Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Scholars have long found that while pan-Arab organizations in the United States called themselves Arab American, few individuals adopted that appellation as a personal identity, preferring Iraqi, for instance, or Syrian. So I was struck, while interviewing 45 Palestinian Americans attending high school in Palestine, that so many of them referred to themselves and others as Arab American, in addition to Palestinian. Why does Arab American make sense as an identity now, when it has not in the past? The experiences of these transnational youth—17- and 18-year olds most of whom were born and raised in the US and who moved to Palestine as pre-teens—suggest that the answer lies in notions of belonging and exclusion in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Childhood in the US

The overwhelming majority of the youth described their American childhood as a positive yet “othered” experience: They wanted to see themselves as fully American but they could not. Family and community contributed to the kids’ notion that they were different. Their parents told them variously that they were Palestinian, Arab or Muslim; they made their children speak Arabic at home and held them to distinct rules of decorum. They taught their children that they were special, to be proud of who they were, and to claim their rights as Americans. But outsiders, mostly other children, communicated to these Palestinians that their differences from others were bad. All of the teens’ names have been changed in what follows.

Aymen, from a majority-white Chicago suburb, said his sense of identity in the US was tied to “certain conditions. Like, when I was at my house, no, I didn’t feel American” because his parents would get angry with him when he spoke English. When at his private Islamic school, “I felt like half-half—half-American and half-Arab or Muslim.” “But on the streets I felt American, basically.” There were notable exceptions, however:

My aunt and my sister were picking up the garbage in front of the house and there was a lady…. She shouted at my sister, because my sister was coming from school wearing a jilbab (long gown) and mandil (headscarf), and she said, “Go back to your country, Arab. I’m gonna blow up your building just like you blew up the towers.” We called the police because I was young and scared. The police parked far away from our house and  we had to go them. They didn’t come to us because they’re racists. [And how did you feel?] I didn’t feel anything. I felt mad because they did that to my sister. [Well, why do you think they did that?] Because of after September 11.

The youth I spoke with were 7 and 8 years old in 2001. Nearly every one of them could recall racially charged actions or micro-aggressions on the part of classmates around that time. Boys mainly experienced them at school. Ali, from Tampa, Florida, said there were always “fights and trouble”—“we did not blend in because of our race.” Describing his neighborhood as “ghetto,” white and black, he said, “Straight up they did not like us. After 9/11 they kept calling us terrorists and then, like, other names.” Linda likewise reported that her brother scuffled with another boy who called him a sand nigger. Husni, from Alabama, said it was schoolmates who helped him realize that he was an Arab. “When you’re younger, you don’t really see it. But then when you grow up you start getting like, like I said, you’re classified into groups. Like, at school, you start realizing you’re Arab, you know. Because everybody else is saying, ‘I’m this, I’m that.’” I’m what? A terrorist. “During like September 11…they’d call me Husama bin Laden.”

Girls described racialized encounters not only at school, but also in their neighborhoods and at shopping malls when accompanied by mothers in hijab. Lubna, from Detroit, said that one of her friends would tell her, “You guys are Arabs; you are terrorists.” Fatin, who briefly moved back to Chicago from Palestine in 2008, recounted a “bad experience” at school: “Some kid called me bin Laden.” Homa, from Philadelphia, said she was likewise asked “if she was related to Osama bin Laden,” a question she found “kind of offensive.” Muna, from Atlanta, said, “I always knew that no one’s gonna fully accept you no matter what you are. Because you’re always gonna be somewhat different. But, it was also uncomfortable…because I’m Arab, and I wasn’t always, like, the whitest or the blondest.” She recalled an incident from her childhood:

This one time we were at the mall and there was, um, a woman with her little toddler…. I was with my mom and sister…. My sister used to wear the hijab but she took it off. But back then she was wearing it. So, me and her and my mom were walking and she was coming toward us, and she literally went to the other side and then went back after she passed us. You know, I’m not a terrorist.

Saif, from the Boston area, articulates how the prejudices of others rendered his Arab identity subjectively salient:

Before 9/11 I was, you know, a young child. I didn’t really understand that much. After that I started seeing the way, you know, the whole September 11 events and all, the Iraq war. I thought, you know, how people were less warm to us, they were unwelcoming.…     So I guess in America there were times when I felt American, but it was a small feeling. It was really, I mean, you always have more Arab than American, like 90 percent of the time.

He related wakeup calls at school:

On 9/11, I was in a public school. And what happened was they sat us down and they were like, “There was an attack by a terrorist, blah blah blah,” and I was like, “Well, I think I’m Muslim.” So everyone looked at me, like, are you serious? ‘Cause they all thought I was Christian and whatnot. And at that moment it hit me that you’re not, like this is different. This is the real world. And you need to adjust. Because you’re not gonna fit in if you keep this up. So that had a huge impact on who I was.… So they all looked at me, like, shocked, I guess. Like, “Are you serious? Like you’re a Muslim? Well, where were you?” Or whatever. “How come no one knew?”

Saif was not alone in reporting that he lost friends after the September 11 attacks. Many girls and boys told stories of suddenly being shunned, sometimes by their best friends. While plenty of slurs were directed at Arab and Muslim Americans before 2001, these teens clearly see themselves as the post-September 11 generation.

It was thus outside the home that these Palestinian American youth learned that they were not just special or different, as their parents had told them, but that the differences were associated with being Arab (and sometimes Muslim), something that was “other than American” and no mere violation of monocultural conformity. The message is clear: Palestinian is Arab and Arab is terrorist. One cannot be American and a threat to America at the same time.

Moving to Palestine

The intersecting identities of these kids as Palestinians and Americans underwent another set of changes in meaning and salience when they moved to Palestine, mainly with their mothers and siblings. Now, in the eyes of Palestinians, especially other teens, the fact that they were American moved to the forefront: They were othered once again. Aymen lamented, “I remember when I was in America they called me, they’d say I’m Arab, I’m Palestinian. And when I am over here they call me an American.” Similarly, Yasmine said, “They just say I’m American, and that, like, I wasn’t raised here, like, all my life like them, so that I can’t really be Palestinian. But I am, 100 percent. I was born here. This is the place I want to live, hopefully, in the future.”

The youth described being made fun of and followed, their English imitated; boys spoke about being challenged to fights. The way they dressed, walked and spoke gave them away. While these intimidating encounters were upsetting, over time they ceased. Most of the teens adapted their dress and behavior to fit in, their Arabic language skills improved, and they experienced what it meant to be Palestinian, integral to which was the shared suffering of daily life under Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Americans were prohibited, just like their locally raised peers, from crossing Israeli military barriers into Jerusalem. As Nina put it:

If my parents didn’t bring me and my sisters and my brothers here, I think I wouldn’t be, like, the person I am right now.… I understand more, like, because we see stuff, we face more stuff, you know, the occupation.… Every single day here in Filastin, you learn something.

Over time, Palestinian Americans earned their Palestinian identity in the eyes of local Palestinians. It became possible to be both Palestinian and American without sacrificing their dignity or denying or losing part of who they were. This possibility had been denied them in the US, where a complete sense of belonging required them to be white.

When I asked the youth what it meant to be American and to be Palestinian, their responses featured the same stark contrast. Being Palestinian had powerful emotive content. It was associated with being proud and resilient. On the other hand, many kids had a difficult time describing what an American was or what being American meant. Many associated being American with being white; some said an American was simply a person born in the US; and some could not answer the question at all. Most spoke of being American in structural terms, such as a culture of freedom, rights and opportunities. While these dimensions of American society were much appreciated, they were typically not laden with deep, subjective feelings. One can understand why, given the rejection these youth had experienced.

Thinking About Return

Nonetheless, America was the place to be if you wanted to get an education, earn money and give your children a better life. The overwhelming majority of these youth were excited to return to the US after high school. College in Palestine was largely inaccessible for a number of reasons, language being primary, and job opportunities were limited. The teens were familiar with the much wider array of employment and post-secondary education options in the US. While boys spoke about imminent return, many girls would have to wait for siblings to complete high school or until after marriage.

Just when they had figured out how to be Palestinian and American in Palestine, and were able to claim their status as Palestinians, the youth were preoccupied with thoughts of going back that filled them with hopes, but also worries. Nina feared that once again she would be viewed as a racial category.

You know, right now I’m going off to college. Sometimes, you know, I have those thoughts where, like, people won’t accept me, you know, like for who I am. Like, oh I’m from Filastin, I’m from Palestine. I’m afraid, like, I won’t feel like I belong there. Even though I was born in America, but sometimes I don’t know. You get those thoughts, that you won’t be accepted or you won’t be seen or looked at as a person, like you are     looked at in Palestine.

Arab American

Spending their high school years in Palestine had accomplished for these youth what their parents had intended: It had strengthened their identification with and emotional attachment to Palestine. Huda said, “Like, all these families come here basically to teach their kids who they are. Like, because of how, like, in America, I didn’t know what it was to be a Palestinian.” At the same time, identification as an Arab American was frequently mentioned when speaking about the US. For example, Rima had difficulty reconciling being Palestinian and American, reaching the conclusion that she was Arab American:

Um, I would say I’m Palestinian, but I was raised mostly in America. [So you are a Palestinian who lived in America?] No. Well, I was born in America, so I guess I’m [pause] American, but I don’t know. Um, that’s a good question. I’m an Arab American because my parents are from here, but I was born in America.

Experiences at school had established or deepened their subjective sense of being Arab American. Arab American was a racialized category invoked by those around them; it brought on the taunts and the fights. As Kamilla noted, “To tell you the truth, me as an Arab American, you see a lot of the propaganda, hatred, wrong…false ideas that people get about us Arabs and Muslim in general. Nonetheless, though, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t be prouder to be anything else.” Their experiences in Palestine filled the teens with a pride they were denied in the US and provided them with resources for resistance when they got back. As Hasheema said, “I am very proud now, and I wish I could take this back to America and, like, tell everyone how, like, what it is like to know who you are.” There were authentic reasons to adopt an Arab American identity. Youth pointed out that Arab Americans share language, culture and a specific American experience. As Samira noted, “Arab Americans, you know, all have the same background. Your parents decided to move here [back to Palestine]. Why? The same issues with the violent environment [in the US], you know.” Arab American was also a term used by youth when speaking about the type of person they would prefer to marry. Through their own struggles in Palestine, these teens learned that they had to come to terms with being American.

Palestinian is who you are, but Arab American is what you are. It is an identity that provides an anchor to a place in American society where one can find belonging. Arab American is a pan-ethnic, racialized identity that embraces non-whiteness while conferring a coherent position in a racially organized society. Being Arab American reconciles all sorts of contradictions that being Palestinian American cannot in the US. This identity explains how Aymen could feel “American on the streets” even as he and his family were racially victimized. As Kimberlé Crenshaw has noted, when negatively racialized identities become anchors of subjectivity they can be used to empower their holders. “A strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a social position rather than to vacate and destroy it.” [1. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1997), p. 1297.] As a racialized identity, being Arab American holds the potential for resources and solidarity to mobilize with others who share a similar positionality, as well as the capacity to be who one is on one’s own terms. It is an identity that allows each person to assert his or her Americanness and Arabness with pride. Why now? For some time Arabs have been cast by others as the antipode to whiteness, but never as vehemently as in the era of the post-September 11 war on terror. These post-September 11 generation youth experienced that social position intensely, and have decided to occupy and defend it. [2. A similar argument can be made for Muslim identity.]

How to cite this article:

Louise Cainkar "Becoming Arab American," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).
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