Circassian beauties and the ugly face of race

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious cases of Rachel Dolezal and the Circassian ladies show just how meaningless race is, while Dylann Roof underlines the dangers of racism.

Circassian lady

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal is not the first white American woman to sport a fake Afro. A century and a half earlier, so-called “Circassian ladies” were all the rage as circus sideshows.

The bizarre phenomenon capitalised on the craze created by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s pseudo-scientific theories of race, which traced the roots of white people to the Caucasus, and his belief that “the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians”.

These whiter than white circus performers were not actually Circassian and, unlike the ideal of Circassian beauty elsewhere in the West, their hair was not of a luxuriant and smooth silky texture, but was wild and curly, an effect produced through liberal shampooing with beer.

“The hair may have been an effort to suggest blackness… a nod to popular conceptions of African female sexuality,” wrote Charles King, an expert of the Caucasus at Georgetown University.

The long shadow of slavery can also be discerned in this hybrid depiction. American audiences were both intrigued and horrified, given their false association of slavery with Africans, by the fact that Circassian women were among the most sought-after concubines in the Sultan’s harem ­– hence the need to make them appear somewhat African.

“Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation… and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried. Beyond America’s shores, however, slavery was a multiracial institution, and slaves could sometimes even reach the highest corridors of power, as the Mamluk warriors – slaves mostly from the Caucasus – who ruled Egypt illustrate.

The curious case of Dolezal and the Circassian ladies demonstrate just how meaningless the notion of “race” is. My five-year-old son and his friend made child’s play of the self-evidence of this truth at the beach the other day.

Though both boys are half African from the actual African continent (Egypt and Somaliland), in American racial parlance, my blond son would easily pass for “white” while his silky-haired mate looks quite “Hispanic”. In short, these two multicultural polyglots, who are still blissfully oblivious to any attempts to pigeonhole their identities, would completely confuse America’s rigid racial compass.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Despite the complexity and ambiguity of people’s identities, America generally prefers clarity when it comes to African-Americans. This applies even to the highest echelons of the land. Take, as an example, Barack Obama, whom it would be most accurate to describe as “mixed race”, “transracial” or “multicultural”, but is rarely referred to as such.

This compartmentalisation does not begin to capture the nuance of his multiple identities. Obama’s absent Kenyan father only gave him his name and half his genetic make-up. In contrast, his white mother, Ann Dunham (and maternal grandparents), gave him the other half of his genes but, more vitally, his upbringing. “What is best in me, I owe to her,” Obama admitted in passing in his memoir which, nonetheless, was titled Dreams From My Father.

Despite this, Obama is almost invariably described, both by admirers and bigots, as “African-American”. Though genetically he is as “white” as he is “black”, and culturally he is more the former than the latter, Obama is, as far as I’m aware, never referred to as “white”, though this is perhaps a more valid description.

For the late Ann Dunham, who did not believe in racial difference, questions of black or white mattered not a jot. However, society did not agree, and her son was labelled black from a young age, with all the discrimination that involves.

And the inability of the most powerful man in America – who is truly “transracial” – to escape racial categorisation can help us better understand the circumstances surrounding the Rachel Dolezal case.

It is easy to understand why African-Americans are offended by Dolezal’s claim of being “transracial”. She evokes painful memories of “blackface”, and the long tradition of white Americans mocking, exploiting and appropriating black culture and identity.

Though clearly an impostor and possibly unhinged, Dolezal is not the only one pedalling untruths. After all, despite the overwhelming scientific, social and cultural evidence that race is a fantasy, Americans of all political stripes still believe, in one way or another, in this fallacy.

At the core of America’s racial identity crisis lies the legacy of slavery – both for the descendants of those who benefitted and those who suffered from its crushing weight. In this light, attempts to separate racial identities are, paradoxically, important to those trying to maintain white privilege and often to those combating it.

In America, even possessing slight African heritage is enough – culturally today, legally in the past – to qualify you as black.

For instance, when I was a kid I was intrigued by how Lisa Bonet (who is of mixed African-Jewish descent) was a “black” character in the Cosby Show, even though she was paler than I was. Her one-time husband, Lenny Kravitz, who is also of a mixed African-Jewish background, was criticised early in his career for being not black nor white enough in his music.

Though race is a myth and an artificial social construct, racism is a far-reaching and bitter reality, as illustrated by Dylann Roof  and his horrendous, unprovoked cold-blooded murder of black worshippers in Charleston. “Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them,” claimed Roof in a manifesto he wrote. “Integration has done nothing but bring whites down to [the] level of brute animals.”

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans find the Charleston terror attack reprehensible and a heinous crime against peaceful worshippers and innocent citizens. However, though dangerous and deadly, it is not this form of racism that has the greatest collective impact. It is the common-or-garden, mundane, institutionalised variety that condemns millions of African-Americans to dwell disproportionately behind the actual bars of prison and the figurative bars of poverty and marginalisation.

This everyday racism in the contemporary USA needs to be challenged with as much urgency and resolve as the white supremacist, “retro” variety of yesteryear’s Confederacy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 June 2015.

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Beauty in the eye of the political storm

 
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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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Ugly discrimination in the face of beauty

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious case of Arab men reportedly deported for being “too handsome” demonstrates that the beautiful can also be the victims of discrimination.

Friday 10 May 2013

Imagine a land where beautiful people are so stigmatised that they are banished simply for their looks. Does it sound like a sci-fi fantasy dystopia?

Well, this is exactly what reportedly happened to three Emirati men on a business trip in Saudi Arabia who were apparently deported for being “too handsome”.

The men were detected and ejected by Saudi’s notorious “morality police”, the mutaween, also known by their formal Orwellian-sounding title, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, who “feared female visitors would fall for them”.

When I first read about this, I wondered how the mutaween had decided these men were too hot to handle. Did they do it scientifically, say with some high-tech gadget that monitors seismic activity caused by collective gasps of approval or a sort of Geiger counter that measures the fallout from radioactive beauty, counted in Cutie units? Or did they have a panel of judges, like some sort of warped beauty contest, who held up scorecards, with the winner receiving a one-way ticket home?

Since the hunks’ return to the neighbouring Emirates, no reports have emerged of any fallout from the radioactive presence of these killer men – though I should be careful using that description of Arabs in these suspicious times.

Nevertheless, if the mutaween had hoped to keep a lid on the affair and spare women the undoubted agony and suffering prolonged exposure would almost certainly cause, they failed desperately. Not only has the story gone super-viral around the world, a crowd-sourced manhunt has already uncovered the probable identity of one of the Arabian thoroughbreds.

In a world where Arab men are seen mainly in the negative – not so much as fun but rather as fundamentalist, never fans but always fanatics – I, who never read gossip or glossies, was mildly pleased that the much-maligned male from my part of the world was getting, so to speak, a media facelift.

Of course, some of the attention in the West was somewhat condescending, of the “look-what-those-weird-Arabs-are-doing-now” variety, rather like the mirthful reactions to news reports of camel beauty pageants.

But is it really so hard to believe that some people’s beauty can cause them trouble or even that attractive people can be discriminated against? These men may have been sent home, but boy did the experience raise their street cred and made of them minor celebrities, even if the identities of two of them are still shrouded in mystery.

Others have not been so fortunate. Take Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant who lost her livelihood for no other reason than her boss found her too attractive.

Naturally, this goes against the overwhelming stereotype of beauty, and how it serves its owner. And as endless studies have regularly shown, good looks can help people get ahead in life, from getting laid to getting a job or promotion – and even, rather dubiously, make them happier than their more mortal peers.

In fact, for some careers, such as the glamorous mainstream of acting and the media, good looks are more often than not an essential, if unofficial, qualification. There is even, I have learned, a term to describe this sort of positive discrimination in favour of the beautiful people: “lookism”.

In contrast, bad looks are a well-known source of discrimination, a social handicap for their bearers. Not only are people endowed with fewer physical assets often disadvantaged in life and love, the very semantics of language subliminally slaps them in the face – and the title of this article is no exception. When we disapprove of something or wish to say it was really horrendous or terrible, we regularly employ this alienated and lonely adjective: an ugly situation, the ugly face of warfare, the ugly underbelly of poverty, etc.

Although I won’t for a moment suggest that there is equivalence, beautiful people don’t always have it their way and can be the victims of discrimination. This can be seen in the age-old bias that beauty and brains can rarely be united in the same body. This leads to stereotypes that attractive people, particularly women, are likely to be shallow – consider all those dumb blonde jokes or the idea that hunky men who take care of their appearance are hollow airheads.

This can be a real problem for good-looking people. For instance, though looks serve them in “feminine jobs”, attractive women trying to get ahead in professions that require intelligence or authority or toughness do face discrimination.

For example, I have met young female professionals, including scientists, who complain that male colleagues, especially older ones, don’t always take them seriously. One attractive but tough-as-nails woman I know who works in the construction industry says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that she has no trouble with her subordinates, but her peers exhibit hostility and disrespect towards her.

In addition, there is the issue of harassment. Though unwanted amorous or sexual attention is not the exclusive domain of attractive people, it is more likely to occur if the target happens to be beautiful – and, again, a woman. In public, what is taken as aloofness, can sometimes simply be a defensive mechanism against unsolicited interest. Even flattering gestures such as holding doors open for attractive women or providing them with more favourable treatment or greater attention can cause distress to those of them who wish to be treated as equals and ordinary.

Moreover, extreme beauty can be alienating. Incredibly attractive – gorgeous, I believe, is the technical term – people may well draw many advantages from their physical assets, but their looks can also act like a chasm separating them from their peers, making natural, casual interactions difficult, with many members of their own gender viewing them with suspicion and those of the opposite sex typically acting flustered or nervous in their company.

This hostile reaction to beauty can be seen in the traditional view that being too beautiful was somehow immoral. It can also be discerned in music and song, in which the gorgeous are often attributed with negative characteristics like cruelty and vanity. Take Alice Cooper telling us that his lover’s blood is “like ice” and her lips are like “venomous poison”.

Though we may try to curb it, we will never end discrimination based on looks. And it would seem that nature and evolution have disposed us with a natural bias towards beauty, however subjective and frivolous that concept can be. Nevertheless, while the beautiful set may seem to have the world at their feet, we must remember that not all that glitters is gold and beauty has its unattractive underbelly too.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 2 May 2013.

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