Saturday, February 28, 2009

Invisible Orientalism and Islamophobia?

Jehanzeb Dar, of the terrific blog Broken Mystic has written a great essay on the racist/Orientalist epic film "300." It is cross-posted at my home-away-from-home Racialicious and is getting a lot of attention there, which he completely deserves. Here is the link to the original essay. And here is the link for the cross-post. Go and read it, its great.

The comment thread following the cross-post at Racialicious is typically lively, which is to be expected. (The Racialicious crew are a brilliant bunch and the standard of the comments is generally very high--in no small part due to the guiding hand and aggressive moderating style of editrix Latoya Peterson.) But there is a sub-theme popping up in the comments that bothered me and rather than hijack the thread, which is full of other great points, I thought I'd expand my concerns here at the Pomegranate. If anyone has followed me over from Racialicious and wants to jump in, even those I've disagreed with from that thread, you are welcome.

Early in the comment thread CVT posts:

"I don’t know if it specifically read as against Middle Easterners. Because, although that’s the history of it (since it’s “Persia”), I thought they did a pretty good job of lumping all people of color in as the enemy (there are faux-ninjas, black “Africans”, as well as the turbaned “Persians”). And, of course, with the enemies are all the disfigured monsters, etc.

So it’s more just “White is Superior” to me - over ALL other races - and not just Islamophobic. I think Frank Miller is just equal-opportunity racist in this particular portrayal - and I don’t think any thorough, psychological analysis is necessary to see that."

This comment struck me as dismissive, not only of Jehanzeb's thoughtful analysis of "300" but of the Orientalist and Islamophobic themes particular to the film. I am frankly mystified as to what mental trick is required to look at an Orientalist epic like "300" and say "I don't know if it it specifically read as against Middle Easterners." So I responded:

"While I agree with your larger point re: light/dark =good/bad in sci-fi and fantasy I disagree that the “Persians” in 300 stand in for all PoC. They are very consciously designed to represent Middle Eastern people. There is a clear parallel being drawn between the ancient Greeks and “Persians” of the story and the contemporary West/US/Israel and Middle Eastern states. 300 isn’t about African Americans anymore than Birth of a Nation is about Middle Eastern peoples. I agree that we all suffer under the weight of these representations but it is important to be clear: this movie is an Orientalist fantasia, a “virtuous West” triumphs over “morally corrupt East” parable created for an audience that allowed Guantanamo (speaking of homoerotic violence) to happen."

My intention wasn't to split hairs for the hell of it but I was really bothered by the idea that someone could shrug away the specific slur against Middle Eastern peoples that "300" represents in favor of a generalized "White is superior" message. I mean if you can't see it in "300" what is it going to take? But then, I suppose if people weren't rioting in the streets over Guantanamo then a glitzy film wasn't going to do it. At this point another commenter entered the conversation and responded:

'300 isn’t about African Americans anymore than Birth of a Nation is about Middle Eastern peoples'

Did you see the movie, like half the Persians whose face was (sic) visible to us the audience were black. (The messenger, the briber of the priest, the disembodied head of the fallen general) and the other more racially “ambigous”(sic) Persians were hella dark (even though many Persians are as pale as Europeans) Plus, the Persian army was a hodge podge of differnet (sic) races and ethnicities. Whits (sic) vs. POC. yeah."

I was flummoxed that my objection to this sentiment was so difficult to understand, so I wrote:

"Dude, I don’t care if they are purple: the “Persians” in this film were repulsive analogues to Middle Eastern people (who come in 31 flavors, peach to coffee). Yes, there is a general agreement that sci-fi/fantasy is a Eurocentric narrative where white=good. But, again, 300 is supposed to dramatize an actual historical event, not an LOTR fantasy. And yes, I wholeheartedly agree that such representations damage all PoC. But generalizing the insult represented by this film dilutes the intended effect, which is to retroactively justify contemporary violence against Middle Eastern people by linking it to “history.” By overwriting this intent with a US American Black/White narrative you obscure both the history of Orientalist imagery it draws from AND the contemporary propaganda value of a “historic” victory over licentious (but sexually repressed!), barbaric, Middle Easterners.

Sound familiar? It's meant to."

At this point I was feeling the pressure to play along for the sake of "PoC solidarity." The thread was a friendly one, I admired the essay that inspired it and here I was, introducing discord. After all, it is not such an awful thought that what effects some of us, effects all. Except that I am not sure that is how the sentiment was intended in these comments. Instead it seems that these folks--CVT and Dirge--are just not able to see Orientalism and Islamophobia. And I can't help it--that galls me. The last almost-decade has been an endless human-rights nightmare with Middle Eastern people and Muslims at the center and these guys still can't see prejudice unless it is framed in Black/White terms? How is that even possible? Presently CVT rejoined the thread ans posted:

"Although the “Persians” are literally equated with Middle East/Islam in the film, it’s no coincidence that their allies are various - differing - folks of color, all lumped in together, as one massive “evil” Empire. Dismissing that fact is counterproductive. “Birth of a Nation” only has black folks as the “evil” - “300″ has most forms of non-white skin as “evil,” and clearly so."


So at this point I am incredulous. I write:

"I am not dismissing it, I am saying it is a misstatement at best and a deliberate obfuscation of Orientalism and Islamophobia at worst. I have said repeatedly that I support the basic idea that we are in the same boat–but not at the expense of a particular understanding of this as hate film directed at me and people like me.

A cursory look at Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs (referenced by Jehanzeb in his essay) clearly shows the genealogy of these images in American cinema. But they predate the advent of that media by thousands of years. Orientalist and then Islamophobic narratives are central to the formation of the West from its beginnings.

I refuse to allow that history, which is played out to such devastating effect in the present as State-sanctioned violence against Middle Eastern people, to be absorbed into a different racial narrative just to satisfy a general American need to recast every story in familiar (i.e. Black/White) terms: No.

I have no desire to turn this excellent thread into a debate over this one element that popped up in the comments. I have said what needed to be said about it and you’ll either hear me or you won’t. Instead of continuing down that road I’d like to ask a few general questions:

There are countless examples of repellent portrayals of black folk in American culture–new and old and when they are called out on this site and elsewhere I gladly join the chorus of voices decrying them. So why is the reciprocal gesture so difficult for some to manage when the focus is on Middle Eastern people?

Why, in order to enjoy wider PoC support, do I have to submit to the notion that "300"–or whatever Orientalist cultural expression is at issue– is “really” about a Black/White narrative, which trumps all?

Do you think it is a coincidence that this film was made while we are occupying Iraq? While Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and numerous other CIA “black site” prisons are filled with Arab and Muslim prisoners? (Still! Thanks for nothing so far President Obama…) When torture is made legal in the United States but it is only practiced on Arabs and Muslims?

Can you understand why, given these things, the attempt to recast a hate film created specifically to demonize Middle Eastern people into a completely different racial narrative, is offensive?"

...Which brings us to this post. As an Arab/American I sometimes feel caught in the limbo between these categories and not comfortably within any of them. This is a particular experience, and a significantly different one from folks who are easily categorized. Still, I am losing patience with the lack of imagination--especially among progressives--that stems from an unwillingness to entertain parallel narratives. The willful dismissal of specific Middle Eastern/Islamic concerns is not new--even in so-called progressive, anti-racist circles. There is a great deal of talk in such circles about "white privilege" but I think attitudes like those expressed by CVT and Dirge embody privilege of a different sort: Western privilege. That is, the "right" to frame the conversation in familiar terms and the demand that others fit their experience within yours.


So I checked back in on that thread and after Jehanzeb made a passionate post comparing "300" to a minstrel show (as a way, presumably to reach the folks who wanted to brush aside the racism and only engage with the movie as entertainment) an individual who calls herself--ironically enough--"Think" wrote:

"If they had been fighting a bunch of black women who look like me I probably would have felt differently though, so I do understand what you mean. However, they weren’t…So all I saw were “buff and half naked” men fighting in slow motion, which I think is H-O-T. Maybe that’s not what you want to hear (see?) but at the end of the day it IS entertainment for me. I didn’t like what Frank Miller had to say, but when I watch the movie the themes that come to my mind are of courage and tenacity against all odds. That’s my lens. When I watch it again, I wonder if I’ll think differently….if so at least I know that 300 isn’t the last movie on earth.

So sorry, instead of fuming, I fanned myself…like I said, they were hot! They could have been fighting a bunch of stuffed animals, as far as I’m concerned."

...I think I can actually taste my lunch again.

So the next time you ask yourself, "how could this happen?" re: Guantanamo/Iraq/Abu Ghraib/Palestine etc. etc. etc...

Clueless morons like "Think" are how.


  1. From Tracey:
    Hmmm. Yeah. 300 is defiantly meant to be an Orientalist assault on people who are lumped into the Middle Eastern category and from my perspective feel that someone trying to draw attention to the movie demonizing people who are black is reason for some concern. While the movie certainly does that, often times discussions on race are boiled down to black and white to the point that other forms of racism are overlooked or considered less damaging.
    I don't think any of the posters meant to do that and were just trying to bring attention to the fact that Middle Easterners are not the only ones being dehumanized. I can not speak for them but can't help but think maybe they felt the need to speak up for fear that the dehumanization of the black people would be ignored and perhaps feel the need to point out this form of racism anywhere it is found.
    Also, not saying these posters were doing this, I think sometimes people try to compare discrimination to make it more understandable which I think is sometimes very problematic (hope that makes sense). For example, people might say the mistreatment of LGBTQ people is wrong b/c it is like the mistreatment of racial minorities. The problem I have with that is that it is like they are saying in order to see why discrimination is wrong it must be compared to another category, therefore, it is wrong because it is like this rather than it is wrong because it is this (I hope that made sense).
    Anyway, I understand the importance of addressing all racist/discriminatory aspects of a movie but also feel that such discussions can be derailed by a sense of not necessarily boiling things down to black and white, but of making sure that the discrimination against one's own group has been addressed. This can also lead to someone making a discussion about one's own group to the exclusion or marginalization of another. While we really are all in the same pot when it comes to demonizing non-whites, I do think it is good to recognize specific forms of racism against certain groups and not be so defensive to make everything relevant to your particular group. I don;t think anyone on there didn't recognize that there was dehumanization of black people, but it was a post about the explicit dehumanization of Persians. I also think there was defiantly an attempt to Persians with Islam and for some reason got the feeling the blacks in the movie were suppose to be representative of North Africans ( some scholars consider North Africa to be associated more with M.E. studies that sub-Saharan). I feel the movie was defiantly meant to parallel the current events of the world.
    I also feel that discussions about Islamophobia, and discrimination against people who are or are presumed to be of M.E. descent are not even had and that these discussions defiantly need to happen and in a way that this particular form of oppression/discrimination is looked at in and of itself. Is it linked to other forms of racism/discrimination? Absolutely. But does it sometimes need to be examined in and of itself? Defiantly. I feel the '08 election is a glaring example of that. I mean Muslim and Arabic became insults and almost no one, including Obama or the Main Stream Media addressed it. There was the standard I/he is not a Muslim/Arab rebuttal but there was no real examination of why those terms were even being used as insults. There were talks about the racism he experienced as black, but no talks on how it had suddenly became acceptable to use Muslim/Arabic as an insult. As a matter of fact, the way it was rebutted kind of reinforced the negative association. I also am upset that the stories of the women wearing hijabs who were not allowed to sit behind him has disappeared. What did that incident say about the media and the campaign? Yes he met with them but what kind of campaign was being run that staffers would even think to do something like that?
    Okay, I'm getting carried away and derailing so I'll try to wrap it up. I defiantly think Orientalism is something that needs to be discussed more and not simply in a manner that relates it to other forms of racism.
    I will not call "think" a moron but unfortunately it is possible to be entertained by racist b.s. The problem I have is the seemingly lack of ability to emphasize. I guess what I've been trying to say is that a form of oppression shouldn't have to be directly/blatantly related to your group in order to see the harm it does and the whole bringing up the unmasked black people may be a form of doing that. It is disheartening to see someone say that, but I can't help but think a lot of people feel that way. Also, maybe "Think" really didn't see the racism the first time. Maybe a lot of people didn't. Though I think this only means that it may be more internalized and ingrained in our society. I mean, when isn't the dark=bad situation played out in movies. Perhaps it has gotten to the point where some people don't even take notice anymore. I'm also guilty of having liked the movie the first time I saw it. I thought "oh it's so over the top no one will take it seriously?" but I have sense realized that there are a lot of things wrong with that mentality. Especially since the first time I saw it was aboard a naval vessel with service members (that adds a lot to the equation I think).
    But I must admit, I kinda like Alladin, a lot. Mulan also, and am rather ashamed to admit that I didn't notice the racism (besides orientalism) in Mulan. Afterall, Mulan and the Capt are light and eurocentralized while the Huns look like caricatures. Yeah, I think I can understand (or sympathize maybe?) with why you got upset. The depictions of M.E./S.A./Arabs and the racism against them are not given adequate discussion at all. The only time I ever saw it brought up was on the Daily Show sadly enough. I feel that discussions on xenophobia and racism experienced by non-black people are just recently starting to be addressed. I hope this long rambling made sense. I am not nearly so good as expressing what I have to say as most people on Racialicious and feel free to reply/contact if anything I said didn't make sense or was off base.

  2. Tracey again:
    Wow, I just realized how screwed up my liking Mulan and Alladin are and also see how someone could call "Think" a moron and me even more so. After all, while I might be willing to look past the racism in those movies, I have literally turned from movies that depicted black people in stereotypical manners. I mean, it physically hurt. Yet I am willing to watch these two movies that reinforce dichotomies and tell Asian/ M.E./Arabic children that to be beautiful, good, heroic, desirable they must be as eurocentric in looks as possible. Just to be able to watch a heroic romance? That's messed up. Also, to understand the racism one does not have to compare it to black depictions. It is racism in and of itself. maybe "Think" could have the privilege of not seeing the racism, is that a result of black/white reduction? I doubt it. Maybe just mot noticing? I can't say what makes me see the racism in Mulan and Alladin and still watch them either. Afterall, the Asian stereotype in King Kong original was painful to watch (but it didn't make me turn away).
    Also, I think you nailed it by bringing up framing. And was it you who brought up western privilege?

  3. Tracey,
    I think you have expressed yourself just fine. While I know it can be intimidating to jump in to a Racialicious conversation you should just go for it. In any event, you are always welcome here. I would not have called "Think" a moron on Racialicious because it violate the comment policy but this is my house and so I have more freedom here to express my first impulses, which aren't always so polite. Truth is, her words were really hurtful and I should have found a way to say so but I was just flabbergasted. Can you imagine a poster writing that he found it hot when the hooker characters in the Vice City video game got beat up? The whole idea makes me want to yak.

    Anyway, I think you have made some good points here and you shouldn't be wary of posting them over on Jehanzeb's thread at Racialicious. It would be a welcome infusion of good sense into a thread that has become too heated for its own good.

  4. Thanks for writing this, Joseph. I was also deeply offended by "Think's" comments. My most recent reply to her asked if the film had "hot" Spartan guys slicing up Black women, would she still be able to ignore the racist content? I'm sure she wouldn't.

    We can't ignore something just because it doesn't apply to "our people." We need to bold enough to speak out against all forms of racism. Racism and prejudice towards Middle-Easterners and Muslims have been made more acceptable in our society because of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and now Pakistan. Whenever there's war, dehumanization of the "other" or "enemy" always takes place. There are still many people, including filmmakers, writers, musicians, and even celebrities, who think it's ok to bash Middle-Easterners and Muslims just because "they're the enemy."

    These same individuals may stay away from being openly racist towards Blacks because there is a stigma associated with it. This is not to say that many people openly make racist statements against Blacks (see Don Imus), it's just point out that there is LESS stigma associated with someone who is racist and prejudice towards Middle-Easterners and Muslims.

    Even when you go to the book store and look under the Islamic section, you'll find a lot of Islamophobic books. These books are written to vilify the religion of Islam and to scare people into thinking that Muslims want to dominate the world, enslave women, and destroy our values. That's exactly what "300" is about.

    I don't understand how one could say "300" applies to ALL people of color rather than focusing mainly on Middle-Easterners and Muslims. To me, the Black messenger in the beginning of the film represents a Muslim because he uses coded references to Islam; the word "Submission" in particular. He has the same Orientalist depiction as the other Persian characters and he's using the same script that the stereotypical "Reel Arab/Muslim/Persian" would use. He's even CALLED a PERSIAN, which seems like an attempt to make us associate him with a "different kind" of Black person. You know, those OTHER kinds of Black people, the ones who are Arabic speaking and/or Muslim.

    I don't deny the fact that all people of color are offended by this film too. As I said on the thread, the primary target is Middle-Eastern people and Muslims. That's even made clear in Frank Miller's interview on NPR. He's not talking about anyone else but Middle-Easterners and Muslims.

  5. As I said over on the thread I don't deny that there are a complex of other representations going on in 300. What I objected to was the quick rush past the specific slur to a more general "white supremacy" message. That feels to me like a coded message of "your concerns are less important--unless they can be articulated in our terms."

    I never expected in a million years that the conversation would take the turn it did. I mean come on, we not only have to defend ourselves against the representations in the film itself but also the against people who want to say we don't have anything to be upset about because the film isn't even about us?