Understanding the Complexity of Arab American Heritage Month
Good afternoon and happy Arab American Heritage Month!
For the last six years, organizations like the Arab American Foundation have worked to advocate for the celebration of the contributions of Arab Americans in our country. However, before we can get into the details of what this month means, we must recognize the complexity of who and what is encompassed within the diverse Arab community.
First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the challenges in talking about race and ethnicity in a country where, per the United States Census, we only track data on five races and two ethnicities, none of which include Arab. However, it is largely understood that the identifier of Arab is ethno-linguistic, meaning it groups people together based on their native (or generationally native) language. There are 26 countries or territories in western Asia and Africa where Arabic is the official or one of the official languages of the state, however only 22 of them are a part of the League of Arab States. Like many other groups, there is nuance in how, if at all, a person from these areas identifies as Arab.
Here are the who, what, where, when, and why of Arab American Heritage Month.
- WHO: Kahlil Gibran, an Arab American writer, poet, and philosopher, is the inspiration for Arab America Foundation’s (AAF) mission. Kahlil created an organization called Al Rabitah, the Connection, to promote and preserve Arab American history, and AAF seeks to continue that cause.
- WHAT: The first official proclamation recognizing Arab American Heritage Month was issued by President Biden in 2022.
- WHERE: Nearly four million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country, but the majority of them live in just eleven states, one of which is Ohio!
- WHEN: Arab America and Arab America Foundation launched the first National Arab American Heritage Month Initiative in 2017
- WHY: Arab America Foundation notes the negative and stereotypical portrayals of Arab people inspired the creation of the initiative; it is an effort to “build a systematic and comprehensive campaign to celebrate the Arab heritage, enhance understanding, and connect Arabs across America.”
These negative portrayals and generalizations about Arab people are often forged in ignorance and supported by stereotypes; one of the most common pieces of misinformation is the false conflation between being Arab, a cultural identity, and being Muslim, a religious identity. There are over 1.2 billion people in the world that identify as Muslim, making it the 2nd most popular religion in the world, however not all of those people are Arab. Contrastingly, less than one-third of Arab Americans identify as Muslim, with the majority of them identifying as Christian. Even though Islamophobia is the hostility towards or “fear” of Muslim people, it still greatly impacts (non-Muslim) Arab Americans.
Here are three ways that you can push back against anti-Arab sentiments this month and beyond.
- Uncouple religious identities with ethnic identities: To be clear, Arab people should not have to prove their religion in order to be protected from Islamophobia. No one should be subject to persecution based on any identity, real or perceived. But it’s not just the mistaken conclusion that all Arab Americans are Muslim that is indicative of how we “box” people in; African American Jews, Asian American Catholics, and so many other intersectional identities are unintentionally erased when we don’t think critically about people’s lived experiences.
- Be critical of the media you consume: Mass media and negative portrayals of certain communities is a shared experience of many marginalized communities, but the experiences of Arab Americans is unique. From politics to contemporary television, Arab people (and Muslims, see point 1) are often portrayed as the “Three B’s” – billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers. These stereotypes not only present issues for Arab Americans in the entertainment industry, but they encourage anti-Arab sentiment in real life.
- Check out this list of 12 shows and movies that have positive portrayals of Arab people, many of which are created by Arab people.
- Advocate for Arab folks to be counted: It’s not just the fact that representation is important; when we don’t appropriately count racial and ethnic groups, we have no way of knowing what is the actual diversity of our country. And when we don’t have those numbers, we aren’t able to track needs of communities, nor are we able to create funding opportunities to address those needs. The Arab America Institute is organizing to include “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) in the 2030 Census.
- Important consideration – there is some pushback against the use of “MENA,” as “Middle Eastern” is a Western phrase or construct. Many Arab people have been using “Southwest Asian and North African” (SWANA) to more accurately represent their geographical origins.
- Bonus! Check out these resources from the Arab American National Museum to learn more about the rich history of Arab people.
In order for all of our communities to succeed, we must continue to learn about each other. Be sure to mark your calendars and join us for the next Casual Conversations: Arab American Heritage Month on Tuesday, April 18th at noon.
Read our post on March’s focus topic: Women’s History Month.