

Students in the medical field are taught to “embrace racial stereotypes,” linking races to specific diagnoses. For example, sickle cell anemia is thought of as a black disease.

Medical doctors are trained as just that. Most don’t have a background in sociology or anthropology.

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“Right now, students are learning an inaccurate and unscientific definition of race…It’s simply not true that human beings are naturally divided into genetically distinct races,” – Dorothy Roberts, sociology professor and co-author on recent race research.

This is the root of significant issues in modern medicine. Race-based medicine is widely accepted. It is very much the norm.

The article goes on to talk about “White Coats for Black Lives,” which came from the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a group where medical students fight for education about racial justice.

This is a great start to changing medical attitudes toward race. But I think this is also a great opportunity for sociologists and anthropologists to create a bridge with the world of medicine, to infuse medical learning with more holistic human understanding.

Pushing for more racial justice education is great, but if we can bridge this gap in ideology and change the roots of inaccurate belief – that would be real change.

This isn’t to say ethnicity doesn’t play any part in health. It is more likely for African-Americans to have sickle-cell anemia. But it also occurs abundantly in populations of India, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Saudi Arabia.

However, understanding that it isn’t a “black disease” is important. Some could say they understand that, but the term “black disease” is just a harmless colloquialism.

To that, I say, language is not harmless. It shapes our social understanding and attitudes.


“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences,” Roberts said. “It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.” (from statnews.com)


Throwing around terms like “black disease” and “white disease” is not only another form of institutional segregation, but it is also harmful to giving unbiased diagnoses.

This is especially disconcerting considering misdiagnosis is said to happen to every American at least once in their lifetime and is the top cause of malpractice suits.

There aren’t many in the medical community who understand social constructionism, especially as it applies to race. It’s time to restructure “modern medicine,” which to me seems a bit archaic in its racial ideology (among other things).

Let’s move forward to create, instead of a machine, a human mechanism truly worthy of modern living.

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(Very) Basic Social Constructionism for Dummies

We’ve previously discussed social constructs such as race and gender on this blog. While I’ve briefly introduced this concept, I want to make it easier for readers who don’t have a background in anthropology or sociology to understand what this means with as little jargon as possible.

I will not go any further than what’s necessary for the bounds of The Telltale Bones. The deeper it gets, the more theoretical (aka complicated) it gets and doesn’t further our purposes here.

To understand this theory, we should first understand where it came from. Social constructionism was born out of symbolic interactionism, which simply means people attach meanings to the things around them and behave based on those meanings, which are bred from social interaction.

In 1966, “The Social Construction of Reality” was published, introducing the concept to the public. In 40+ years, much research was conducted within this framework, that people create the sociocultural worlds around them and the reverse. In the simplest terms, social reality is not objective and there are more than one legitimate reality.

This doesn’t mean there are no such things as facts. If you are born with male anatomy, you were born with the sex of a male, and your skeleton will always reflect it. This is a fact. However, socially, you may identify as a female and you have the power to construct your reality this way. Others around you may not be able to accept this reality because it contradicts the one they have created and the rules they have constructed. This is where social conflict occurs.

Now, that we understand this, we can begin to understand all the social and cultural factors that exist between all sets of reality: religion, race, gender, beauty, games, social class and status, virginity, sexuality  – it’s all constructed individually and culturally.

Even further, it is understandable how these contradictions on individual and cultural levels can lead to conflicts within small-scale conversations all the way up to national and international conflicts and wars.

I believe if more people understood how fluid and changing these concepts truly are, we would be well on our way to a more peaceful and tolerant world.

Personally, the realization of this concept changed my rigid worldview because it helped me understand that I am in charge of changing my own reality, and it’s a realization that has also helped me change how I look at everyday life. I am not afraid to challenge my own beliefs.

We each hold immense power and the responsibility to change and progress – to construct a better, new reality that has room in it for everyone.

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From adaptation to colorism

The shades of man are many. While Von Luschan’s chromatic scale is no longer used much in the way of science, it’s a good way to see the different pigmentation of humankind.

There are 36 skin shades shown in the scale:

Each pigment is part of a group and are ranked in terms of probability to burn or tan.

Fitzpatrick Type Also called Sunburning Tanning behavior Von Luschan’s chromatic scale
I Light, pale white Often Occasionally 1–5
II White, fair Usually Sometimes 6–10
III Medium, white to light brown Rarely Usually 11–15
IV Olive, moderate brown Rarely Often 16–21
V Brown, dark brown Very rarely Sometimes darkens 22–28
VI Very dark brown to black Extremely rarely Naturally black-brown skin 29–36

I’m sure you’ve wondered at some point in your life how these skin colors evolved, and I’m equally sure you have the basic idea if you have any common sense.

Early hominins had light skin and dark hair. As they became less hairy for other evolutionary reasons, the skin darkened to provide the protection from the sun that was now missing. As populations moved from the heart of Africa to other regions, skin colors adapted to the different environments and varying sunshine.

Geographically, we can see the darker pigments are found closer to the equator and it gradually lightens until we reach the poles.

In modern times, the ease of travel has brought with it significant change in the confinement of skin pigment to geographic location, but this still gives a good general idea.

Studies show melanin levels in the skin are correlated with its color. Melanin content is substantially ethnically different down to even the composition of the melanin, with darker skin containing more of the pigment than lighter skin. (Melanin also helps synthesize vitamin D, which is essential to bone health.)

Sunlight also affects skin color. Two clines evolved in the human population – dark skin with most UV exposure and light skin with the least. Humans also undergo a process where sunlight stimulates our melanocytes, which produce more melanin: tanning. Tanning is an adaptation to protect us from damaging our skin cells.

So, that’s how we came to be black and white. (Or more accurately, multitudes of tan.)

We’re coming to the end of Black History Month. One of the most influential black leaders in the history of America is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

What the doc is speaking about in this quote isn’t in fact racism, but colorism. Racism depends on factors besides skin color. To be colorist is to classify status based on solely the color of one’s skin. In America, colorism is prominently against African Americans, but it occurs in every group.

We all know the roots of colorism. European supremacy to justify slavery, the division inside the black community in order to rise in status, the one drop rule that stated one single drop of African blood legally defined a person as black…it’s just a mess.

And while all those things are in the past, our society still struggles with echoes of these beliefs. If you’re white, you’re still more likely to be hired and to receive quality education and less likely to be incarcerated. In 2016, we still have to emphasize that #blacklivesmatter – because they don’t to so many (I’ll try to be nice) uninformed people.

But I guess we shouldn’t expect things to be hunky dory, considering this:slaveryIt takes time to change beliefs that have been so ingrained over time. It seems more white than black people think we are well on our way to ending the plight of African-Americans. This is more likely due to modern forms of racism than actual advancement. Rather than being outright racist, we have a society that likes to pretend it isn’t.

While many are focusing on solving these issues and more using emotional arguments and sociological perspectives, I think science should have a voice in this (and most issues) as well.

Colorism is stupid. It’s actually that simple. The spectrum of tan that spans the globe is a product of evolution and all colors have the exact same value, which is the value of survival and adaptation. Not civilized versus savage.

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Tit for Tat: An argument for body modification

Those youths and their inked arms and pesky lip earrings! These new fads are just crazy…

I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of this at one point or another. When I pierced my own lip in 9th grade, my mom was so upset. She didn’t understand the “why’ in what I had done.

Culturally, piercings, tattoos and other forms of body decoration have existed for thousands of years. Many forms of body modification were independently invented. This tells me I’m not weird for wanting to poke a hole through my face. It’s a natural, visual way to build on our personal, human identities.

Some of those customs may seem a bit strange to you – lip plates and teeth gems. Believe it or not, people in developed countries are displaying even stranger, more complex mods.

But is it really ‘strange’ if it is a reflection of ourselves which is partly shaped by the society we find ourselves in? I think not.

Let’s look at these customs by type.

First, we have tattoos, which most cultures developed independently. In ancient times, they were used to show religious affiliation, social status, coming-of-age rites and more.

Tattoos remain highly spiritual today. The most common tattoos include crosses, angels, angel wings, mandalas, dream catchers,  celestial objects, inspirational quotes and still Japanese Irezumi. These symbols tie our bodies with our spirits, our faith. They tell rather important parts of our identities in pictures and script.

Many people get tattoos with other people or to celebrate or commemorate people and events. This adds an even deeper dimension than the past. We are making this a social activity, and it adds important chapters of our story to the visual representation of it. We are wearing our hearts on our sleeves, literally.

It’s also common for people to get icons from pop culture tattooed, simply allowing them to express their support for a piece of art that has inspired them or shaped their worldview.

Piercings are often lumped together with tattoos, but they serve a much different function. In the past, they served to display status of nobility or military or, for women, status of marriage. These meanings have mostly detached from the art of piercing.

Today, piercings are about attitude. They are meant as a statement and demonstrate counterculture, or going against mainstream. The interesting thing about this is piercings are so common, they are hardly countering anything. They used to. It seems they were successful in pushing against the norms. Even so, they still are meant to represent a free, rebellious spirit. They signal a certain amount of risk-taking and a desire to be unique. In this way of being identity enhancers, they are similar to tattoos.

Both piercings and tattoos also have a sense of sexuality to them. Navel piercings, tongue piercings, nipple piercings – ahem, other piercings – they all send signals to potential mates about the comfortable and in-control sexual identity of the pierced. Lower back tattoos, or the patriarchal-named “tramp stamp,” have the unfortunate labeling power to single out women as “sluts.” This has made the tattoo more popular, however, as a tool to empower women against slut-shaming.

The most important function of both tattoos and piercings may be the surge of body positivity that comes with the rush of the experience. Since when we choose to modify our bodies we are choosing to display something more of ourselves, it has a positive affect on our self-esteem. It makes us more interesting, gives us something to talk about and something to look back on. Instead of thinking of them as modifications akin to breast implants, we should think of them as body additions or body art. They accentuate qualities, not change them.

For these reasons, the regulation of body art in the workplace and military is silly. If someone is good enough to work for a company with mods covered, they are good enough to work with them showing. They don’t denote disrespect or “white trash” or the state of being a “slut.”

One woman may not be able to join the Marines because of her tattoo on her neck. The kicker is, if the women’s uniform wasn’t designed to be lower cut than the men’s, Kate Pimental (the woman) would be all set because her tat would be covered.

If the military is progressive enough to let women in, maybe they should rethink these antiquated policies. After all, mighty warriors of the past were often head-to-toe in tattoos; it seems they were further along than modern America.

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The Beautiful People

“Beauty is the enemy. We try to conquer not feeling beautiful all our lives. It’s a battle that can’t be won. There’s no definition of beauty. The only way to achieve beauty is to feel it from inside without breaking down into individual physical attributes.”
-Miley Cyrus

When you imagine a beautiful woman, what do you see? According to magazines like Men’s Fitness, beautiful looks thin, usually Caucasian and wears makeup, dresses and heels.

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Melissa McCarthy released an all-size clothing line at Lane Bryant. (Original Source)

I don’t know about you, but when I look around there are a lot more faces of beauty than that description – and they aren’t all thin or white or even feminine.

America is aware of this discrepancy in its definition of beauty, it seems, and a lot is being done to redefine the idea of what beautiful is. Even Barbie is making a change to her appearance, albeit to turn body-image advocates into consumers.

But it’s just not enough. Redefining it is a great start. It will include more people – but still others will be excluded from this definition. It’s time for the media and for America to admit that everyone is beautiful.

I’m sure there will be people who hate that I just said that, even though it is absolutely the truth, and you have the right to know and feel that you are beautiful without fitting the mold.

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Let’s look at the mathematical definition of beauty. The Golden Ratio determines the symmetry and proportionality of the face. The more symmetrical, the more beautiful.

If we conform to ideas of beauty in the US, this is flawed as well. Notice the Golden Ratio fits over my face quite well, denoting mathematical beauty. However, I am overweight and have been called quite the opposite on numerous occasions.

There is also value in looking at beauty across cultures. Some things considered beautiful elsewhere may seem outlandish – ugly even – to American viewers. Down to foot size, beauty is being measured differently across the world.

Many cultures experience unrealistic expectations about beauty just like US. For a very long time in China, women were expected to bind their feet. The smallest feet were the most beautiful. I don’t think feet are a big indicator of beauty in the US, but it is more likely to be made fun of for big feet.

Women in Mauritania are taught to fatten up at a young age, as a big body is a status symbol and makes them more desirable for marriage.

Other cultures value women’s imperfections without trying to make them change. In the Karo tribe of Ethiopia, women’s stretch marks and scars are considered beautiful. In the US, corporations are marketing lotions and home remedies to get rid of “ugly scars.”

In Brazil, beauty is more about having a fun-loving spirit than about how wide your ass is.

Can you imagine seeing someone with extra weight lounging on a public beach in a bikini without getting looked at like they were doing something wrong by being comfortable in their own skin?

I can’t. It’s sad, and everyday Americans shouldn’t have to travel to South America to experience this.

But it’s no wonder, I mean, with articles like this one in Cosmopolitan, which explains how to contour your face with makeup to achieve the illusion of “ideal” bone structure. It even compares women to Kate Moss, culturally positioning their natural cheekbones as less than Moss’s.

Bone structure is a traditional characteristic in describing beauty. Women are told by magazines like this one that they need to have striking brows and high cheekbones. These are traits you have to be born with (unless you participate in the demeaning world of plastic surgery) and women shouldn’t be comparing themselves, especially based on a trait they have no control over.


If your face isn’t within the Golden Ratio or you don’t have cheekbones like Kate Moss, not to worry. To be human is to be flawed; we are all perfect humans.

Further Reading:

‘Beauty in Different Cultures,’ by Paul Ford (2009)

‘Anthropological Perspectives on Physical Appearance and Body Image’ (2012)

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