This is an excerpt from my dissertation, on the (other) Melissa Hussain case that was recently in the news:
Since taking on my husband’s last name after we were married, I have been all-too aware of how my last name throws people off—it confuses them, or makes them nervous, or both. People are not sure what to think, because I am white but my last name is “Hussain.” Students who step into the classroom on the first day are surprised—they expected a woman of color. And a few years back, when I visited a friend in Texas, she asked me rather apologetically whether she should introduce me to her friends as “Melissa Hussain,” rather than as “Melissa Tennyson” (Tennyson is my maiden name). I looked at her, rather perplexed, and told her that my last name is in fact Hussain, so of course she should introduce me that way. The unstated—and no doubt unconscious—point she was making is that “Tennyson” sounds like one of “us” (as in white people in a small town in Texas). But “Hussain”? Hussain sounds like a foreigner, and a very bad one, at that—in other words, an Islamic foreigner, or a Middle Eastern foreigner, or a terrorist, or possibly all three.
Now, let me share one more story in regards to my last name, a more extreme example of the anti-Islam racism and homogenizing assumptions prevalent in the U.S. While I was in the final stages of writing my dissertation, another woman with the same name as me—in fact, spelled exactly the same—who is also a teacher, was suddenly thrust into the national limelight (February, 2010) when she complained about her students on the online social networking site Facebook, and parents caught wind of this. Given the fact that this woman—an eighth grade science teacher in North Carolina—was not a Christian (and a young woman who had stepped into the class as a mid-term substitute), her students were harassing her, and obviously trying to push her buttons. They gave her a bible and a Christmas card (with Christ underlined), while they also sang “Jesus Loves Me” in class instead of working on their homework. The students had also been insisting that she teach creationism in her science class. She threw the Christmas card away, and insisted that the students not sing the song instead of doing their homework, and that they stick to science instead of religion in the science classroom.
On her Facebook page, the teacher complained about her students (without naming any of them) to her friends, calling the bible gift a “hate crime,” and asserting that she “was able to shame” her students over the incident. Her major error, it seems, is that she had not established high enough security settings for her Facebook account, which meant that parents of her students could read what she was saying to her friends, and they took offense.
Like me, this teacher is a white woman who took on the last name “Hussain” through marriage. Given the current national anti-Islam hysteria, a name like Hussain strikes a chord of hatred in mainstream America, particularly if it is connected to anything that is perceived as an attack on the religious right. Almost instantly after this story broke into local headlines, the religious right began to rally against this woman. Unfortunately for me, when people searched for information about her online, the majority of the links they found were for my own Facebook page, blogs and websites.
People swiftly assumed that she and I were in fact the same person (and for the record, NO, WE ARE NOT), and various members of the religious right proceeded to flood me with hate mail and hate messages on my blogs, and began posting information about me that they could garner from the public view of my Facebook profile and from the poetry and essays that appeared on my blogs and published articles online. (There were also supporters that immediately rushed to my side as well—this was, in fact, how I learned about the news story in the first place, through a friend request on Facebook that left me scratching my head—it was from a woman who said she was “so sorry to hear about what I was going through,” and I had no idea what she meant.)
But the attacks persisted, nonetheless, and they even went to the extent of dragging my family and daughter into it, bringing up the case of my husband’s delayed immigration visa last year, and analyzing photos of my daughter with Santa Clause, contemplating why an apparent heathen such as I would allow my daughter to celebrate Christmas. And even after discovering that I was in fact a different person from the one in the news story, many from the religious right still felt completely justified in attacking me, given the fact that I have been fairly open about my own political views—which are far removed from theirs—in my writing that appears online.
In response to a post I had made on this writing blog, stating that I am not the same Melissa Hussain as the one in the news, one person wrote: “Yeah, but you’re as big of a liberal kook (pardon the redundancy) as she is, so the attention is warranted. The last place any of you ever need to be is in the academic world.” Needless to say, elementary school is not part of the academic world. Furthermore, the academic world is, arguably, the last safe haven for liberals in the U.S. Facebook, however, is not a safe haven. And for the record, what is the crime I have committed? The crime seems to be that my thoughts and ideas do not sit well with those of the religious right—that thus apparently warrant the “liberal kook” label—while the crime is also that I have posted such thoughts and ideas online, and that my name is Melissa Hussain (guilt by association).
Had the teacher in the news story been named something more typically “American,” such as “Sarah Jones” or “Suzy Smith,” I doubt that people would have been so swift to assume any links that appear online for a person with that same name must all be connected to the same person. Granted, the name “Melissa Hussain” is quite uncommon in the U.S., but this does not negate the racist assumptions embedded in the reactions to the news story. For instance, people immediately assumed that she was Muslim, given her last name, although those who knew her at all clarified that she was agnostic, if anything. Consider this comment, for instance, that appeared in the response section to an online news story on the case (I have preserved the original spelling and punctuation):
Please correct me if I am wrong here did I not see somewhere that all Hussains are blood relatives? Muslims Like Sadamm and countless others that are professed enemys of America.I think that she should go with her mate/partner back to his country and see how the right of freedom of speech is handled there,where women must cover their faces and never speak.We dont need these kind of people here, yes Mitch this country was founded on Christian beliefs by western europeans who intended it to stay that way and not become the worlds mother.
To state the obvious, the last names of Saddam and the teacher in question are in fact spelled differently, although this fact seems to be irrelevant to the person who posted this statement. Of course, both versions of the name (Hussain/Hussein) would be written the same in Arabic, and transliteration can go either way, with an “a” or “e” in the anglicized spelling. Nevertheless, the implication that anyone whose last name is closely or even remotely spelled like Saddam Hussein’s—whether or not they are from Iraq or even the Middle East—is likely to be related to him and thus to be an “enemy of America” is, of course, fundamentally racist. Also, white supremacy, Eurocentrism, and xenophobia are evident in this statement. Furthermore, I would argue that such a statement is indicative of the new racism that has emerged in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one that I would characterize as an Orientalist racism. That is not to say, of course, that Orientalist racism did not exist prior to 9/11—of course it did. But in the U.S. context, the flames have spread into wildfire since then. Or to put it another way, such racism can be characterized as an “anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Middle Eastern, anti-South Asian, anti-turban, anti-Hussein/Hussain/Middle-Eastern-sounding-name” kind of racism.
All such conflations, homogenizations, and erasures of racial, national, and geographical specificities point to a hegemonically constituted historic bloc—to use the Italian Marxist-Leninist theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci’s famous terms—a bloc characterized by racism, that construes all Muslims or Arabs as terrorists within the long-standing tradition of American popular culture. The racist assumptions about the Islamic world and the misconceptions of Islam have indeed escalated since 9/11. In the dominant ideology, Islam equals terrorism, and Muslim-majority countries are terrorist countries and hence any one seemingly associated with them in any way (through last names or otherwise) is considered suspect. These sweeping generalizations of Islam and of the Muslim world—including the Arab world, and by extension, the East—are, of course, what Edward Said theorizes and critiques not only in his major work Orientalism, but also in his documentary and historical work called Covering Islam.