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Color Inside the Lines, Arab American Racial Identity

posted on: Aug 25, 2010

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BY: Khaled A. Beydoun/Contributing Writer

The 2010 US Census re-initiated the debate about where Arab America fits in within the nation’s broader racial order. Reflecting their national, religious and experiential diversity, Arab Americans have affiliated with a range of varying ethnic or racial boxes, spanning from “Caucasian” to the amorphous “Other” designation.

Indeed, this debate has been further complicated by recent sociopolitical happenings that have placed Arab America at the focal point of American media and policy.

Therefore, while prominent government agencies have long pushed Arab Americans to be formally “Caucasian,” does this designation align with the everyday realities of the community, or its future aspirations?

Second, does the designation marginalize segments of the community who are visibly of color? Finally, is the campaign to establish a standalone Arab American ethnic “box” advantageous for the community, or is the notion of one consolidated “community” an obsolete view? This article will engage, and attempt to resolve, these and other related questions.

Apart from the political stereotypes branded on Arab Americans, there are additional mainstream mis-characterizations about the community. First, Arab Americans are largely believed to be Muslim, while the vast worship according to Christian traditions.

Second, Arab Americans are overwhelmingly linked to being from the Levant – which includes Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Therefore, in the national imagination, Arab Americans are believed to look a particular way, and follow cultural traditions that are monolithic.

This is hardly the case. Arabs hail from the far northwestern extreme of Africa, the Gulf, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, the physical appearance of Arabs encompasses every shade of the spectrum, from white to black, which brings about differing perspectives and life experiences when living in America. Many have asked: “if there is no prototypical Arab American, then why should there be a singular Arab American ethnic box?”

The character of this debate is not unique, and Arab America is not alone in its quest for reconciling its ethnic diversity. The diversity of the Latino American community, for instance, is just as rich and broad as Arab America, and provides an illuminating testament about how intra-multiculturalism can be reconciled.

Latino Americans are linked by a common language, or claiming origin from a particular geographic sphere. However, like Arab Americans, Latinos may be dark-complexioned Americans of Dominican or Columbian origin, Argentines who are ethnically Spanish or Italian, Mexican Americans of mestizo origin, or Peruvian Americans who have exclusively indigenous blood.

In spite of this diversity, Latino Americans are united by a common ethnic designation that has led to benefits in the educational, political, and economic realms. This demonstrates that homogeneity is not a prerequisite for a common legal classification, and furthermore, that diversity should be celebrated and viewed as a source of internal strength for the Arab American community.

Abed Ayoub, the Legal Director for the American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC, who hails from Detroit, states, “Arab America is one broad mosaic of different people – we are dark and fair skinned, poor and rich, Muslim, Christian and even Jewish – but our differences do not define us, our commonalities do.” Ayoub is a proponent of the standalone ethnic box.

Mamoun Sulfaib, a Sudanese American who works in the US Senate, echoes Ayoub, but qualifies, “If there was an Arab American box, I would check that and also check the African American category because I identify as Afro-Arab American.” Sulfaib’s point is importance, because the option of identifying with two different groups will be an option for Arab Americans.

A critical step in demystifying mis-characterizations and deflating stereotypes about Arab Americans is to, simply, celebrate its diversity. There is no archetypical Arab American, and the community is in fact an umbrella that encompasses a broad range of communities that are linked by a common heritage, language, cultural norms, and sociopolitical experience in America. These affinities, during this pivotal moment in Arab America’s history, should be viewed as the foundation to launch a common ethnic category.

Arab Americans, of all hues and stripes, must color their own future, and learn to broaden the formal lines that have narrowly defined our racial identities.