Arab-American Heritage Month: ‘Being counted as white does not reflect our everyday experiences’

“You ask 10 different people what it means to be Arab, and you might get 10 different answers.”

This is how Danny Hajjar, 31, of Lebanese-American origin and who grew up in Boston, describes the diversity and richness of Arab and Arab-American identities.

“Lebanese, for example, have a different idea of ​​what it means to be Arab compared to Moroccans,” he told CNN. Hajjar now lives in Washington DC.

But with this complexity can come frustration, especially in a country like the United States. Due to slavery and the racial caste system it created, American society tends to view race and ethnicity through the limited categories of black and white.

“I always tick ‘other’ and then write in Middle Eastern, Lebanese or Arabic,” Hajjar said. “I remember, distinctly, when I was applying to high school — I went to a private high school — I checked ‘other’ and the admissions person asked me what I was, and when I I said, they changed it to White. I still can’t believe it happened. It was really something.”

In other words, while the treatment of identity in the United States is robust and rigorous in some respects, it is impoverished in others. And there are consequences.

“Our community is particularly disadvantaged because we lack the ability to accurately communicate our identity on census and other survey data, which means that the socio-economic challenges of our heavily first-generation communities and of immigrants, as well as the wide range of disease-related environmental issues specific to our ethnic population, are undocumented,” said 20-year-old Nooralhuda Sami.

Originally from Iraq, Sami and her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, one of the US cities with the most densely populated Arab community, in 2010.

“There are so many repercussions of this (lack of data and visibility) in Dearborn that I observed growing up. Especially in South Dearborn – racism, classism and capitalism, and extremely serious respiratory illnesses among its refugee residents and Yemenis,” Sami added.

As the United States celebrates Arab American Heritage Month, it is important to recognize the long history of the community, which extends to the late 19th centurywhen Arabs began immigrating to the United States to escape conflict, persecution, and other hardships.

How are they made invisible?

Arab Americans can trace their origins to 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet on records such as the census and even on medical records, American society tends to see this dimension of diversity with little nuance – when it sees it at all.
Based on standards set by the Office of Management and Budget, there are seven categories of race and ethnicity data: Native American or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, white, Hispanic or Latino, and not Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 census program note.

As a result, Arab Americans must select “White” or “Other” on the census and similar data products.

It should be noted that the Census Bureau only recognizes seven of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco and Jordan in its ancestry survey. People who write in “Arabic” or “Arabic” are listed in the “Arabic” subcategory, and those who write from one of the other countries are counted as “Other Arabic”. The Census Bureau also counts people who write in Kurdish and Amazigh as “other Arabs”. Although Kurds and Amazighs originate from the Middle East and North Africa region, they are ethnic minorities and do not identify as Arabs.

“We are the invisible minority. We are treated like a minority in every aspect, but we identify as white. White people are not a minority in this country,” said Samer Khalaf, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a grassroots organization, told CNN.

“Because we’re uncounted, because we’re invisible, we don’t get the culturally and linguistically competent help that many other communities get, whether it’s mental health resources or information about Covid-19,” he added. “We don’t get these resources because we’re white and belong to the generic white community that doesn’t get help based on need.”

This invisibility, this lack of a more granular identifier or category, can have psychological consequences.

Consider Ayia AlMufti, 23, born in Iraq just before the US invasion. She said that, having grown up in a predominantly white community in post-9/11 Detroit, she encountered anti-Arab racism everywhere, especially in comments about her background and faith.

“For many of us, being counted as white does not reflect our daily experiences,” AlMufti said. “We know we’re not invisible to the government. They see us clearly. We wouldn’t be the target of discriminatory counterterrorism programs if they didn’t.”

The whitewashing of Arab Americans, she added, resembles cultural dispossession, “a violent act of erasing our existence and diminishing our collective identity and power.”

Basically, visibility is not always a simple good. Sometimes this can be accompanied by increased vulnerability.

“Some people think that identifying (as Arab-American) can put a target on their backs, so we have to think about that as well,” AlMufti said.

Yet there are many benefits to ensuring greater visibility on the census and elsewhere.

“An identifier is important for every reason we can think of,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It’s important for the trillion-plus federal budget, voter registration ballots, ESL classes. I don’t see how data and information doesn’t affect lives. For us to be made from a data point of view invisible, it hurts the community.”

What is the geography?

The Arab population of the United States is just north of 2 million, according to the 2020 ancestry survey. But advocacy groups say there is a serious undercount of the community due to the lack of a more concrete identifier.

Most Arabs in the United States live in and just outside major cities on the coasts and in the Midwest. Wayne County (which includes Detroit) in Michigan, Cook County (which includes Chicago) in Illinois, Los Angeles County in California, and Kings County in New York have the largest Arab populations of the country, according to the survey.

Even with the clusters on the coasts and in the Midwest, it is clear that the distribution of the Arab population across the country is as vast as the roughly two dozen member countries of the community can trace their roots.

How did they propel American society forward?

Arab Americans have long been key elements of the national fabric.

On April 1, President Joe Biden celebrated April as Arab-American Heritage Month and expressed his gratitude to the community “for representing the best of who we are.”
“The history and history of the Arab-American community is deeply rooted in the diversity of America’s tapestry,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “On this National Arab-American Heritage Month, I thank the community for all you have done to help us move forward.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a similar message that day.

“Immigrants from the Arab world arrived in the United States before our country’s independence and have contributed to our country’s progress in science, business, technology, foreign policy, and security. national,” Blinken said. “The litany is long and includes Private Nathan Badeen, a Syrian immigrant who fought and gave his life during the American Revolution.”

The contributions of Arab Americans extend far beyond the spheres of foreign policy and national security.

“Former NASA scientist Farouk El-Baz, who led the agency’s study of the geology of the moon before the Apollo 11 landing, comes immediately to mind,” Mahmoud said. El-Hamalawy, member of the Arab Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies group and the communications department. State Department coordinator, told CNN.

“The successes of Lebanese American designer Reem Acra, the late Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran, and Egyptian American actor Rami Malek reinforce these contributions by showing the world that America continues to be the land of possibility and opportunity for all immigrants,” El-Hamalawy added.

Of course, that’s not to say there’s anything close to adequate representation in every aspect of American life. In the US Congress, for example, the number of Arab Americans is still small.

Arab-American Heritage Month is not officially honored by the entire federal government. But it’s not hard to see why it would be important to gain wider recognition.

“For us to claim our place in American society, as so many others have, it is important to be recognized by the government,” said Khalaf, national chairman of the American-Arab Committee Against Discrimination. “We have contributed a lot to this country and its success. We cannot erase or water down that.”

About Wesley V. Finley

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