Thursday, April 25, 2013

Being ethnic: Me, the Boston media coverage, and the conflation of race and ethnicity

(This post is based in no small part on my Armenian-American identity, which I write about at some length in the post immediately previous this, commemorating the Armenian Holocaust of World War One.  If you haven't, please read it as well.  -E.A.)

My current hometown of Longview, Washington, has a major problem with the illegal use and trade of methamphetamine.  It’s an absolutely terrible plague on a wonderful little town, and so, I have to show ID anytime my allergies kick in and I have to buy a pseudophedrine-based antihistamine.  The pharmacist who sells it to me cannot take it for granted that I loathe and abhor the meth trade, even though I do.

Whenever I drive down to Portland International Airport to fly somewhere, I must do as everyone else does and remove my shoes, undo my belt, and possibly get frisked by an intimidating, no-nonsense guard named Bruno.  The TSA agents cannot take it for granted that I loathe and abhor terrorism, even though I do.

But there’s a funny thing about that particular experience of airport security—it used to be a lot worse.  I’m Armenian-American on my mother’s side, with a dark olive complexion, black hair, and, depending on my mood and whims that particular week, either a goatee or a full beard (part of the benefit of being part Middle Eastern is that I can grow a full beard pretty much on command).

You can see where this is going.

In some ways, though, I am appreciative of such experiences.  I am otherwise a card-carrying member of the establishment: male, heterosexual, Christian, born to upper-middle class parents.  I am the proverbial Man.  I am not a part of the system, I frame and define the system.

And being treated with a tiny bit of suspicion because of what I look like has perhaps has given me the closest thing I’ll ever get to a tiny, tiny glimpse into what it is like to be African-American, or Latino/a, or Arabic.

In other words, after the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, I did not feel the need to rush forward with a tweet or a Facebook status update saying that I was shocked and saddened by what had happened.  I knew that people would take for granted that I was (full disclosure: I did blog to ask people to pray for the victims, but I viewed that as more of an act of solidarity than a disclaimer that needed to be made).

But as news trickled out of Boston that increasingly pointed towards the bombings being an act of terror committed by two Chechen brothers who also identified as Muslim, lots of people did feel the need to disclaim that they, or the ethnicities or religions they belonged to, loathed and abhorred this sort of violence.


I’m not just talking about having to make such disclaimers based on cranks like Fox’s Erik Rush, who, in staying true to his surname, rushed to judgment to blame, sans evidence, the Boston Marathon bombings on Muslims.

I’m talking about otherwise well-meaning people who listen to the crackpots and feel persuaded by them for whatever reason, but especially because the two brothers straddle a number of stereotypes rather than fit just one that we have constructed for ourselves.  This effect is discussed in excellent manner by Peter Beinart over at The Daily Beast.

I'm Armenian-American.  Armenia, geographically speaking, is a proverbial stone's throw away from Chechnya.  In other words, I am in the same boat, demographically, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, much as it disgusts me to admit it: we are both white men who are seen as "other" because while we are white, we are not WASP-y white: our ethnicities do not conform to the perceptions of our race.

And this is one way in how prejudices get formed, y’all.  We associate terrorism with Arabs and Muslims, never mind the reality of the many terrorist acts perpetrated by Caucasians (see also: Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, and the majority of serial killers).

But violence knows no boundaries on the basis of ethnicity or race.  After all, the Nazi Holocaust was conceived and perpetrated by white people.

And if you read that last sentence thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’s not fair to associate white people with genocide,” well…you’ve just proven my point.

I know that sounds harsh, but that's about the size of it.

Let's stop associating violence the way we're doing.  We're all capable of violence, and every day that we choose whether or not to resort to it says something about who we are as human beings.

In other words: it definitely says something about the moral bankruptcy of these two brothers.

But it doesn't necessarily say the same thing about people who look like them.

Yours in Christ,

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