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POV: Defining 'the Arab'

The intersection of black, Arab and Muslim

I am the daughter of many narratives: Black, but not African-American; Arab, but not Middle Eastern; the daughter of two Muslim immigrants, and born an American. Throughout my formative years, I struggled with articulating my identity when asked, “What are you?” This struggle to identify stemmed from the realization that I occupied more than one ethnic space, as well as confronting the reality of U.S. racial politics.

My first encounter with identity was at the age of 15, when my Palestinian teacher informed me that I was Arab and not Black when I suggested we celebrate Black History Month at our private Islamic school. That moment profoundly shifted my perspective on race and ethnicity because at the time, I understood my identity to simply be Sudanese-American. My confrontation with the “clash of blackness and Arab-ness” was an existential moment that forced me to recognize identity politics and re-evaluate my social positioning in my community and at large.

As an educator and cultural anthropologist, I draw on my personal experiences when discussing relations between Arab-Americans and African-Americans. The relationship between both ethnic and cultural groups is not new, and the two have a symbiotic relationship that is often forgotten or ignored. Both groups have a shared sense of marginalization and disenfranchisement. Both can relate to experiences of discrimination, policing, profiling, Islamophobia and racism. In light of the current political climate, activist movements have united many Arab-Americans and African-Americans together to stand against white supremacy and confront bigotry – and we have seen many examples of this in Detroit, Dearborn, Flint and Ann Arbor.

So who are Arab-Americans? In identifying as an Arab-American, one is simply stating that their ancestors descend from one (or more) of the 22 recognized Arab countries. The Arab countries span two continents, 10 of which are in Africa and 12 in Asia. The unifying factors of the 22 countries are three: 1) Arabic is an official language, 2) a shared sense of culture and history, and 3) membership in the Arab League.

The fascinating reality of U.S. racial politics makes it difficult to recognize the nuances of the Arab identity. To see them as “white” is contested, to see them as “black” is rejected, and to see them as “other” is accepted. The experiences of an Arab-American who identifies as Lebanese will be vastly different than that of an Arab-American Sudanese. The difference lies in the socio-political positioning of both: One is legally recognized as white, the other black.

Therefore, in addressing the relationship between African-Americans and Arab-Americans in metro Detroit, it is necessary to understand the relationship is not one, but one of many. It is built around social, political and economic institutions. We need to stop referring to Arab-Americans as a community.

For instance, Dearborn can be divided into three large communities: Lebanese, Yemeni and Iraqi – each uniquely different and with distinct historical relations with Detroit. We also need to be honest that the relationship is not always cooperative and often deeply entrenched in anti-blackness. I still get a few surprised gasps when I speak in Arabic or identify as an Arab from Arab-Americans in Dearborn, who are predominately Middle Eastern and ignorant of the diversity in the Arab world. Thus, my advice to those interested in learning more is to first start with understanding the fluidity of identity that exists in both groups, confront the stereotypes, identify the common traits and simply look for the humanity – starting here, right now.

For more information, I encourage you to visit the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn (arabamericanmuseum.org), an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, for stories that beautifully weave together the relationships between the Dearborn and Detroit communities.

ISRA EL-BESHIR IS A CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST, TRAVEL ENTHUSIAST AND CURATOR OF EDUCATION AND PUBLIC PROGRAMMING AT THE ARAB AMERICAN NATIONAL MUSEUM IN DEARBORN.

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