By Abeer Shinnawi
On Teaching Arab American Heritage Month
In a statement honoring Arab American Heritage Month, Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, noted:
“The United States is home to more than 3.5 million Arab Americans, representing a diverse array of cultures and traditions. Like their fellow citizens, Americans of Arab heritage are very much a part of the fabric of this nation, and Arab Americans have contributed in every field and profession. Many of them, in fact, serve here at the State Department and throughout the interagency, and their careers are as diverse as their backgrounds. We mark National Arab American Heritage Month noting these contributions that are as old as America itself.”
Although this quote resonates the importance of recognizing the role played by Arab Americans in this country, many people still do not know much about the Arab American communities across the country.
Growing up as a child of Arab American immigrants, the perception of my community has always been one of skepticism and rife with stereotypes. Arab Americans have always been either hyper visible or invisible. What do I mean? Here is a simple breakdown:
Hyper visible: The media portrayal of Arabs has a long history of stereotyping or typecasting Arabs in the single story of aggression or oppression. These ideas are also prevalent in many school curriculums that focus on two stories about Arabs: They are all Muslim, or their life experiences revolve around constant conflict. There are rare incidents when the narrative of Arab Americans is presented in a positive light.
Invisible: Not until recently, the United States census labeled Arabs as “white.” This is due to the history of the first Arabs who migrated to the U.S.; they wanted to be seen as Europeans and not “others,” so therefore chose this label but did not realize the ethnic ramifications that came with a false label. Being labeled as “white” erases any recognition of Arab ethnicity, does not have any value in the larger communities of being “white” and holds no merit when needing to use census data to help create the changes necessary to help Arab communities grow and thrive. This invisible nature is evident in school data. When schools that serve large populations of Arab students try to create focus groups to help address the needs of their Arab students, they are unable to do so because Arab students must pick “white” or “other,” which leaves them vulnerable to being ignored due to lack of understanding how their ethnicity affects their identity, which is not evident when being labeled “white.”
As a first generation Arab American, I always stated that I did not believe I would see much appreciation or acceptance of my people during my lifetime. I was wrong. Although in the infancy stages, the tides are turning to allow spaces for our stories to be told as well as honored. For many, having an entire month dedicated to you may seem like a form of tokenization, but this month can be helpful in creating a changing narrative about your people by sharing resources, telling stories and highlighting major contributions made by your community. As educators, our role is to ensure that we provide access to help educate those who do not know much about Arab Americans, may know but have their own perceptions, and to also allow Arab American students to be proud of their rich heritage having them share their personal experiences with their peers.
Resources for Teaching Arab American Heritage Month
As our country learns to embrace the multiethnic personality it always has had, there cannot be any change in our society without understanding the history of all the groups who created the fabric of our country. To help expand the horizons of the history of Arab Americans for teaching Arab American Heritage Month, here are some resources to share or utilize in your classroom:
Arab American National Museum: This is the first and only museum of its kind in the United States devoted to recording the Arab American experience. Explore online resources like:
Center for Arab American Studies: This is the only academic institution in the United States devoted solely to the study of Arab Americans, located at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Be sure to check out the Halal Metropolis virtual gallery tour, which captures Detroit’s Muslims, focusing on the Arab food scene, politics, the body, and the celebration of Islamic holidays.
The Arab American Institute provides reach on the demographics of the Arab American community including the size, diversity, and interests of the Arab American community.
Re-Imagining Migration’s Learning Arc is a favorite resource of mine and helps teach how to honor all migration stories and prompts discussion about our shared human experience.
Abeer Shinnawi is the program lead for Re-Imagining Migration, a first generation Arab American, devoted equity advocate and mother of three girls.