“Any idea that privileges some people over others because of birth, no matter how important the idea is, is a form of racism”.
Developing an awareness of racism in the U.S. should be at the center of one’s social practices in America, yet searching deeply into the concepts that define racism remains a silent cause. Outside of the Middle Eastern constructs of racism, I am not Palestinian but “white/not-white/color, other,” which reads as a resounding “you don’t belong” by those purportedly committed to social justice. The pre-requisite of color or colorlessness makes me squirm. Colorless brings up of feelings of embarrassment, rage, and guilt from the past and present. Color is the cynical passport to American discourse that I am asked covet.
Mills suggests that the racial contract—the notion that Caucasian-European hegemony is the only pervasive authority—can explain the nature of racial oppression. It goes beyond an early historical explanation. He draws on the example of the film Birth of a Nation, which reinforced the racist portrayal of black men as beasts who lusted after innocent white women and girls. This film played to the white supremacist convictions of many Americans. The salient difference between an academic critique like Mills’, written in an American context, and the social critique I now write as a Palestinian, is that Mills writes from the standpoint of post-revolution. He exercises his thought in a space of rights that have been won, and power structures that have been defeated. We may apply his lessons to the highly imperfect legal and social framework of America today, where racism has not died, but at least we have more formal mechanisms to combat it. In Mills’ world, there is “Caucasion”, “African American”, “Hispanic”, and “Asian-Pacific.” For me there is less than black, white, or gray; for me there is “other.”
Like American slavery, the dimensions of my otherness are derived from violent past and an unforgiving present. Much of the disarray of the Arab situation in the post-colonial period can be traced back to two factors: western strategic interests (based on oil, Cold War concerns, and geopolitics) and the Zionist colonization of Palestine. For centuries, westerners have been acclimatized to a type of propaganda and vilification of the Arab people of the Middle East. This was especially so during the European colonial period, as so vividly explained by Edward Said, in his book, Orientalism. Both before and after the Ottoman Empire, this negative stereotyping has served justifications for involvement and to ensure “stability” for the powers that wanted to be involved in the region.
In this context, The Zionist movement was founded on a confluence of Jewish and Western interests in the Middle East. According to Zionist founding father Theodore Herzl, “The idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily and quickly understood in England.” Its most pivotal achievement was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which Britain lent its support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. After an awkward 27 years of British control under the League of Nations mandate system, Palestine was partitioned by international consensus in 1947. As soon as the British flag came down in Jerusalem, Arab armies entered Palestine to defend its indigenous population. With the help of the West, Zionist militias prevailed and declared Israel’s creation in 1948, while in the process forcing about 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, never to return. Since then, Israel’s narrative has been one of a colonial settler state, breaching numerous international and humanitarian laws, and racially subjugating the indigenous population.
Among the contracts that Mills suggests is that of colonial expropriation, a pact made among white males. This notion can be applied to the Middle East, where the West has traditionally supported corrupt Arab leaders to serve their interests while aiding the overthrow of those that are not seen as favorable. This has also served to keep their populations at bay, in return for militarization, power and personal wealth of the elite. The common theme underlying it though has been the struggle to control access to important resources such as oil. Israel falls conveniently into this scheme as the U.S.’s proxy in the region. Israel’s reward is its continued annexation of Palestinian lands for an ideology that completely disregards the rights of its inhabitants.
Under this framework, my earliest memories of racism were molded. The most significant ones occurred at checkpoints, which have little to do with Israel’s perceived security and everything to do with the structural manifestations of othering. At checkpoints, you are asked for identification papers. They may be perfectly “in order”—for instance, your permission to visit Jerusalem may have been granted by the military government—but your fate rests solely in the mood of the often young soldier sitting behind the bullet proof booth. The notion of “security” is cynical at best: Some of the most diligently operated checkpoints are completely un-manned on Saturdays, allowing Palestinians to pass freely without hindrance. These lead one to wonder what purpose they serve. In the U.S., I have heard of white (usually southern) mothers telling their children never to look black people in the eye. The effect is not the child’s security, but the pathological lesson of prejudice. Moreover, one should be reminded Israel’s intricate system of road blocks and checkpoints, numbering in the hundreds throughout the West Bank today, were established years before the first suicide bombing. It is as if Israel wants to reproduce and monopolize violence on its own terms, rather than bring violence to an end (the incentive is to have a pretext to increase colonial settlements in Palestinian territories, as the Oslo years have shown).
Here, the racial contract comes into view. Or so I am reminded at checkpoints, where you are subject to the whims of those immediately in power before you. Women have given birth to stillborns, cardiac emergencies have resulted in avoidable death, elderly have lost their dignity, again and again, all at check points. At checkpoints, “Arab” has a color: If you have a European or U.S. passport—that is, if you have these documents and do not “look Arab”—you need not open them for the soldier, and sometimes you need not produce them at all. Indeed, if you are sufficiently white, you may break in front of dozens of Arab workers trying to get home.
The memory I want to share occurred late one night as I traveled with my women’s basketball team from Ramallah to a tournament in Bethlehem. Though international aid workers can make this journey in 30 minutes, our Palestinian-filled van was required to take Palestinian roads. After about 90 minutes of driving, we arrived at the checkpoint several miles east of Bethlehem, where the soldiers subject Palestinians to a personal search. Although female Israeli soldiers sometimes work at checkpoints, this one was staffed with only males. It was dark when we arrived and there were no other cars in sight. For no apparent reason, we were asked to get out of the van as the soldiers rooted through our belongings. The personal search was invasive. There were no men in our caravan, and some of us were fondled more than searched. The ordeal lasted several hours, and though I know I should feel indignant about it—any self-respecting woman would—I had already learned to internalize this. It was the order of the day.
This assignment has asked for a discussion of options. Ironically, the only that seem to apply rest in the hands of the U.S., a country with its own problems finding options for victims of racism, yet it is the only country that can effectively pressure my occupiers. There is a growing opinion in social justice movements that is calling for boycott, dis-investment, and sanctions to pressure Israel to stop its structural racism. However, the validity of this opinion is far from realization. The first step, and perhaps the only option, is for people to open their eyes and look beyond color and colorlessness, and remember that we are all humans.