Posted on February 03, 1997 in Washington Watch

During the past week a fascinating discussion has taken place among an Arab American group on the internet. At issue has been how to define an Arab American. The discussion began with a simple query from an individual asking subscribers if they knew how many Arab Americans and, more specifically, Palestinian Americans there were.

Once response in particular provoked the on going discussion. After reporting that the estimated number of Arab Americans given by one source is between two to two and one half million, while others accept a larger number of three to three and one half million, the writer noted, “However, quality is usually more important that quantity and in this sense it doesn’t mean much to count someone being Arab or Arab American when that person neither speaks Arabic nor identifies with Arabs or Arab issues.”

One participant disagreed with using such criteria as language or issues since to do so could lead to grading Arab Americans as “true” or “fake.” And out of this retort grew the larger discussion as to how precisely to define an Arab American.

While I found some of this discussion disturbing, it was, for the most part, a thoughtful effort to define the characteristics of the Arab American community. The developing conversation focused on the roles of “blood” or ancestry, language, and identification with issues or concerns.

While all the respondents seem to accept ancestry or parentage as a necessary and essential criterion, the use of the term “blood” was rejected since it implies that “Arab” is a race. Like the first respondent noted above, some felt that ancestry was necessary, but not sufficient since they believed that either language or identification with “Arab” issues (or both) were necessary characteristics to be a member of the Arab American community.

Some respondents questioned whether or not “language” could fairly be used as a characteristic. One cited the famous contemporary Lebanese poet, Etel Adnan, who writes in French and English, noting that if the use or knowledge of Arabic was a necessary component of the Arab American identity, then she might be excluded. On the same grounds others noted that the use of the Arabic language would exclude almost an entire generation of Americans of Arab descent who grew up in the U.S. in the era when there was extreme social pressure against using one’s native tongue. To emphasize that point one writer noted that although he was born in the U.S. and had been a life-long activist in both the Arab American and Muslim American communities, a recent Arab immigrant had told him that he was not a real “Arab” because he could not speak Arabic.

A similar discussion developed over whether identification with “Arab concerns” was an appropriate yardstick to use in measuring one’s authenticity as an Arab American. Indeed, some in the community have used this criterion in the past to define degrees of purity of Arab Americans. Others have questioned the use of issues as a basis of identity since this criterion will by definition always be subjective or dependent on which issue or which combination of issues would be used and who would be in the position of measuring adherence.

This is an important and necessary discussion because at issue is not an abstract definition of Arab American but the very principle of how we define and organize our constituency. At stake are the answers to the questions: who are we, what is the size of our community, and on what bases do we come together and pursue our work?

A few of my own thoughts:

It is best to begin this discussion by distinguishing between being an American of Arab descent and being an active participant in the Arab American community.

Being an American of Arab descent is simply a question of ancestry—one can be a recent immigrant or, for example, a third generation American with one Arab grandparent. On the other hand, identifying as an Arab American implies making a voluntary association with the community of Arab Americans. The association can be of varying degree—from a minimal self-identification to complete absorption.

Seen this way, any American of Arab parentage can potentially become a member of the Arab American community.

The critical political question for organizers is how rigid should they set the terms of association as they seek to build this Arab American community. Some would establish ideologically-based litmus tests on Lebanon, Palestine, or other “Arab” issues. While such criteria might be important for some types of organizations or essential for political groups, they are not useful for community-building since the narrower the criteria used, the smaller the base from which to build.

Over the years the more successful community-building efforts have been based not on adherence to an issue but on the willingness to associate.

In some instances the desire to identify with and participate in Arab American activities has indeed been based on “issues.” In other instances (and this has increasingly become the case as the community has grown and become more diversified) the basis for identification has been for such reasons as: general cultural affinity and the desire to associate with those who share a similar culture; or the desire to benefit from association with a community.

In other words, the attraction that can draw persons of Arab descent to identify with their ethnicity and participate in community activities can be as varied as: commitment to the Palestinian or other “Arab” causes; fond memories of “Sitti’s” cooking; enjoyment of Arabic music or dance; or the desire to meet other Arab Americans for social, political, or business reasons.

While the more politically-minded partisans within the community may seek to grade the above attractions in order of importance, in fact, in community-building all are of equal importance. What matters is that people of Arab descent feel comfortable enough with their ethnicity to identify, come together, and participate in community-building activities. And experience has shown that once an individual associates with a community, on whatever basis, through participation there develops a growth in identification with the group’s broader concerns.

It is a fact, however, that most persons of Arab descent in the U.S. still do not identify with or participate in Arab American activities -- although there has been some change in recent decades and an increase in the number of those who do participate.

It is useful here to examine the situation of Arab Americans.

Arab Americans, like all ethnic communities, exist on a continuum. At one end are some of the most recent immigrants to the U.S. who have become citizens, at the other end are the most assimilated (some being third or fourth generation) Americans of Arab descent.

While all are, by definition, potential members of a self-identified Arab American community, persons at both ends of this continuum have some identity issues that, at times, inhibit their identification with the community and its activities. Some of the very recent immigrants, for example, still retain, as primary and exclusive identifiers, the political or social identities of their countries of origin. These may vary. In some instances they may even prefer to identify with their religion or foreign political faction or party than with their ethnicity.

At the other end of the continuum, the very assimilated may feel no compelling attachment to their Arab roots and therefore no need to identify with an ethnic community beyond their immediate family ties. Their principle attachments may be to their city, church, profession, etc.

In the center of the ethnic continuum are those Americans of Arab descent (both recent immigrants and later generations) who have come to identify with the Arab American community. For this group, it might be said the “hyphen” is real. They both feel some attachment, in varying degrees, with aspects of their Arab ancestry and with their American citizenship and identity.

What has made possible the emergence of this “center” and its rapid growth in recent years has been the development of institutions and organizations here in the U.S. that have fostered the growth of a self-identified Arab American community. They have done so by: creating visibility for the ethnicity, providing services for the community, fostering pride in a common heritage, giving a coherent and respected voice to community concerns, and, in general, making it possible for Arab Americans to come together and feel comfortable in building a community.

It is important to note that this entire enterprise is of recent vintage. Only three decades ago, whatever the number of Americans of Arab descent in the U.S. at that time, there was no self-identified Arab American community to speak of.

There were “Syrian-Lebanese,” and other country-specific clubs, churches, mosques, and village-based and family-based groups.

What is new today is a growing sense of identification with the more general concept of Arab American. In fact, there are a great number of individuals now identifying as Arab Americans, who, three decades ago, never would have considered such a self-description. In some cases this was because the concept was alien or foreign to their perceived identity, was of no relevance to their lives, or was socially or politically threatening.

The growing acceptance of a common identity that brings together diverse groups of Americans of Arab descent of different generations and different countries of origin is to be celebrated and expanded.

To do so means to reach out, to be accepting and tolerant of diversity within the community, and most importantly to better understand the make-up, needs, and views of the potential base that will form the community.

How then does one count Arab Americans? Since the community-building enterprise is evolving, I believe it is best to count all those who are Americans of Arab descent as potential members of the community. Extrapolating from hard data provided by immigration figures it is possible to arrive at the two to two and one half million figure. However, using the official U.S. Census data from 1990 the number is only 900,000 plus. It is interesting to note that the Census arrives at this figure by allowing Americans of Arab descent to self-identify with their country of ancestry-origin and then reports all these respondents under the aggregate heading of “Arab.”

What the discrepancy in the two sets of figures tells us is that, while there are problems with the statistical methodology of the Census, it is clear that there is a significant drop from the potential number of Americans of Arab descent to the number of those who are willing to identify with some form of Arab world ancestry.

All this points to important challenges for Arab American activists who seek to build their community.

The potential base is large. The growth of self-identification has dramatically increased in the past thirty years . But so much more work needs to be done. The enterprise will only be successful if we are inclusive, sensitive, and tolerant.

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