The President’s rhetoric on Muslims was a catalyst for bigotry, not because his claims of universal radicalism were legitimate, but because it echoed the story of the Arab Villain. The character development of the quintessential Arab, with their thick accents, traditional hijab, and radical ideology, has been essential in shaping our foreign policy for the last 30 years. This has stereotyped an entire region, as demonstrated by an attempted ban. America has a history of creating hostile environments for immigrants, and in particular for Arab-Americans, by constructing a persona that misrepresents the dynamic racial and religious identities of the Middle East. As an Arab female raised in a predominately white South Florida community, I have not only been in the crosshairs of this misrepresentation, but also have had a personal struggle with my own racial identity as a result.
Currently in the United States, Arabs are identified as “white” by law, despite recent efforts to include a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) category on the U.S. Census. To be “white” in America is to now be classified under the security blanket of whiteness that protects against the former classification — Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Protestant — that once excluded you from both interpersonal and institutional social structures. As a child, I marked white on all of my forms, yet there was a clear understanding that I was not viewed this way by my peers. This racial tension is exacerbated by the fact that Arabs are only classified as white due to a history of institutionally racist immigration bans. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was meant to inhibit the acceptance of any non-white persons, including Arabs. This exclusion continued for decades until a legal case was made that the color of our skin lacked enough melanin to be granted a ticket into the golden gates of America, only to be placed at the bottom of the racial hierarchy once inside.
“As an Arab female raised in a predominately white South Florida community, I have had a personal struggle with my own racial identity.”
To say we are white is to say that we have the ability to exercise the comfort of white privilege. It implies that we are void of discrimination and that our white counterparts accept us. Yet, it seems that the majority of discrimination we receive is from the very members of the group we have been placed in. To be called white, while simultaneously being taunted by Arab stereotypes, was detrimental to my own ethnic identity. The racism I tried to distance myself from, but nevertheless experience, is completely unique to the Arab community. We are exposed to a phenomenon I call “weathering by defense” in which we are subjected to the degrading and exhaustive act of trying to enlighten others on our racial and religious spectrum.
Our social survival is dependent on our situational silence of American involvement in the Middle East or overt apology for actions by people we have never met—we are guilty and must prove our innocence rather than “innocent before proven guilty.” As a result, this lead to the rejection of my own culture at a young age. I chose to distance myself from a religion and a country, going so far as to lie about my heritage for fear of being ostracized. Acceptance by my peers was dependent on the “white-washing” of my personal identity.
After my parent’s named my older sibling a traditional Arab name, they later realized their “mistake” and actively chose racially-ambiguous names for their next two children in order to better conform to American culture. My name, my identity in its truest form, serves as the pinnacle event of stripping my ethnic identity to portray a whiter persona. This has ultimately led to comments to excuse racial slurs, such as “but you aren’t that Arab,” a comment that exemplifies our nation’s preconceived notions of a singular Arab identity. This has been damaging to my own self, but also became a missed opportunity for me to be a voice of diversity within my small conservative town and curb the discriminatory practices we now see coming to light.
“Being labeled “white” causes us to be underrepresented in advocacy efforts for minorities and to have a less cohesive lobbying voice.”
The freedom from discrimination can only be achieved if the Arab narrative is altered. As Arabs, we must recognize that being white in America may in theory have benefits, but these benefits are rarely extended to us. Being labeled “white” causes us to be underrepresented in advocacy efforts for minorities and to have a less cohesive lobbying voice. Ethnic pride and dignity in your heritage is a right that should be granted to all children of America. We have not been entitled to the creation of our own narrative or the accurate portrayal of a fluid spectrum of religion and ideology within the region. These efforts to create a positive racial identity begin by calling me what I truly am, rather than placing me in a category that includes the very people who supported discriminatory legislation. Stop calling me white, and then banning my people.