Muslims have a history of causing Americans to think about race. Following his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X wrote a letter to the members of his organization back in New York in which he talked about the impact of seeing white Muslims. He said, in part:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.
We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.
Following the bombing in Boston and the death and capture of the two suspects, Americans have again been shocked to discover that there are white Muslims. As Edward Wyckoff Williams wrote at The Root:
“a blatant display of Islamophobic rhetoric and racial profiling became a benchmark of many reports, proving what some had already suspected — that xenophobia and racially tinged, anti-Muslim sentiment have become tacitly accepted byproducts of post-Sept. 11 American society. Most disturbing was that these attitudes were readily articulated by standard-bearers of credible news outlets, whose profession it is to disseminate “facts” without bias.”
(Of course, “credible” news outlets can handle things pretty poorly, as Jon Stewart pointed out.) Later, he states:
[T]he Tsarnaev brothers offer a much-needed challenge to America’s antiquated ideologies on race. Hailing from Dagestan and Chechnya, nation states of the former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus region, the Tsarnaevs are quite literally “Caucasian” — and, by any racial trajectory, are simply considered “white.”
Salon’s Joan Walsh pointed out how some conservative news sites have claimed that the brothers’ Chechen heritage makes them “nonwhite.” Ironically, Walsh notes, the same logic was used with respect to Italian, Irish, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over time, and with assimilation — including the collective oppression of African Americans — “whiteness” became more loosely defined.
Indeed, a story at The Onion highlighted Americans’ lack of knowledge about world geography while highlighting our anti-Muslim sentiment. That the associated stereotypes could be applied, however, to those who are white seems to be hard for many to accept, which makes it ideal for class discussions about the social construction of race.