Incorrect racism. And I don't mean stupid racist stuff that's just plain wrong. No, I'm not talking about stuff like assuming that black Americans can't resist fried chicken and watermelon or that Latin@ people can all speak Spanish. I'm talking about getting racist stuff thrown at you that isn't even meant for you.
It's been almost two years since the Sikh Temple Shooting, the most high profile of many attacks on Sikhs since September 11, 2001. Why would Sikhs be attacked in the aftermath of September 11? Because Sikh dress style, particularly the beard and turban men wear, mark Sikhs as non-Christians who are not from Europe (not white), America (not white), Australia (not white), Central or South America (not Latin@), Asia (not East-Asian, which is how Asia gets coded in terms of American perception of race), or Africa (not black). Note how Native Americans have already been rendered almost completely invisible in the American race conversation. In terms of the broad spectrum of American cultural interpretation of race, the only remaining place Sikhs could hail from is the Middle East/India (which get collapsed into one), which means Muslim.
Now, I'm sure someone might come up with the common objection that Islam is not a race and therefore Islamophobia isn't a kind of racism and what Sikhs mistaken for Muslims experience is not misapplied racism. But that's bullshit.
Whiteness has been linked to Christianity and vice versa for over a thousand years. When the Christian leaders of the northern kingdoms of what is now Spain fought the Muslims of al-Andalus, they referred to their enemies as moros, regardless of their skin - being a moro and a Muslim was the same. Christianity and whiteness were so linked that the descendants of moros and Jews who converted to Christianity weren't accepted as being as Christian as the white Christians who made the rules.
Point being that in the tradition of western Europe, whiteness and Christianity have been intertwined for a long time, as has the idea of the racial Other and Islam. Darkness and Islam are what White Christianity sees when it looks to its Other. And Sikhs, as obviously not Christian and non-obviously in any racial category other than vaguely Middle Eastern (and India falls under that category, so thanks Aladdin) are rendered Muslim, redoubling the reading of them as non-white because non-Christian.
Assuming Sikh people are Muslim because they are non-white/non-Christian and then acting on that mistaken belief in a racist way isn't what this is really about. It's part of it, certainly, one of a multitude of manifestations of incorrect racism. But it's only an example. Besides, there's something buried under this that needs to be dug up to light.
White America thinks all people of color look alike.
As Samuel L. Jackson so eloquently put it, "I'm not Laurence Fishburne!"
What White America sees when it sees someone non-white is Other first, then it attempts to identify within limited parameters the nature of that Other. We get shunted into non-white first, and after that it doesn't matter what our actual racial or ethnic identity is, white people around us get to define us how they like.
White privilege includes being able to define the racial status of the Other. All Muslims (as well as all black people - Othello the moor, anybody?) back in the day were lumped into the category moro, regardless of actual ethnicity or race. Whatever our actual identity, White = right in this society.
So we get the conflation of Sikhism with Islam with not being white. We get things like the idea that all Asians look alike (which seems very narrow in its definition of Asian, and even in that narrowness is self-evidently wrong) or all black people look alike (Beyonce and Lupita Nyong'o sure are identical, eh?). You get ambiguously-brown Latin@ people like me nervous in airports and states like Arizona because we might be read as either Arab/Muslim (I've had Iraqi coworkers who looked at me and thought I was Egyptian or Palestinian) or because we might correctly be pegged as Latin@ and be asked to prove our immigration status (explaining what Puerto Rico is, that I was born in Massachusetts, and that even if I had been born in Puerto Rico that I would still not be an immigrant is a futile task at times).
And it all comes from a place where people of color don't exist as individuals in the eyes of white people. We're easily taken as a group, an Other to white hegemony, and divided into comfortable and convenient little subgroups at the whim of that same hegemony. Our appearances get us assigned into boxes without any care for the boxes we choose for ourselves. Our agency over our own identities is compromised when white hegemonic power asserts its definitions upon us.
So when we get mislabeled, misread, misraced, our identity ceases to matter in the eyes of the white hegemony. We aren't people anymore, not individuals, but examples of whatever stereotype of whatever flavor of non-white Other we have been assigned. A Sikh temple gets shot up, kids like my younger brother get bullied for being a "dirty Mexican," I feel nervous in airports - it all stems from the fact that who we are as people of color does not matter to white people. We all look alike, apparently, so we can get lumped in together willy-nilly.
In the white man's world, our voices don't mean much. I'm sure explaining the difference between Islam and Sikhism would probably not have made much difference to the shooter. Explaining the difference between Puerto Rico and Mexico certainly didn't matter to my brother's bullies, and while my surname makes my ethnicity obvious it doesn't help prevent the initial impression (and first impressions mean a lot). As people of color we're not afforded the privilege of actually influencing our first impressions. Instead we get to be written by our readers, held up to their standards for who we should be, and judged accordingly when we fail to meet whatever ludicrous expectations are put upon us.
That's what I hate. I can handle people discriminating against me, calling me slurs, judging me for my race. That's tough, but I can deal with it. But only when it's aimed right. Racism against me as a Puerto Rican is easy to combat - I can educate and react rationally to that. That's a problem of specific racist stereotypes. But if your racism toward me is misdirected racism toward another group, that's harder to deal with. It's already offensive because it's racism, already wrong, but it's even more wrong and more offensive because it's more wrong. In the world at large white people get to have diversity, but not people of color. We get only what diversity white people afford us and which we reclaim in our own spaces. And that ain't much. And I hate it.
Images via Shutterstock and @SamuelLJackson.
Writer's Note: I did not put the rubber duck picture in this post.