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As I chatted with the personable young immigration officer at Atlanta airport on May 11th, I felt I had finally arrived as an ‘American.’ Here I was, a brown-skinned woman, a former Indian citizen, born in Pakistan, returning from Beirut via Syria, who was being playfully teased by the immigration official over the quintessential American identity marker–football affiliation.
If only I was from Florida State instead of the University of Florida, I could be let into the country. I exulted at this recognition of my over twenty years of affiliation with the University of Florida and made mental note that my years of being asked when I became a U.S. citizen, what I taught at the University (American Studies), why I left the country so often were over. I had earned white privilege.
My daydream ended when the officer followed the reassuring stamp on the passport with directions for me to go to a special security room and my huffy demand to know why I was being detained was met with the predictable response of a ‘random security check.’ As I sat in the interrogation room, my temporary Americanness having been deflated, I looked around and discovered, predictably, that the color of randomness was brown. All around me, sat brown men of possibly Middle Eastern or South Asian lineage. No doubt my special entry into the room had been facilitated by my trip to Lebanon where I had given a talk at the American University of Beirut, and had hustled to get out of the country via Damascus when hostilities in Lebanon forced the closure of Beirut airport.
Undoubtedly, security concerns since 9/11 have prompted extra screenings of people coming from ‘hostile’ nations such as Syria and Lebanon. But if a visit to or from such nations was the criterion for screening, why were there no whites or East Asians in the room? As we all know, the war on terror has turned the Middle East into an even more attractive investment opportunity for Americans. The representatives of Halliburton and Bechtel courting students of the American University of Beirut were ample evidence of that. Could one presume that all American corporate executives going to the Middle East were brown or was it simply that white executives could have no ‘terrorist’connections?
Of course anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Middle East knows that countries such as Lebanon and Syria have enormous racial variation and range phenotypically from white to brown and even black. But in the racial vocabulary of the U.S., Middle Easterners aren’t white because whiteness is not the color of terror. The domestic color of terror, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s scaremongering of the white working class, is black; the foreign color of terror is brown. And the religion of terror, as evidenced by the constant security alerts hearkening back to 9/11 and the hosting of the Islamo-Fascist awareness week in hundreds of campuses across the country, is undoubtedly Islam.
The ludicrousness of the racial profiling by the INS is that it cannot even support the State’s own ill-conceived agenda on ‘terror.’ Presumably a white Hezbollah supporter could slip through. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan domestic working for a Lebanese (a phenomenon ubiquitous enough in Lebanon for the word domestic and Sri Lankan to be synonymous) would likely, in an ironic exchange of status from disdained to despised, be detained.
As we heard sounds of Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenades and machine guns coming from different directions in Beirut on May 8th, we were scared. Scared not only by the possibility of a civil war between the government and the opposition but of a repeat of 2006 when Israel rained bombs over the city. During the course of the next week of street fighting, Israeli jets flew overhead and the USS battleship Cole moved in plain sight of Beirut.
The color of terror was not brown.
MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER is a professor at the department of English at the University of Florida where she teaches courses on American literature culture. She is the author of U.S. Orientalisms and most recently, “Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New Imperialism,” published by Duke University Press in June 2007.
and of the forthcoming book, Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship.