Jihad Jane Upsets Notions of “White” and “Woman”

Long before 9/11, Americans had a firm understanding of what terrorists looked like. They’re assumed to be of Middle Eastern descent and, predominantly, men. With these characteristics in mind, racial and gender profiling have been implemented to make the country safer (supposedly): Brown male bodies signify danger.

The federal indictment of Colleen R. LaRose, a.k.a. “Jihad Jane,” has problematized this conception. LaRose is not only a woman, but a white, blonde, blue-eyed suburban American. The Montreal Gazette refers to her as “a Main Street, U.S.A. girl,” and it quotes Michael L. Levy, chief prosecutor of East Pennsylvania, as saying, “The case shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance.”

White womanhood is a complex identity, because even as it is reviled to ensure the perpetuation of patriarchy it is also uplifted to ensure White supremacy. But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, a religion many westerners view as violent despite its core teachings and the behavior of most followers–she disassociated herself from Whiteness. And that made it impossible for commentators to once again apologize for a White American who commits domestic terrorism.

When Joe Stack flew his plane into an Austin IRS building recently, his Whiteness caused him to be understood as simply an angry man who felt trapped by the system rather than a representative of his race. Republican Texas gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina added to this construction by stating that Stack’s actions are reflective of “the hopelessness that many in our society feel.” Though Medina was quick to say, “You cannot excuse that kind of behavior,” she also called Stack’s final flight “an act of desperation.” Few have been willing to label him the domestic terrorist that he is, despite the fact that he left a lengthy manifesto describing his alienation.

More than gender separates Stack and LaRose. Stack did not frame his actions in language that Westerners associate with Middle Eastern terrorism and, in fact, many may identify with his gripes against the IRS. Stack was Everyman, his Whiteness never in question, whereas LaRose  abdicated the privilege of her Whiteness.

Whiteness represents light and goodness; black and brown skin embody evil and foreboding. Consider this: Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995,  some were quick to suggest that a Muslim terrorist group was probably responsible. It did not occur to them that such an action could be committed by a White U.S. Army veteran.

Although LaRose complicates the idea of who may be a terrorist, the black/white binary is still affirmed. Since she has declared herself a jihadist, she takes on attributes of the “other,” and thus makes it clear that her ability and/or desire to cause harm does not initiate within Whiteness. David Kris, head of the U.S. Justice Department’s national security division, said the indictment of LaRose “underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face,” suggesting that law enforcement will now be hyper-aware that White citizens of the U.S. may indeed appropriate violent, terrorist strategies.

Even when LaRose has her day in court, the court of social opinion will try to resurrect and refine the purity and goodness of Whiteness. She will be reduced to Jihad Jane, a name that separates her alleged actions from White femininity. Like every other White criminal, she will be seen as an exception rather than the rule. Jihad Jane will serve as a cautionary tale: See, that’s what happens when a White person takes on attributes of the “other.”

Photo courtesy of flickr user itzafineday / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Racial profiling has always incensed me from it’s sheer foolishness – even aside from the horrendous racism of it. We see it even here in the UK, when we have a long history of terrorism coming from white faces – but still people fall onto the oh-so-easy idea that terrorism never comes with a white face

    I saw many commentators ironically question why Joe Stack’s little flight wasn’t sufficient to raise terror alerts – and it is a very telling question. Because it didn’t – because privilege kicked in and we’d never ever judge all white men by the actions of one white man, nor decide that the criminal – the terrorist – actions of one white man were indicative of anything larger than himself. Whiteness benefits from the privilege of being individuals, rather than a group

    It depresses me that they decide she represents the evolving evil of what we face – terrorism has always come in many colours – we’re just blind to that committed by white people. It is only now, after decades, centuries, of white terrorist acts – that we decide terrorism can come from white people – and we only recognise that because she covered her hair and called herself Jihad Jane? That’s a sad indictment – not only of the racism in society – but the blind ignorance of those who are supposed to work for security.

  2. hollytomlinson says:

    This article raises really interesting questions about perceptions of what a terrorist looks like and I agree with Sparky about the horrendous racism and idiocy of racist profiling. I think it’s important to remember that the cause behind an act is also important.

    The use of the term “terrorist” depends not on the actions of the individual, but on whether the person using the term agrees with the cause behind the actions. Commentators didn’t want to label Joe Stack a terrorist, not just because he’s a white American, but also because they and many of their supporters/readers may have anti-tax sentiments. As Renee points out many sympathised with his cause. Jihad Jane, on the other hand was allegedly championing the cause of oppressed Palestinians and Islam, causes which have less sympathy among these same commentators. Both were acts (or alleged planned acts) of violence for a political cause, both are thus as deserving of the term “terrorist”.

  3. Valerie Ann Johnson says:

    Martin’s article and the comments so far highlight for me how who we think we are frames our understanding of violent acts. Framing a violent act as terrorist definitely depends on your viewpoint. I agree with Holly that whether an act is deemed “terrorist” or not depends upon agreement with the cause behind the act.

    I know that my ideas of who could or could not be a terrorist aren’t limited to any one race, ethnicity, religious belief or non-belief, gender, sexuality, class, color………and I am cynical enough to believe that many in the media know it too. It is just that it makes a sellable narrative to present such a one dimensional view of terrorism. A view that has us be incredulous that a blonde haired, blue-eyed petite woman could be so anti-US, such a terrorist.

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  1. [...] examined Jihad Jane’s whiteness in comparison to other instances of domestic terrorism, as Renee Martin of Ms. Blog does here. As Martin writes: But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, [...]

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