« John Hawks | Gene Expression Front Page | Goodnight Tay Sachs? »
January 20, 2005

White or not?

Given Randy's recent post on Eurabia, I thougt I might post on this though normally I don't like to touch what seems like an Israel-Arab Conflict related topic. I stumbled on to this blog, Eurabian Times via Winds of Change. I know nothing about this blog (perhaps Jinderella does, he has an association with Winds of Change), but I saw a post titled "Caucasian Hamas?"

Now, I know that in the United States "Caucasian" is generally synonymous with European whites, but most of you probably know that in the old school physical anthropological system it always included Middle Easterners, including the peoples of the Caucasus (obviously, they were considered the exemplars of white cranial beauty). Additionally, South Asians were included in the system as well, and sometimes even Australian Aboriginals and Ethiopians. But that's pedantic.

My further point is surprise that someone who is likely a junkie on news about the Middle East would be surprised that some Arabs look "white". He would likely be surprised that many Arabs actually think of themselves as white, and that many Syrians and Lebanese can "pass" with relative ease. I bring this up because on a recent e-list conversation I had to remind folks that not all individuals with blue-green eyes outside Europe need have had a Crusader or colonial white ancestor, this trait is likely present over a wide expanse (though at much lower frequencies than in Northern Europe). Genetically inbred groups like the Chitpavan Brahmins of the southwest coast of India often have blue-green eyes (possibly because of bottleneck & founder effect). Light eyes is also a trait that is found in Kashmir, and famously among Afghans. Recalling my days at mosque when I was a kid, I knew several Iranians with light eyes, and a Syrian, Turk and Lebanese too.

Even aside from the issue of light eyes, many Arabs look similar to other swarthy whites. The actor Tony Shalhoub regularly plays Italians (his Italian is pretty decent from what I hear!). Ralph Nader did not run for president as a "person of color," because most Americans probably think he has a good tan and don't know that he's Arab American. Ditto with Casey Kasem. Spencer Abraham was not generally considered a Senator of color from what I recall when he was representing Michigan. John Sununu was generally not thought of us George H.W. Bush's non-white Chief of Staff. Marlo Thomas, Tiffany and Shannon Elizabeth are not usually considered racially-mixed beauties though they are all part-Arab American (contrast this with Christina Aguilera, who is sometimes labelled non-white because of her Ecuadorian father).

Now, there is selection biasing here. Many Egyptians, Gulf Arabs and Yemenis are quite clearly non-white. My point is that there is a non-trivial overlap between the subsets of the human race termed "white" and "Arab". I would have thought this was quite obvious to those who keep track of the War on Terror, that the enemy aren't just a bunch of brown fundamentalists.

There is a personal aspect to this for me. As someone who every now and then is called a "sand nigger," and is assumed to be Arab, I would like it known by many that I don't really look like any Arab I've met. I doubt any Arab with skin as brown as mine would have my features or straight hair (the dark skin of Arabs of my color usually comes from African ancestry, so they usually have curlier hair and different features). Additionally, the skin tone of many Arabs and their features make them look like dark whites. Frankly, some "white Arabs" look like some Ashkenazi Jews. Most of the people who call me "sand nigger" or told me I looked like Saddam Hussein during Gulf War I aren't really the types who are into analytic discussion, but if they were, I might have tried to point out to them that if you did some cladistics (either genetic markers or phenotype), Levantine Arabs generally cluster closer to Europeans than they do to Asian Indians.

There are many people who don't get this. Some of them are on the Left, and they want to portray Iraqis and Palestinians as oppressed brown folk. Some Iraqis are quite brown. But some of them are also rather white. As for Palestinians, as Natalie Portman pointed out in a letter to the Harvard Crimson in response to a writer who attempted to foist a white/non-white paradigm on to the Israeli-Arab conflict, there is a substantial amount of overlap physically between Jews and Arabs, especially Oriental/Mizrachi Jews and Arabs, at least for the purposes of a white/non-white dichotomy (not to mention that the "blackest" people in Israel are likely to be the large community of Ethiopian Beta Israel). This can be illustrated by a personal anecdote a close friend of mine told me about his Arab cousin in Israel who is quite fair, Russian immigrants often sought him out on the street and begin speaking to him in Russian.

There are others who also fall into the canard. Obviously Arabs and Islam in general are considered threats to Western Civilization. I tend to think that the threat is real...but that's for another post. I do think there is a tendency to "Otherize" those who you perceive as threats. So there is a tendency to blithley categorize Turks & Levantines, who would generally be able to pass as white in many parts of Europe and generally in the United States, as non-white, because they are obviously aliens in a cultural sense. Then there is the "conundrum" of "white Muslims," Bosnians and Albanians (not to mention exotic Caucasian groups, in the literal sense, like Circassians). Many people seem rather confused by the idea that a cultural group can be both white and Muslim traditionally. A few of the people who tend to conflate Muslim/Arab with non-white in an exact and total fashion are probably out & out racists. Most are not, rather, they are simply transferring oppositional categories in their head and letting correlations slip through in a sloppy fashion.

Ultimately though, this post is just a wordy way to state what I'm really getting at. Click the link if you haven't, and look at the picture of the blue-eyed Hamas activist. If you're white, all I have to say is, whose the sand nigger now? ;)

Update: Go to the bottom for the Natalie Portman letter. She's hot.

Update II: An anecdote from a correspondent:


This was brought home to me especially strongly on a recent flight from Israel to Turkey on a Turkish airlines. Half the passengers were Israeli Jews, half Israeli Arabs, and the flight staff Turkish.

By appearance, the people in the flight fell naturally into 3 groups: darkish (half israeli jews, half israeli arabs), fair (again, half israeli jews, half israeli arabs) and much further away than the two other groups, the Turks.

The facial similarities between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews are quite remarkable - to the extent of seeing people who could be the same family. In general, an Israeli could tell who is Arab and who is Jewish - by clothing and accent or language spoken, not by facial features, except in very extreme cases.

There are a few outliers who could be only jewish or only arab, but not many.
A foreigner would not be able to tell.

Posted by razib at 10:47 PM