“Arab-aware” in mainstream America
By Saffiya Shillo
We are living in an Arab-aware time. Never before have “Arabs” sustained such an enduring and glaring spotlight. When I use the term Arab, I am interpreting it through usage offered by mainstream through the myriad news blurbs, TV specials, and documentaries consumed by average Americans. This usage seems to blanket anyone Middle Eastern, Arab or not, Muslim or not in a negative manner. There is no differentiation made. The number of talking heads and Arab-experts out there is amazing. Of course most all of them are non-Arab but they inform us daily about the “Arabs.” In fact, we are over aware.
As an Arab growing up in America I look back and remember that for the longest time we were one of the invisible people of America. And, we didn’t challenge it. We were like every other “other” trying to make our way without bringing attention to our differences. Then we became indignant about our invisibility. Now we are too visible. Cast into an unflattering spotlight, we are indignant with this visibility. Once again we find ourselves trying to make our way; this time dispelling stereotypes and bringing attention to our similarities. Arab Americans have essentially been put on a journey that they have had no say in. Every day is a challenge trying to disassociate with the ugly labels tagged to our identity and future in America.
As a young child, every morning from kindergarten to 8th grade, I rose to my feet with my fellow classmates to pledge allegiance to the flag and sing the Star-Spangled Banner. There was such a sense of pride and ownership about it for everyone in the class. We were all the same at that moment yet we were all different. It was never a chore back then nor a debate. It was a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt in a while.
Today, I struggle within this Arab-aware time trying to make sense of it all. I am shocked at the level of fear and hate that works its way in the question and answer portions of cultural trainings I have given. “You people are hiding the terrorists.” Watching and listening to all of this over time has worn me out. As I calmly address those types of questions, off task, in an effort to strike a balance or dismiss misinformation, it becomes more apparent that this new Arab-aware factor will be embedded for a long time to come. It needs to be addressed repeatedly.
Statements and actions by zealots which the mass media choose to play and reply enable misrepresentation of the entire Arab and Muslim people. The same can be said of the zealots making the statements and actions. Arab Americans are not ok with those default spokespersons or the attention that they get and we say so. Unfortunately, when we do, it doesn’t make the news. How many Arab Americans are actually given the opportunity to comment? Not many. And many of the few are not representative of your average Arab American. Is there a prominent news program or radio show that allows for this? How about a regularly featured Arab American perspective in major news outlets? From what I can ascertain, it is a much-needed perspective. There are so many unanswered questions in addition to the unsettling alarm out there.
Its time for Americans to acknowledge that the campaign of fear, propaganda and half truths do not offer a real picture of their neighbors, co workers and most importantly fellow Americans. Being Arab-aware just seems to be a state of Arab-scare and that’s not acceptable. I have to believe Americans, and I am one, are smarter than that.
(Saffiya Shillo is a peace activist, domestic violence/sexual assault consultant and cultural sensitivity trainer on Muslim/Arab issues. Copyright Arab Writers Group, http://www.ArabWritersGroup.com )