Do Arabs Experience Antisemitism? (Part 2-Arab Americans)

In part 1 of this post, I discussed the scapegoating and oppression of Palestinians within an "antisemitism" framework. I referenced the zine "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements." I also added the following disclaimer, which applies to this post as well:

I often struggle with finding accurate language in discussions of race and ethnicity, and I’ve heard others say that they desire more sophisticated terms for these discussions. You can take this post as an exploration of options, as well as an attempt to illuminate similarities in experiences, but not as an attempt to quantify or homogenize experience.

While I wrote about Palestinians specifically in Part 1, it was as an Arab American first that some of the ideas explored in the zine resonated most with me.

Upon immigration, Jewish Americans experienced discrimination as a group, but were able to transition into whiteness within one or two generations. In present day, I've read writings by Jewish Americans (none of which I can find online now) lamenting their ancestors' rush to assimilate, often resulting in phantom pains; missing something that one may never have experienced, only heard or read about. Despite the reracialization of European-descended Jews as white, and the visibility and mobilization of Jewish watchdog groups (some of which function less as media justice advocates and more as Zionist thugs bent on crushing all criticism of Israel), there is still active anti-Jewish sentiment in our society spread across diverse demographics. There is also the issue of defining one's identity according to a cultural tragedy; when reading about the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish identity formation, I immediately thought about the impact of all these wars, massacres and genocidal starvation campaigns and their impact on our identity formation. For these reasons, I use this framework to think about how to name and describe this particular experience of being Arab American.

I always felt like we, as so-called members of the "white race" (according to the US Census, on opinion apparently not shared by the US government), could someday find ourselves in this position, assimilated and entirely confused about how we got there. Many members of the early generation of Arab immigrants find themselves in this situation; not visibly recognizable as Arab due to intermarriage and misguided assumptions about what Arabs look like, not recognizable by name due to the anglicizing of many names during the process of immigration, and likely not identifying with Arab culture at all (which isn't a prerequisite for being Arab). From the American University of Beirut's June 2004 bulletin, on Alia Malek's lecture, “The Racialization of Arab-Americans in the Contemporary United States”:

“In US history, there have been two main races: whites and blacks,” she pointed out, and Arabs visibly fell into the privileged category, at least historically. “There was a time when assimilation meant survival. So they assimilated,” said Malek. “Many changed their difficult-to-pronounce last names. They were mostly Christians, so they were of the ‘right’ religion and celebrated all the same holidays. There was nothing to flag their differences.”
But assimilation also meant invisibility, and with it the potential evaporation of power and voice. The Arab-American immigrants of that period were seemingly willing to make those sacrifices.
Several decades later, a new wave of immigrants arrived, “fresh off the boat” with funny names and different religions.

Assimilation was not as easy for this wave of immigrants, nor was it necessarily desirable or vital to survival. Because of the new immigration laws, immigrants could bring the whole family over as long as they had the money to do it. Ethnic enclaves and community support systems emerged. Despite the reluctance to assimilate, these immigrants still operated with a higher level of privilege than other communities of color and were able to benefit from economic opportunities that weren't/aren't necessarily available to other communities.

While I was generally unclear about whether or not Arabs where white for most of my life, I've come to recognize the "whitening" of Arabs in America as a clear tactic for social control of both us and those less privileged than us. We are pressured by the dominant culture to change our names and forget our culture. We are promised a freedom that never comes. We are put in the position of acting as a buffer between white people and black people, or as an intermediary (similiar to experiences described in the zine I referenced at the beginning of this article). If our skin is light enough, our features ambiguous enough, and our name anglo enough, we can transition into whiteness. Many of us already have.

And yet we are the first people the collective United States looks to when there has been a tragedy. When there is a bombing, we are the first suspects. Mass shooting? Power outage? Fuel shortage? Must have been an Arab.** Despite all our integration into American society, and despite the assimilation of previous generations of Arab Americans, we still become such easy scapegoats for all the problems in American society (a position we unfortunately share with other non-white communities).

After September 11th, Arabs who thought they were white realized they weren't, precisely because white people don't receive the same kind of treatment in the media, on the streets, in their homes and business and places of worship, just for being white, that we did/do for being Arab. This is as simply as I can put it. But I strongly disagree with the idea that we were all living happy white people lives before that Tuesday morning. I know I wasn't. Were you?

As a kid, I loved the movie True Lies, largely due to the fact that while my mom said I was too young to see it, I could watch it at my dad's house without her knowing about it. My cousins and I crowded around the TV without any understanding of the greater implications of this manner of representation. We didn't know that we would be equated with the terrorist villians in the film, because we did not consider ourselves terrorists. In other people's homes, the very same film was a cog in a propaganda machine, teaching them that this is what we are like; we are animalistic and violent terrorists, nothing more. Prior to 9/11, general public perception of Arabs was still negative. We are represented statically in mainstream media in a way that clearly supports US military operations in our home countries and legal discrimination against us on American soil.

Wherever there is an Arab explaining the racism they've experienced, there is someone ready with the cliché that "Arabs don't experience racism because they aren't a race." While I agree that our language is vastly inadequate in terms of discussing discrimination and injustice, denying the very real experiences of Arabs is not the way to solve this problem. This abstract for 'The Social Construction of Difference, the Essential Terrorist, and the Arab Amerian Experience' by Louise Cainkar puts it quite well:

Although officially white, Arab Americans appear to have undergone a racializing experience that differs in historical timing and pretext from that of other negatively racialized groups. Since the darkening of Arabs began in earnest after the establishment of “non-white minority” categories, scholars of race have largely overlooked their experiences and dominant theories of ethnic integration don’t fit. The deterioration in Arab American experiences is tied to the emergence of the United States as a global superpower and the use of essentialist constructions of human difference, as in the inherently violent Arab, as primary justifications for global political actions. These notions have been corporealized, as if they were about color, because race remains a powerful tool in American society and is something Americans know and understand. After the 9/11 attacks, widespread belief in negative images of Arab Americans facilitated public attribution of collective responsibility and gave rise to hate crimes against them. Theories about race and ethnic integration need to consider the impacts of processes that are more recent and global, and the consequences of discourses that appear acceptable because they hide behind ideas about cultures and civilizations.

Malek argues that racialization can be positive in the way that it allows us to relate to other marginalized groups, but I think it's important not to confuse this with a positive experience just because it finally gives us the language to speak about our experiences. I also think it is vital that we don't confuse our particular experience with the experiences of other groups; they are all different and we do a disservice to ourselves and our movements when we fail to acknowledge these very real and potentially divisive differences.

I agree that recognizing and naming what happens to us as racism is important, because it provides us with an understanding of where these anti-Arab attitudes come from as well as providing a framework within which we can better understand the experiences of other communities of color when we have not personally lived those same experiences. I think this is exemplary of a huge pitfall of the use of the term "antisemitism;" it positions itself as something different than racism when I don't know that it is any different. The same argument is made that "there is no such thing as racism against Jews because Jewish is not a race." But what about where the sentiment originates, and what about it's end result? While the experiences can be very different than those experienced by those communities typically considered victims of racism, are the experiences so different that the same single word is not accurate enough to describe them both? Which word gets closer to the truth of the experience? We Arabs*** are in a unique position to consider what it means to be privileged within the oppressed (and I say this with the knowledge that many of you will disagree with me), and without incorrectly conflating our experiences with those of others, in a unique position to build alliances across communities. Or we can complain about how much more oppressed we are than everyone else is while continually aspiring to have, in essence, "what the white man has." I see strong currents moving in both directions. What do you see?


*I learned the term "honorary white" from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, but honestly I don't know that much about sociology.
**This, in large part, includes Muslims, Desis as well, largely due to American cultural literacy where there is little understanding of the differences between these groups.
***Does it go without saying that many of the opportunities for assimilation I speak about aren't typically open to black Arabs? If not, I'd like to say it now.
And a third note: in most of this article, I am writing from personal experience or knowledge I gained from cultural sources, which is why I make numerous assertions that aren't backed by a cited source. You are free to disagree with me and offer your opinion in the comments.
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About Nadia Abou-Karr

Nadia is a Palestinian-American writer based in Detroit. She recently received a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Wayne State University and plans to pursue graduate studies in Visual Culture/Criticism. She is an artist, writer, media maker and activist. Currently Nadia is working with the Allied Media Conference, TheCulturalConnect, and writing for Detroit's Metro Times. She has written and contributed to numerous different zines and independent publications, and blogs at Her interests include printmaking, fiber arts, Palestinian liberation, women of color feminism and art theory.

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