Widespread ignorance of the Arab-American community (opinion)
I’ve been in the United States for 14 years now, and not a day has gone by that I don’t remember my Arabness.
While some people are legitimately curious about what it means to be Arab-American, others make comments that range from naïve microaggressions to outright racism. I still remember the first academic orientation I attended after being hired as an assistant professor, when after introducing myself, co-workers asked me for a recipe for hummus – as if somehow another being Arab automatically meant that I was an excellent cook or had access to the secret ingredient that Arabs use in their food.
I wish I could say it was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. And my humanity is often thus reduced to a single element of my culture.
I’ve also had people ask me if I’ve ever ridden a camel, had to walk behind my dad, or grown up in a tent. People asked me “jokingly” if I knew how to make pipe bombs out of detergents. I’ve also had people call me an “angry Arab” and tell me to keep my voice down and learn how to speak appropriately to Americans.
While I can swallow my pride, bite my tongue, and spill the hummus recipe’s top-secret ingredient (spoiler: it’s chickpeas), I have to admit that the other comments hurt. And I am not generalizing when I say that my experience is not unique, as it reflects the reality of most, if not all, Arab Americans.
For such comments and questions reveal an alarming level of incomprehension, even ignorance, of the Arab-American community, a population of approximately three to four million. They indicate the internalization of an orientalist and colonialist image of Arabs, an image that reduces us to simplistic or dangerous stereotypes in which we are perceived as either dark and dangerous (usually in the case of those who identify as male ) or as oppressed and vulnerable (usually in the case of those who identify as female or gay). Moreover, these comments and questions imply that we do not belong, that we are strangers, eternal strangers in the United States with our different food, dress code and traditions.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Arab-American community is not new to America. Our history dates back to the early 1800s, when thousands of migrants arrived from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, a time when the region was mainly under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Today, according to the Arab American Institute, “the majority of Arab Americans were born in the country and nearly 82% of Arabs in the United States are citizens.”
Yet despite this history, Arab Americans are treated as foreigners and non-Americans. Surprisingly, we are also considered white.
White without any white privilege
Legally, Arab Americans and Middle Easterners must identify as white on federal forms, in part because of the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited access to US citizenship to white immigrants. As Khaled A. Beydoun demonstrates in his study “Between Muslim and White: The Legal Construction of Arab-American Identity,” the legal system in the United States has confused – and continues to confuse – the identities of Arabs and Muslims. . And because Muslims could not be considered white, Arabs could not be considered white either. This racist policy which remained in effect until 1952 forced many Arabs, especially Christian Arabs, to assimilate whiteness to secure their citizenship.
Additionally, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas to reduce immigration from Asia. Countries like Syria and Lebanon were deemed racially inferior, which greatly reduced the migration of their population to the United States, and the few people admitted had to claim to be white.
The narrative surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks has largely contributed to the racialization of Islam and the confusion of Muslims with Arabs and Middle Easterners. With this confusion has come the rise of Islamophobia and hate crimes against a community that is legally considered white but is treated as non-white and without any white privilege. The 2017 “Muslim ban,” which restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States, exacerbated these trends.
Despite prejudice and discrimination, Arab Americans and Middle Easterners are expected to tick the white box on all federal forms, meaning our lived reality does not match our legal identification. The consequences of this dissonance are severe, making us feel invisible in the eyes of the law. We’re not counted in the U.S. Census, crucial for allocating federal funds for services like student financial aid, health care, education, and more. Arab Americans and Middle Easterners are also not fully protected by law as an underrepresented group, which, for example, makes attacks on Arabs possibly exempt from prosecution under federal anti-terrorism laws. hate crimes. Nor do we benefit from affirmative action.
Efforts have been made to modify the most recent census and add a MENA category – a Middle East/North Africa box – an addition that would cover people from the Arab world and Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Turkey. But, under the Trump administration, the US Office of Management and Budget crushed the petition.
The battle is not over; researchers continue to push for a census amendment. Their motivation is based on academic scholarship, but also on the important fact that most Arab Americans and Middle Easterners do not identify as white. Also, most Americans don’t see us as white. Recently, the Census Bureau announced that it would investigate the matter again for the 2030 count.
The impact on higher education now
Today, campus reports of racial bias and racist incidents may be inaccurate because such offenses against Arab Americans and Middle Easterners fall into the “white” category. Campus reports might have a category for religious bias, which will certainly capture instances of Islamophobia, but they will rarely, if ever, include racism against non-Muslim Arab Americans and Middle Easterners.
This means that if a person is Arab or Middle Eastern and labeled as “dirty Arab”, it does not fall under religious prejudice but under “white on white crime”. So Muslim Arabs and Middle Easterners may have a thin layer of protection, but non-Muslims have none.
The absence of a MENA category also means that institutions do not know who their students, professors, staff and alumni of Arab and Middle Eastern origin are. Institutions cannot trace their achievements or failures. They also cannot assess their students’ performance on admissions tests or academic needs. They cannot tell stories of successful alumni or reach out to wealthy among them asking for financial support.
During the pandemic, many institutions reached out to students from underrepresented groups to assess their physical and mental needs and inquire about their living conditions. Arab-American and Middle Eastern students were excluded from these statistics because they were forced to check the white box on admission forms. And when it comes to scholarships and financial aid, these students usually fall through the cracks as well.
For Arab American and Middle Eastern teachers, the obstacles are different but equally difficult. Students from underrepresented groups and international students tend to perceive us as professors of color or foreign professors. As a result, they seek our help much more than white teachers, so like other teachers of color, we often have a higher volume of service – and a volume that often goes unrecognized by institutions.
Moreover, Arab and Middle Eastern professors – especially non-tenured ones of us who teach controversial subjects such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the 2003 Iraq war – must either restrict their own academic freedom in s abstaining from sharing certain facts or thoughts, or navigating emotions and accommodating their frailties. This preoccupation with how to teach and what to teach has an emotional impact on many of us, as we also have to worry about student and peer assessments.
In addition, Arab American and Middle Eastern faculty, students, and staff are not taken into account when institutions plan their recruitment and retention policies. Wrongly viewed as white, our contributions to diversity are simply dismissed.
Moreover, there is a void in the curriculum: the study of the Arab world and the Middle East is often limited to departments of history, political science or Middle Eastern studies, where courses tend to focus on Arabic language and Islam, wars and terrorism. , oil and wealth in the Arabian Peninsula, and the oppression of women. Beyond a handful of institutions, one rarely sees courses on Arabic music or literature, cultural and religious diversities in the Middle East, or topics that emphasize the beauty of the Arab and Middle worlds. -Oriental.
And research grants rarely view Arab-American and Middle Eastern scholars as underrepresented groups, and most grants see the Arab world and the Middle East as a scary place that needs to be studied and examined from all angles. corners. A lot of money is invested in studies on security and terrorism.
In short, Arab Americans and Middle Easterners feel both visible and invisible. We are visible because our identities carry the burden of political significance. Yet we are invisible because the law mistakenly considers us white, but white without privilege.
It’s time to change. Higher education institutions, especially those committed to equity and diversity, must join the fight and push for recognition of the MENA category. They should also add the MENA category on all their forms to give Arab American and Middle Eastern communities the visibility and protection we deserve.
Maybe then – when the MENA category is accepted, the census changed, and Arab American and Middle Eastern teachers properly recognized – I wouldn’t be so offended when asked for the hummus recipe. I will be happy to give it away and add the one for baba ghanouj as well.