Anything to fit in: The struggles of an Arab American

Americans are not racist; at least they like to think they are not. In general, Americans are not consciously racist, but inevitably racism rears its ugly head with dramatic flair. We see it time and again in news reports exposing tension along racial fault lines in a cyclical fashion. Although most Americans will deny harboring racist thoughts against members of other groups, stereotypical beliefs are activated in unforeseen situations leading to devastating results. The Ferguson and Brown incidents are only the latest examples of such situation leading to shattering effects on members of the African American community. While it is forcing American to look deeper into its past and present, the U.S. needs to examine its broader struggles with racial prejudice on a structural and societal basis.

African Americans are indignant, and rightfully so, as they point to the many lives cut short by unjustifiable use of force by law enforcement personnel. Police officers feel betrayed by the community as they insist on examining each case separately. All the while, the rest of America would rather avoid the topic all together and not deal with the traffic disruption caused by protestors. It is impossible to approach the recurring scenario except as a racial problem. In fact it would be shortsighted not to look beyond the violent incidents to examine how deep racial prejudice runs in America. Millions of citizens have firsthand experience with explicit and/or implicit racial discrimination.

Arab Americans and Muslim Americans take their own steps to Anglicize their names. Mohammed becomes “Mo,” Samiah and Sameer become “Sam”

Walid Jawad

Visual triggers based on color and features constitute the majority of the incidents covered by the media; i.e. a black men killed by white police officers. Hate crimes are not covered by the media with the same intensity. Profiling is one other form of racial prejudice that competes for the attention of media outlets, but because profiling doesn’t rise up to the principle “if it bleeds, it leads”, we don’t hear much about it. Racial profiling is a structural problem that is sanctioned by the legal system.

The complete picture

Zooming out in an attempt to see the complete picture, one would notice that racial profiling usually manifests itself in the form of old/established immigrants, mainly white, profiling new immigrants who come to the U.S. with their own languages and cultures. US society, in an effort to avoid dealing with some of these race issues, labels it under different banners. “Immigration reform,” for instance, transforms such profiling to a legislative issue as it debates whether to extend the American promise of “liberty and Justice for all” to immigrants. It’s worthy to note that the issue is not to allow or ban certain people from entering the U.S., rather it’s whether to give those who are already here the legal rights and responsibilities as people legally living in this nation.

On a societal level, this racial profiling against Hispanics doesn’t discriminate between those who are in the U.S. legally and those who are not. The curious experience of Mr. Zamora is a case in point. In his YouTube video, Jose Zamora explains that he was not able to find a job because of his ethnic name so he decided to drop the “s” from his first name making him “Joe.” At which point, he started receiving job offers. Interestingly enough, he applied to those similar jobs with the same old resume except for the small change in his name. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans sympathize with Jose taking their own steps to Anglicize their names. Mohammed becomes “Mo,” Samiah and Sameer become “Sam,” Abdullah is “Abe,” and Walid becomes “Wally.” I recently met an “Aisha” who went by “Megan” - I failed to see the connection between the two names, but just the same, she found a way to fly under the racial profiling radar to get a job. A sizable population with ethnically Arab or religiously Muslim sounding names makes a concerted effort to avoid such discrimination in the hope they would be offered an opportunity to be judge based on their merits before they get sidelined based on their ethnic/religious affiliation.

Racial profiling

Going one step further, Americans with Arabic or Muslim names endure a structural racial profiling under the guise of security. The no-fly list established after 9-11 is one form of legally endorsed racial profiling. The numerous cases of false positive matches on the no-fly lists have turned the life of many traveling Arab and Muslim Americans to a living hell. Many children have been flagged based on the no-fly list, an obvious case of false positive. The late Senator Ted Kennedy’s name was included on the no-fly list causing him to be repeatedly delayed at airports. It took many weeks and personal appeals on the highest levels to get his name of the list in 2004. Finally, last June, and thirteen years later, a federal judge ruled the no-fly list violates the Constitution; a good sign that things are headed in the right direction.

According to the Arab American Institute’s 2014 poll on American Attitudes Toward Arabs and Muslims, 42% of Americans are in favor of the use of profiling by law enforcement against Arabs and Muslims. The overall favorable attitudes toward Muslims are the lowest among all of the groups included in the poll at 27% (with 45% unfavorable). Similarly, Arabs in the U.S. enjoy only 32% favorability (39% unfavorable). It’s an uphill climb for both Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. to tip the scales toward favorability.

Personally, in 2003 while reporting for the TV show “Amreeka min al-Dakhil”, (translates to America From Within), I received a request from the FBI for an interview. Upon enquiring, I was told the reason for the interview is that I was asking questions about emergency workers (first responders), which was true. The segment I was making was about volunteer fire stations in America. I decided to reach out to a firehouse to request an interview. My name, Walid Abdul-Jawad, can be the only reason why it would cause the station chief to contact the FBI. I must say that the FBI agents were professional during the interview. An hour later I was on my way. Nevertheless, this was a case of fear-based racist profiling initiated by the firehouse chief and sanctioned by the authorities in the name of security (albeit, the scars of 9/11 were still raw).

Racism against new Americans can manifest itself in different ways often hard to detect. For instance, job seekers with ethnically sounding names are deprived from their chance to pursue the “American dream” as we can infer from Jose Zamora. Arabs and Muslims have to navigate a suspicious population that is consumed by the fear of terrorism further limiting their options. Daily observation leads me to believe that Americans with Arabic/Muslim sounding names are stratified; they tend to become professionals (doctors, engineers or lawyers), or taxi drivers, shop keepers, etc. It is rare to come across an Arab/Muslim who works in other capacities unless s/he have Anglicized their name. Before long, Arabs and Muslims might need to add their own chants along those of Ferguson and Brown protesters around the nation who are repeating “I can’t breathe” and “don’t shoot”. American Arabs and Muslims can add, “No more secondary security screening” and “Just let me make a living.”

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Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:43 - GMT 06:43
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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