Witness Forward: “All-American Muslim” and Racial Justice

Witness Forward: “All-American Muslim” and Racial Justice

The following commentary originally appeared as part of the United Church of Christ’s Witness for Justice series.

Written by Elizabeth Leung
UCC Minister for Racial Justice

If you are a witness for justice, what kind of television viewer are you?  How do you make known the kind of visibility justice that you support as a consumer?  What is the bigger picture that a witness for racial justice should be aware of?

A while ago, Lowe’s Home Improvement pulled their advertisements from the TLC’s reality TV show “All-American Muslim.”  The reality show followed five families in Dearborn, Michigan, focusing on a cop, an expectant mother, a bride, an entrepreneur and a football coach.  Lowe’s admitted that the decision was due to a trumped-up controversy generated by the Florida Christian Family Association.  The group attacked the show as “propaganda,” that is, showing the lives of American Muslims as ordinary and not as terrorist, and called for a boycott of the advertisers.

This got me thinking: what does it mean to be a witness for racial justice, as a consumer of the entertainment media and beyond?

The idea of an ordinary yet entertaining portrayal of Muslim Americans on the television screen is to be commended, as it tries to resist the negative stereotyping of persons perceived to be Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and/or Muslim as extremist.  It reflects a desire of the fair-minded viewer to be a witness that refuses to consume “entertaining” racial, cultural, sexual stereotypes, and all the accompanying hatred and violence, exoticism and titillation.  Perhaps that is also a common aspiration among those 200,000 people who signed a petition, delivered by a coalition of activist and faith-based groups, asking Lowe’s to apologize for pulling ads from the show.

How would a witness for racial justice move forward in courage in 2012, beyond a one-time action response to a controversy concerning a television show?

We can begin by coming to terms with racism histories and refusing to participate in racism amnesia that allows structures of inequalities to quietly evolve into new forms.  For example, the American racial imagination of Muslim and/or people of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian origins do not begin with the 2001 event of 9/11.  According to Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity by Paul Spickard (2007), a federal court decided an Arab George Dow was White and entitled to U.S. citizenship in 1915, in the same era when other courts were deciding Japanese and South Asians were not White.  Such structures of inequalities often play one group against another and remain culturally influential.  Arab Americans continued to be White through the 1950s and 1960s until OPEC began raising oil prices in 1974, and suddenly Middle-Eastern looking Americans were perceived to be threatening.  Post 9/11, the corporate media’s focus on individual hate crimes and “a few bad apples” of the Abu Ghraib torture case overshadowed state accountability in promoting violence against persons perceived to be Arab or Muslim (see Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11 by Nadine Naber, 2007.)  In short, if we are intentional about anti-racism, we have to learn about America’s racist past and its social structures, in order to expose how they mutate to the present insidious forms.

Let us witness forward together in 2012. 

The United Church of Christ has more than 5,277 churches throughout the United States.  Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation.  UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.

Click here to download as a bulletin insert.

Click here to read the National Council of Churches’ statement on this issue.