Arab-American Carol Chehade speaks out on race relations.
Arabs and the Racial Lessons of 9/11
By Carol Chehade
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Profiled, feared, detained, assaulted, accused, interrogated,
harassed, hated, and collectivized since 9-11, Arab Americans
have suddenly known what it feels like to be temporarily
Black. Although it is wrong to treat Arab Americans like
criminals, we shouldn't be surprised when we are treated
in ways African Americans have been treated for centuries.
Still, many in my Arab American community are surprised
when we are treated un-White. We figured that if we played
by the racial rules of this country, we would be bypassed
in receiving some of the bigotry that Blacks routinely receive.
Yet, that old cliché of what goes around comes around
finally showed itself to be more than another cliché. The
backlash we're now receiving is from the same whip we've
borrowed to lash out against African Americans. Currently,
the Arab American community is having a hard time trying
to figure out why we've been racially demoted from ethnic
house slave to ethnic field slave. I am less disappointed
in how my ethnic group has been signaled out and more disappointed
in how we have been pathetically courting the very White
privilege that has the power to decide which group will
be signaled out. We need to be completely honest as Arab
Americans and ask ourselves whether or not we have been
ethnic models of anti-racism. My heart tells me no. Although
9-11 represents many things to different people, one of
its most interesting features is how the events after 9-11
can gauge how far we've come in understanding the disease
As I walked through diverse neighborhoods in New York
City shortly after the carnage of 9-11, I noticed many non-Black
people of color had aggressively decorated their homes and
vehicles with American flags. The more immigrants in the
area or the more the residents resembled Arabs, the more
flags I saw lightly fluttering in the air. I thought to
myself that it is too bad Black people can not lightly wave
their flags in the air whenever members from their own race
experienced problems. Unlike Arab Americans, the flag that
African Americans know is so heavily drenched in blood and
tears that it can never lightly flutter anywhere. Looking
at how Arab Americans use flags reminds me of the Biblical
story of God instructing the Hebrews to mark their doors
with blood so that the wrath of God would bypass them.
Like countless immigrant communities before 9-11, many
Arab Americans freely participated in covert and overt acts
of racism against African Americans. This is no secret to
Black people who already know that Arab Americans have the
same type of superiority complex that European Americans
do. This superiority complex is not only evident in the
way we act toward Black people but in the way we choose
to disassociate ourselves from their community. Our disassociation
would not be so evident if we weren't ruthlessly trying
to move up the racial hierarchy so that we can be closer
to Whiteness. Unfortunately, every non-Black immigrant group
has worked hard to secure a so-called respectable place
above Blacks on the racial hierarchy. When groups like Italians,
Jews, Hispanics, Asians, and now Arabs have faced their
turn to be questioned on their allegiance to upholding the
caste structure, few fully challenged the legitimacy of
this racist pre-condition to be accepted as Americans.
As the Arab American community contends with the discrimination
we're facing, we have been a little more sympathetic about
some of the issues African Americans have always contended
with, but which we did not believe until they started happening
to us. Instead of seeing the bigger picture of racism by
creating permanent and stronger ties with the Black community,
we often use such ties as a temporary refuge, a temporary
residence where we find people sensitive to our plight.
I say temporary because we are not trying to stay "Black."
In contrast, the only impermanent feelings we have toward
Whites is that our eviction from Whiteness is nothing more
than a temporary inconvenience. As long as we repay our
dues by not challenging Whiteness in any real way then Whites,
in exchange, will trust us again and re-induct us back into
the racial position we held prior to 9-11. History has shown
us that as long as we follow the formula of selling out
our color to the highest bidder, then Whiteness will accept
us back quicker than they will Blacks.
The proof of us using Blacks as temporary residence is
exemplified in the way that we are more concerned with bigotry
toward our community without facing the racism that
comes from our community. If we really wanted the
Black community as a permanent residence, then we'd put
more effort and care to resolve our issues. An analogy is
that if a man does not truly care for a woman, rarely will
he take the time to explore her complexities because he
knows he's only with her temporarily. Arabs have a lazy
attitude in relations with Blacks because we are simply
buying time in order to invest in the desired habitat of
Whiteness. We become another of a long line of people who
use the Black community and then discard it for something
perceived as better. As a result, we invalidate our cries
of discrimination by perpetuating the very thing of which
we complain. Our temporary exile from Whiteness should serve
as a wake-up call as to whether we want to be re-instated
into a racial hierarchy that wields so much unearned power.
We look so racially arrogant when we complain to Black
people about our brushes with bigotry. Stereotypes against
Arab Americans have never been powerful enough to enslave
us. An international event had to take place for the eyes
of Whiteness to look down upon us, whereas those very eyes
have been obsessively watching Blackness despite Black people
having done nothing. It took the worst terrorist attack
on American soil for Arab Americans to be mistreated, whereas
all it took for African Americans to be mistreated was to
be on American soil. If Black Africans instead Arabs had
brought terrorism to our shores, there would have been a
race war in this country. And judging by the way the Arab
American community has treated African Americans, I don't
think the majority of us would jeopardize our climb up the
racial hierarchy be siding with them.
With all of the ignorance the Arab American community
has been victim to, we still haven't fully learned our racial
lessons due to the fact we still want our full Whiteness
back. One of the most seductive privileges of Whiteness
is that it allows us to blend back into the racial comfort
zone where we're not constantly questioned. All non-Black
people of color have been able to enjoy this, albeit conditional,
racial comfort zone. Being a "minority" has less to do with
what we look like and more to do with how we think. A real
minority means someone who destroys the power of Whiteness.
Since African Americans have done this more than any of
us -often without choice- they produce more "minorities"
than other ethnic group of color. Arab Americans can never
be real "minorities" as long as we routinely switch racial
allegiances to the side that best serves us at the moment.
We change our positions with as much speed as Whiteness
has in disowning those who challenge the false pretences
it takes to become White. We exhibit this non-committal,
part-time "minority" status whenever we want some the perceived
benefits of minorities without giving up the privileges
Until we can build an equal relationship with the Black
community that does not position Arab Americans with the
upper hand, then I will not bastardize the Black struggle
by joining it with the Arab American struggle. As long as
we crave the approval of Whiteness, our relationship with
the Black community will be dysfunctional.
Like all wars, 9-11 brought a country together over a shared
common enemy. This superficial unity will fall apart as
soon as that enemy is shown its place and the only way to
keep this deceptive unity going is to find another common
enemy. The most returned to common enemy in our country
has been Black people. Our country may have short-term affairs
with other enemies such as Arabs, but as soon as these short-term
affairs die out, then it always goes back to the enemy it
has abused the longest. Arab Americans have a tremendous
opportunity to alter this pattern by not enabling it with
our consent to support the indiscretions of racial superiority.
If we are to be positive additions to the United States,
then we have to strengthen what makes us weak, and one of
the biggest things that weaken us as a nation is racism.
Carol Chehade is an activist and writer with a book
titled Big Little White Lies: Our Attempt to White-Out America.
Further information can be found at www.nehmarchepublishing.com.
Copyright © 2002 Carol Chehade
-- February 28, 2003
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