The Arab American Community: Issues of Concern
Arab Americans are increasingly a part of the ethnic mosaic of the Washington metropolitan area. Currently there are an estimated 80,000 Arab Americans in the area. A great many live in Northern Virginia and local school systems have numerous students whose family origins lay in the Arab world, which reaches from North Africa through the Middle East to the Persian Gulf.
Educators are advised to consciously include Arab Americans in their multicultural educational programs. They should also take care to treat the cultural and personal sensitivities of Arab American students and parents with the same sensitivity that is accorded other ethnic and racial communities. These concerns should guide the entire educational community from school board members and administrators to principals, teachers, substitute teachers and other staff.
Above all, insensitivity by teachers should be avoided. Here are some examples of incidents reported to Arab American organizations:
A substitute teacher departed from the lesson plan to talk about his career as an F-16 pilot in the Gulf war. He described Iraqis as the "bad guys." "We bombed them and now things are ok." An Iraqi-American girl in the class, whose family had relatives whose lives had been endangered by the bombing, felt humiliated and angry.
An Arab American student was not allowed to go to a prom with either a black or a white date. Her teacher said: "You are a foreigner. You must go with someone who has the same features."
A teacher taught Dante’s Infeno to a high school class, but neglected to warn the class that its extremely demeaning and insulting portrayal of Muhammad was part of the medieval Christian polemic against Islam.
A 7 year old girl told her class, "My grandma lives in Palestine." The teacher corrected her: "No, dear. There is no Palestine; it’s Israel. Anyway, you’re American."
A girl from a Christian Arab family came home in tears and told her mother: "The teacher says we’re not Arab." The textbook had too closely identified Arabs with Muslims.
A teacher asked a high school student to explain "why Arabs kill Jews."
Here are some other problems reported in schools around Washington and elsewhere:
Omission: Educators often ignore the existence of Arab Americans. The are simply left out of programs and lessons which include Black, Asian, Hispanic and other groups. Textbooks: The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) researched textbooks and found "an over portrayal of deserts, camels and nomads.". Teachers use the Bedouin image as typifying Arab culture, even though only 2% of Arabs today are Bedouin. Islam: MESA found that "The presentation of Islam is so problematic that it is perhaps time for educators at the college level to send a red alert to their colleagues at the precollegiate level."
For generations Arab American students have felt the sting of teasing, jokes and epithets from fellow students: "camel jockey, desert niggers, greasy Lebs." Sometimes there have been fistfights with non-Arab students.
Sometimes children dress up as "Arabs" or wear grotesque "Arab" masks, as part of the seasonal array of vampires, devils and monsters.
Teachers should be aware of concerns about Islamic holidays, modesty and dress (especially head coverings for girls), dating, diet, and fasting during Ramadan.
Schools are not immune to the problems created by Middle East political issues:
Middle East crises:
Harassment of Arab Americans often increases during crises. During the Gulf war, school were swept with patriotic fever and there were numerous reports that Arab American students felt harassed and intimidated. After "Middle Easterners" were initially blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing, there were many similar reports. A teacher told an Iraqi American student that he hoped the perpetrators were Iraqi, "so we can go in there and flatten them."
Many schools display maps supplied by the Israeli Embassy, showing Arab territory which is under Israeli military occupation (the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) as part of "Israel."
Current events publications:
Weekly or monthly news publications for students have repeatedly treated the issue of international terrorism in a sensationalized manner which inappropriately stigmatizes Arabs and Muslims as "terrorists."
Here is some basic information about Arab Americans:
There are an estimated 2-3 million Americans with family origins in the Arab world. About half are Christian and half are Muslim. The largest number are from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. There are significant communities from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq and smaller numbers from other countries.
Population centers: Detroit-Dearbom, New York-Brooklyn, Washington, Los AngelesSouthern California, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, New Jersey.
82% of Arab Americans are U.S. citizens. 63% were born in the U.S.
62% have been to college (compared to the U.S. average of 45%).
Twice as many Arab Americans as non-Arabs have an M.A. or higher degree. 60% are white collar.
12% are self-employed.
20% are employed in some form of retail trade. Washington area: 41 % are executives or professionals.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee about their program of "Reaching the Teachers." (202) 244-2990