In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, Frantz Fanon writes about the anxiety he experiences when he watches a person of colour like himself engage in ‘respectable’ activities traditionally barred to his people, such as watching a black man perform surgery. This is because the marginalized individual has only one chance. Mess up, and any politics advocating for them will be stained.
I share Fanon’s anxiety with respect to Arab issues. Every time a terrorist attack happens, I anxiously wait to make sure that he’s not Arab or Muslim, because I know what’s coming if he is. Next, I have to get on my computer to write an elaborate post about how Arabs and Muslims are not terrorists, that Christian Arabs also exist, remind people that other races have committed terrorist acts, or even question the political definition of “terrorist” itself. All this is usually forgotten when people attempt to discuss Arab violence as though it’s a component of some homogeneous Arab psychology.
I also experience a worry in the way that our politics are operated and represented. If one person at McGill tweets “Punch a Zionist today”, the whole Palestinian advocacy movement is discredited. If the bomb threat from Concordia was perpetrated by a Lebanese man, Islamophobia is immediately lambasted as fake, with accusations that Arabs are fabricating hoaxes to push a narrative. It goes on.
I was tragically unsurprised to hear about the past mistreatment of Egyptian McGill student Amr El-Orabi, but still felt legitimately shocked at the lack of action done at a situation so grave. El-Orabi was subject to anti-Arab and Islamophobic racism by his supervising professor, Gary Dunphy, in 2013. When El-Orabi requested a transfer and informed Dunphy that he was leaving, Dunphy subjected him to racist verbal abuse and told him he wished for his death.
I was at McGill in 2013, and heard of no such issue, but have received plenty of administrative platitudes about BDS activists on campus, or of tweets on various personal accounts. Turns out, this racist professor still works at McGill. Furthermore, Professors are actually subject to disciplinary jurisdiction by the McGill administration, whereas administrative interference in SSMU is unwarranted and unprecedented.
That the misbehaviour of a fringe sector is attributed to all of those that attempt to articulate Arab grievances against powerful nations is an unfair standard.
I am not trying to get into a debate about the ethics of punching someone for their political ideology. I use this as a time-relevant example to gauge and analyze the problem of how Arab students are neglected while other issues are highlighted as unacceptable by those in a position of power.
This extends to the fact that one wrong move by an activist for the oppressed discredits the entire movement in the eyes of the public. That the misbehaviour of a fringe sector is attributed to all of those that attempt to articulate Arab grievances against powerful nations is an unfair standard. For example, when Gulf countries commit injustices, all Arabs are lumped in with them. This is despite the fact that there are far more cultural and religious differences between the Levant and the Gulf than between the U.S. and Canada (trust me, even the dialects are different!), which get to keep their own separate identities.
If Arabs or any other people of colour don’t express their grievances in the exact ways people want them to, they are immediately tainted
Those that advocate for marginalized people must be careful of what they say, as they don’t get any second chances. White people can wish the death of their Arab students and retain their jobs, even when there is a recording on a reputable news site, safe in the knowledge that the morality of their race will never be questioned. White people can even become the president of the United States after bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Don’t deny it; if an Arab or person of colour did any of these things, the appropriate stereotype would immediately be applied to discredit them and their entire community.
If Arabs or any other people of colour don’t express their grievances in the exact ways people want them to, they are immediately tainted. Just look at the Black Lives Matter movement, a peaceable and just cause. A slight move that isn’t palatable to outspoken white pundits like Tomi Lahren sends everyone to an uproar, such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the American anthem. This starts an ongoing misrepresentation of anti-oppressive moments like Black Lives Matter, as we have seen with Lahren’s continuous absurdities that are nonetheless accepted and cheered on by wide audiences.
As Fanon’s work explains, the deviant body, or other, is always one stroke away from being discredited, where the ‘normal’, ‘correct’, or hegemonic body can make mistakes and have those mistakes represent themselves only.
There are countless examples: White, Christian men shooting up abortion clinics being instinctively accepted as “occasionally violent, fundamentalist loner[s]”’, but not terrorists. In fact, no one makes it a norm to say that these people represent Christianity.
Lonely white male school shooters are deemed simply as people whose problems are “misunderstood” and “neglected”. Instead of placing the blame on their identity or cultural values, blame is placed on other socially stigmatized properties such as autism, anxiety disorder, or OCD.
Police officers that are “just doing their job.” White male politicians that are just engaging in “locker room talk”. White sexual harassers and rapists getting light sentences, on the grounds that they don’t deserve to have their life ruined. Professors that utter death threats that get swept under the rug.
Now look at the bodies of the “deviant” and marginalized: Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted amidst victim-blaming of Trayvon, where his murder was justified on the grounds that wearing a hoodie is threatening or “thuggish”. Eric Garner being choked to death for selling cigarettes under New York’s highly questionable “broken windows” policing. Muslims that continually have to apologize for terrorist groups that they’re lumped in with, or face being labelled as complicit.
People assume that Muslims must all believe, word for word, the scriptural interpretations claimed by terrorists. They cite Islam in believing in the inferiority of women due to cherry picking Quran verses; but none of these conservative pundits feel the need to claim responsibility for misogynist bible verses that explicitly call for women to veil and be silenced.
One’s standpoint dictates how they are going to be judged in their existence, actions, and activism. The failure of our administration to properly address Amr El-Orabi’s case is unacceptable, and symptomatic of the way we excuse actions of white men while closely monitoring those of marginalized groups or those advocating on behalf of them. At the very least, we should acknowledge the double standards and hypocrisy that bleed into our academic and political institutions.
I’m tired of anxiously watching Arab activists the way Fanon watched his people perform surgery – because while we anxiously watch, white people relax with the knowledge that their image shall remain untainted.