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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Anthropology in the news

When I tell people I am a double major in journalism and anthropology, the first two questions I am usually asked are, “What exactly does an anthropologist do?” and “How did you decide to do those two majors?”

The first question isn’t answerable in a small-talk setting, but I settle on the definition that anthropologists study what it means to be human. To answer the second question, I’ve always loved news and writing, but I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. I knew the chances of becoming one were minuscule, so I figured I could do science journalism if all else failed.

At this point, I am usually asked if there is a “big calling for that.” People just don’t know that anthropology is going on around us all the time, including in forensic contexts.

So whether I favor my journalism degree or my anthropology degree, there’s always something to do if you know where to look. And, while there is plenty to see, a lot of journalists have flaws in reporting on the subject.

For instance, here is a story from Feb. 17.

Mercyhurst Univeristy’s Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat, who examined human remains on February 7, announced his belief that it is the body of Patsy Hudson who has been missing since July.

The article reads “The professor and his team of Forensic and Biological Anthropology Master’s students are working to prove that suspicion.”

My problem with this sentence is it makes it sound like they know without a doubt who the woman is and are working to prove that when they should be working to identify the body without bias.

To be clear, I’m in no way doubting Dirkmaat’s motivations seeing as he has taken part in more than 300 cases and teaches this for a living. It’s a criticism of how the media handles these stories. The reporter also chose to use the word “race” where it should say “ancestry,” which is a changing concept in forensic anthropology.

What makes this story unique, however, was handled very well. The case was brought to Dirkmaat by police and he was able to help locate the remains within days.

In addition to the newly dead, cold cases are often the job of the forensic anthropologist. Recently, Anthony Falsetti and his students at Arizona State University analyzed remains of a case from the 1980s.

The reporter in this case, Nico Santos, hit the nail on the head with how he presented the details.

“Since 1984, a lot has changed,” explained Falsetti. “In our science and anthropology, we’ve changed. We’ve gotten more accurate in our estimations in age and sex and ancestry, as well as other technologies … obviously DNA.”

The professor and his students used new technology to take a fresh look at the case with the goal of identifying the victim and bringing her killer to justice.

“Someday she’ll have her own name back,” said Dr. Falsetti.

There was also a story about the Tim Bosma trial. Dr. Tracy Rogers is the anthropologist who helped identify Tim Bosma. It is suspected Bosma was murdered by two men. His bones were found inside an incinerator on a farm in Ontario. Rogers testified in court that an arm bone found at the scene was burned at a high temp.

This story was straight forward and a little dry, but I like it for that reason. It shows the other responsibilities and significance of the forensic anthropologist.

Besides pressing cases such as these, anthropology is discussed in terms of academic programming, public exhibits and professional conferences all the time.

Every week, anthropologists are doing important work for both past and present individuals and for humanity as a whole.

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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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Race isn’t relevant, it’s relative

Way, way back in time, when science was still being born, the idea of race was created to divide humankind by skin color.  This social construction has persisted over time, despite the fact the there is no biological basis for race. In fact, our perception of race changes through time and space, making it impossible to measure. That’s right – forensic anthropologists can’t tell you exactly what skin color someone had when they died.

What science can determine by looking at the bones of the deceased is the person’s ancestry, or their ethnic descent. Using craniometric variation, or the different measurements of skulls, forensic anthropologists can figure out if a person was Africoid (previously referred to as Negroid), Caucasoid or Asioid (previously referred to as Mongoloid).

How is this any different from classifying based on race? It’s rather simple. These scientists aren’t saying, “This dead guy was black, and this one was white.” Rather, they are saying, “This dead girl had the cranial structure of someone whose ancestors were from a European country.” This can help make a positive identification on a John or Jane Doe, or to confirm the identity of a known person.

Of course, like most scientific techniques involving human variation, this isn’t 100% accurate. In the modern human population, it isn’t impossible to find a female’s remains that have male characteristics, just as it isn’t impossible to find an Asioid skull with Caucasoid characteristics. Sometimes, this can result in a faulty identification, in which case it would be better to leave it undetermined.

Some forensic scientists argue that race is an acceptable measurement. Norman Sauer, for example, was the co-director of the forensic anthropology program at Michigan State University. In an article, he proclaimed assigning race to skeletal remains doesn’t justify the social construct of race, but it does predict the individual’s racial category as assigned by the society in which the individual lived.

“In ascribing a race name to a set of skeletonized remains, the anthropologist is actually translating information about biological traits to a culturally constructed labeling system that was likely to have been applied to a missing person.”-Sauer

Now, Sauer is not saying race is a biologically defined and accepted concept. He is giving the forensic anthropologist the power to try to think anthropologically about race and ask, how would the society this individual lived in classify their race based on the craniometric determination of ancestry?

While the scientific community does disagree about ideas regarding racial classification, they all agree on one thing: Forensic anthropology is changing. It is transforming in a way that discontinues antiquated ideas about not only race, but also gender, DNA and human rights cases.

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