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Bare Biceps and American (In)Security: Post-9/11 Constructions of Safe(ty), Threat, and the First Black First Lady
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Bare Biceps and American (In)Security:
Post-9/11 Constructions of Safe(ty), Threat, and the First Black First Lady

[The] stigmatization of African American women becomes thought and practice for each new generation of white Americans. Unfavorable images of black women, like other tainted racial images in the typical white mind, are significant for the survival of the dominant ideology. There is a story that must be told, told well and believed by most white men, women, and children for the meaning of whiteness and of the United States as a “white republic” to be sustained.

—Yanick St. Jean and Joe R. Feagin, Double Burden: Black Women and Everyday Racism

Safe(ty) and Threat in a Post-9/11 United States

We begin this essay by presuming several lessons of a post-9/11 United States and its post-9/11 culture: (1) the post-9/11 United States is a world fundamentally altered by the perceptions, explanations, and rhetoric surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath; (2) because of the particular interpretation of 9/11 by Americans, ideas about safety (or being safe) are inextricably linked to ideas about threats (or being threatened); and (3) since September 11, 2001, Americans (the government and the people) have functioned on the premise that the attainment of safety is inversely correlated with combating or eliminating threats.

Within this essay, we do not mean to imply that the dichotomy of “safe(ty) versus threat” is a new one. Throughout the history of the United States, binaries have functioned to motivate citizens’ perceptions of who resides inside and outside the category “us.” Those interpreted as “safe” have been permitted inclusion within the category “us,” while those deemed unsafe or threatening have been denied access and relegated to the outside. However, we do claim that recent articulations of “safety versus threat” are a direct result of post-9/11 efforts to reshape the contours of the “us versus them” binary, reflecting and constructing American anxieties around specific [End Page 200] individuals and groups in the process. More important, recent efforts to recraft “safety-us” and “threat-them” have demonstrated both historical continuities and new developments in a post-9/11 United States.

Because of the heavy and relentless rhetoricization of 9/11 by the George W. Bush administration, safety (that is, being safe) became synonymous with security (both personal and collective). In turn, security became equated with protecting the nation and its citizenry, which required “constant articulations of the category ‘un-American’”—a category deemed unsafe and in need of containment (Bloodsworth-Lugo and Lugo-Lugo 2010). Thus, when we deploy the notion of “safe” in the present essay, we intend to reference the collective sense of security among Americans that demanded and continues to require—in a post-9/11 context—the constant identification and containment of threats primarily to the United States and the American people. Since the early moments of the G. W. Bush administration, “safe(ty)” has been inextricably linked to well-rehearsed ideas, images, and understandings concerning ways in which certain groups present a threat to Americans and about possibilities for their constraint and suppression.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has sought safety by diligently identifying threats to its “way of life” and its “people,” both within and beyond its legal and physical borders. As we argue elsewhere, the United States has located “terrorist” threats within groups and individuals deviating from the image of the patriotic, Christian, straight, white, United States–born American (Bloodsworth-Lugo and Lugo-Lugo 2010). Those falling outside the “American” construct—Middle Easterners, Muslims, immigrants to the United States, and gay men/lesbians/same-sex couples, to name a few—have been beleaguered and controlled via various techniques of containment. These techniques have included national and international “policies, military occupation, state discourse, and overarching rhetoric surrounding citizenship vis-à-vis the War on Terror and 9/11” (2). In contrast to those deemed “safe,” “threatening” bodies have been constructed as (imminent) dangers to the security of the United States and the American people. Identifying threats and ways...