Whether Boulder shooter was white is the wrong question

Whether Arabs are white is the wrong question to ask after Boulder shooting
5 min read

Zaina Ujayli

25 March, 2021
Comment: Whether the shooter was Arab or white matters little. Instead Americans should ask why he - and others - so easily got hold of a gun, writes Zaina Ujaili.
Ten people were killed in Boulder in the second mass shooting in a week [Getty]
In the wake of Tuesday's tragedy in Boulder, Colorado, during which 10 innocent people were murdered and 10 families left bereft, people began asking the question: are Arabs white? 

The conversations began after prominent voices incorrectly assumed that the murderer was a white man. That narrative changed, however, when the shooter was identified as a Syrian American Muslim. 

"He's Muslim," "Arab", "Syrian Muslim," and "ISIS" all began trending on Twitter. Activists and journalists such as Khaled Baydoun, Wajahat Ali, and Representative Ilhan Omar called out the hypocrisy. After all, only a week earlier "He's Christian" did not trend after the Atlanta mass shooting which left 8 people dead and 8 families grieving.

However, whereas the double standard between how the two shooters' faiths were treated in the press was clearly evident, the issue of their races was muddier. 

Once the public realised that the shooter was an Arab American, conversations broke out about whether the Boulder shooter should still be classed as white. "He was white-presenting," some remarked. "Just because he's Arab, doesn't mean he's not white," others said.

  Arabs are not treated as white during encounters with the state and American society  

Still others walked back their previous assumptions about the shooter's race and encouraged the conversation not to travel down the Islamaphobic and xenophobic paths it tends to take when the perpetrator is Arab or Muslim. 

So, let's address the question people asked. Was the Boulder shooter white? 

The answer is - it's complicated. 

When Arabs first emigrated to America, they lobbied for their whiteness - even writing books defining their racial identity as white. The reason? Arabs couldn't become American citizens until they proved they were white, which they did in a series of court cases. In 1915 they were granted citizenship on the basis of their conceived whiteness after Dow vs. United States and, as Sarah Gualtieri says in her go-to book on the subject Between Arab and White, "they emerged from the legal controversy believing in the importance of whiteness for securing their future as citizens in America." 

However, just because the courts legally defined Arabs as "white" in 1915, didn't mean the debate was over. Often, Arabs' whiteness was predicated on skin tone and religion. While Christian Arabs could claim their whiteness by invoking their shared faith with white Europeans, Muslims could not.

Read more: Inheriting an Arab-American citizenship

In the famous 1942 naturalization case of a Muslim Yemeni, Ahmad Hassan, the judge ruled: "Apart from the dark skin of the Arabs, it is well known that they are a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominately Christian peoples of Europe". As a result, Hassan lost his case for American naturalization. 


Arabs found that even when they succeeded in legally defining themselves as white, they were rarely socially and politically treated as white. That is to say, even when Arabs check the "white" demographic box (which they still do), they rarely reap the rewards of that checkmark.

From surveillance, to discrimination, to suspicion, Arabs are not treated as white during encounters with the state and American society.

So, does the question of whether Arabs are white even matter? The answer is - absolutely. 

Because of Arabs' not-quite-white status, they have experienced discrimination faced by other minority communities, while being invisible on the census - their numbers and communities ill-defined. The real world implications of this issue played out most recently in fears among Arab Americans that they cannot judge the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their communities because they are absent on the census.

Consequently, Arab Americans are forcing America to retrial their whiteness, and part of that means answering this nuanced, historical question. 

  America's response to mass shootings is all ridiculous, and it is all theatre  


However, here's when this important question should not be asked: after a mass shooting. 

Ted Cruz calls Democrats' response after mass shootings "ridiculous theatre." I'll raise him - America's response to mass shootings is all ridiculous, and it is all theatre.

Every time a mass shooting happens, we do a rhetorical dance. We ask, what was his race? What was his motive? Did it have to do with his religion? Was it terrorism or mental illness or gang violence - for the answer, refer to the first question.

We pick a narrative and fit our understanding of events to the pre-made moulds - by now, we're all so used to them it takes no time at all to select one. Every so often, we'll have a case like the Boulder shooting, in which one narrative turns out not to fit. Not to worry - in 24 hours, the news cycle will have course-corrected.

  They will find any excuse to talk about the shooter, and not the gun that was in his hands  


That isn't to say that these questions don't matter. In many ways, they force us to confront our collective biases as a nation and work to unlearn them. However, this rhetorical dance, this "ridiculous theatre", also distracts us from the question which needed an answer after Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, and after Atlanta... What do we do about this?

Whether the shooter was Arab or white, how did we give him a gun, and how can we make sure that our next mass shooter can't go out and buy his? 

In the weeks ahead, we're likely to see Islamophobic, xenophobic, and racist conclusions drawn about the shooter - but we can't let them distract us. Because in this ridiculous theatre, that's what the actors do. They will find any excuse to talk about the shooter, and not the gun that was in his hands.



Zaina Ujayli is an MA student at The University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

Follow her on Twitter: @zainaujayli

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.