In 1913, George Dow, a Syrian* immigrant in South Carolina, was trying to convince a court that he’s white, a requirement for citizenship at the time. This wasn’t the first or last case disputing the categorization Arabs within the racial hierarchy of US law, but it’s the one that would make it to the Supreme Court.
So how do you convince white people that you’re white enough? According to that legal history, there’s a few strategies. It sure helps if you’re closer to looking the part, in terms of skin color and features. You need to buy into white supremacy–explaining how you’re too good and too smart to belong to any other racial category. You can dig through the wormholes of “scientific” racial theory to find a version that benefits your ancestors.
You can argue for easy assimilation: that you’ll blend in with white people without rocking the boat too much. Most of these people were Syrian/Lebanese* Christians, and didn’t hesitate to highlight their Christianity fact for white points.
And then there’s the White Jesus card.
As the argument goes, Jesus–who presumably must be a white man–was from the same region as George Dow. Therefore Dow must be granted legal whiteness to protect Jesus’ precious white image. (To argue whether or not Jesus was actually was white isn’t quite the point here. American whiteness is a social and legal construct with borders that could be redrawn specifically to include Jesus, maintaining the links between American nationalism, whiteness, and Christianity.)
In 1915, after several multiple appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that Syrians* are in fact legally white. Of course, that “white” status would be up for legal debate and social skepticism for years to come.
In 2002, Nadia Khayrallah, a seven-year-old first-generation Lebanese-American* in North Carolina, had no clue what box to check the on the demographics page of a standardized test. “Um, why don’t you just check the ‘Other’ box,” the proctor stammered, eying me uncomfortably. “That’s probably what it’s for.” Little did I know, the “White” box was technically mine to check, if not socially mine to inhabit.
But I hoped I could white-pass if I just tried hard enough to fit into that box. I dropped any interest in speaking Arabic. I kind of resented my parents’ accents and the way they packed me hummus for lunch about five years before it became ‘cool.’ I dreamed of marriage only because it could involve changing my name.
I must have mostly white-failed, because people still had questions–lines of questions that might start with “Where are you from?” and lead down to either “Are you a terrorist?” or “Are you a lesbian?” (both of which sounded equally scary at the time–at least I felt fairly certain that I wasn’t a terrorist).
And then there were the raised eyebrows asking if I goes to church or . . . something.
(My deal wasn’t quite what they were thinking. My family includes both Christians and Muslims, but I wasn’t aware of the significance of that distinction. By Lebanese law, I was in fact a card-carrying Christian, but I had no reason to know that given my non-religious upbringing.)
The entire concept of religion was a little opaque to me, but I had picked up enough sociopolitical common sense to know this: if churchy people suspect you’re a Muslim, outing yourself as an Atheist won’t do you any favors.
So I did the thing I do quite poorly: I lied. I made up a church to pretend I went to. Given how little I knew about churches, and how bad I am at lying, I doubt that I was very convincing. But still, like George Dow, I knew to call upon Jesus to save me from racial otherness.
But oh how naive to think that White Jesus would make us pure in the eyes of white supremacy. If only we knew how tenuous that salvation would be.
A few years ago, I heard about an Orthodox Christian church near my parent’s current house in California that was burned down after 9/11, allegedly because the congregation was largely Arab.
“But…it’s literally a church,” my mom remarked in confusion. “People who commit hate crimes aren’t known for precision,” I responded.
Indeed, race and religion are still knotted together in our bloody cultural fabric. While Muslims are particularly targeted, anyone considered vaguely Muslim-adjacent can feel the blow of Islamophobia.
Some Arab Christians hope to escape by insisting that they’re different and not like the other ones. Yet even if you choose self-interest over solidarity, the broad strokes will sometimes hit you too. Jesus, not even White Jesus, can save you from that.
*Note about nationality labels: Because borders are imaginary lines that were fiddled with in the early 20th century, the distinction between between Syrian and Lebanese people gets fuzzy and anachronistic real fast. For simplicity, I’m calling people by their most immediate nationality as it would be described at the time.