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“You ask 10 different people what it means to be Arab, and you could get 10 different answers.”
That’s how 31-year-old Danny Hajjar, who’s Lebanese American and grew up in Boston, describes the diversity and richness of Arab and Arab American identities.
“People from Lebanon, for example, have a different idea of what it means to be Arab compared with people from Morocco,” he told CNN. Hajjar now lives in Washington DC.
But with that complexity can come frustration, especially in a country such as the US. Because of slavery and the system of racial caste that it created, US 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 Arab,” Hajjar said. “I remember, distinctly, when I was applying to high school – I went to a private high school – I ticked ‘other’ and the admissions person asked me what I was, and when I told them, they changed it to White. I still can’t believe that happened. That was really something.”
Put a little bit differently, while the treatment of identity in the US is robust and rigorous in some ways, it’s impoverished in others. And there are consequences.
“Our community is uniquely disadvantaged because we’re not granted the ability to accurately communicate our identity on the census and other survey data, meaning that the socioeconomic challenges of our heavily first-generation and immigrant communities, as well as the wide range of environmentally linked diseases specific to our ethnic population, are undocumented,” 20-year-old Nooralhuda Sami said.
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 I observed growing up. Most notably in the south end of Dearborn – racism, classism and capitalism, and extremely high respiratory illnesses among its refugee and Yemeni residents,” Sami added.
As the US celebrates Arab American Heritage Month, it’s important to acknowledge the community’s long history, which stretches to the end of the 19th century, when Arabs started to immigrate to the US to escape conflict, persecution and other hardships.
How are they rendered 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 paperwork, US society tends to see this dimension of diversity with little nuance – when it sees it at all.
Based on the standards set by the Office of Management and Budget, there are seven categories for data on race and ethnicity: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White, Hispanic or Latino, and non-Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 census program memorandum.
As a result, Arab Americans must select “White” or “other” on the census and similar data products.
It’s worth noting that the Census Bureau acknowledges just seven of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco and Jordan in its ancestry survey. People who write in “Arab” or “Arabic” are listed under the “Arab” subcategory, and those who list one of the other countries are counted as “other Arab.” The Census Bureau also tabulates people who write in Kurd and Amazigh as “other Arab.” Though Kurds and the Amazigh originate from the Middle East and North Africa region, they’re ethnic minorities and don’t identify as Arab.
“We’re the invisible minority. We’re treated as a minority in all aspects, but we’re identified as White. White isn’t a minority in this country,” Samer Khalaf, the national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a grassroots organization, told CNN.
“Because we’re not counted, 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 Covid-19 information,” he added. “We don’t get those resources because we’re White and fall under the generic White community that doesn’t get needs-based assistance.”
This invisibility, this lack of a more granular identifier or category, can take a psychological toll.
Consider 23-year-old Ayia AlMufti, who was born in Iraq right before the US invasion. She said that, growing up in a largely White community in Detroit in the post-9/11 era, she encountered anti-Arab racism everywhere, particularly in comments about her background and her faith.
Such experiences structured her and many other young Arab Americans’ thinking about race and identity.
“For so many of us, being counted as White doesn’t reflect our day-to-day experiences,” AlMufti said. “We know that we’re not invisible to the government. They clearly see us. We wouldn’t be the targets of discriminatory counterterrorism programs if they didn’t.”
The whitewashing of Arab Americans, she added, feels like a dispossession of culture, “a violent act of erasing our existence and diminishing our collective identity and power.”
Crucially, visibility isn’t always an uncomplicated good. At times, it can be attended by heightened vulnerability.
“Some people think that identifying themselves (as Arab American) can put a target on their back, so we have to think about it from that side as well,” AlMufti said.
Still, there are lots of benefits to securing greater visibility on the census and elsewhere.
“An identifier is important for every single reason we can think of,” said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It’s important for the trillion dollar-plus federal budget, the voter registration ballots, the classes for English as a second language. I can’t think of a way that data and information don’t affect everyday life. For us to be rendered invisible data-wise, it’s harming the community.”
What’s the geography?
The Arab population of the US is just north of 2 million, according to the 2020 ancestry survey. But advocacy groups say that there’s a severe undercount of the community due to the lack of a more concrete identifier.
Most Arabs in the US live in and just outside of big 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 country’s largest Arab populations, per the survey.
Even with the clusters on the coasts and in the Midwest, it’s clear that the distribution of the Arab population across the country is as wide-ranging as the nearly two dozen countries members of the community can trace their roots back to.
How have they propelled US society forward?
Arab Americans have long been key components of the national fabric.
On April 1, President Joe Biden celebrated April as Arab American Heritage Month and expressed gratitude to the community “for representing the best of who we are.”
“The history and story of the Arab American community is deeply woven into the diverse tapestry of America,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “This National Arab American Heritage Month, I thank the community for all that you have done to help move us forward.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a similar message that day.
“Immigrants with origins from the Arab world have been arriving to the United States since before our country’s independence and have contributed to our nation’s advancements in science, business, technology, foreign policy and national security,” Blinken said. “The litany is long and includes Private Nathan Badeen, a Syrian immigrant who fought and gave his life during the American Revolution.”
Arab Americans’ contributions 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 moon’s geology prior to the Apollo 11 landing, comes immediately to mind,” Mahmoud El-Hamalawy, a member of the Arab Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies group and the communications coordinator for the Department of State, told CNN.
“The successes of Lebanese American designer Reem Acra, the late Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran and the Egyptian American actor Rami Malek reinforce those contributions by showcasing to the world that America continues to be the land of possibility and opportunity for all immigrants,” El-Hamalawy added.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that there’s anything close to adequate representation throughout all aspects of US life. In the US Congress, for instance, the number of Arab Americans is still meager.
Arab American Heritage Month isn’t officially honored by the entire federal government. But it isn’t difficult to detect why securing broader recognition would be significant.
“For us to claim our place in US society, as so many others have done, it’s important to be recognized by the government,” Khalaf, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee national president, said. “We’ve contributed a lot to this country and to its success. We can’t have that erased or watered down.”