Rethinking Who is an Arab American: Arab American Studies in the New Millennium

Gary C. David
Artwork by Doris Bittar.
Arab Americans and studies focusing on them have received increasing attention and interest over the past three years, a predictable outcome of the September 11th attacks and the “War on Terror.” As a result, the field of Arab American studies has shifted from the periphery of social science research and is now a more central interest. This increased interest also provides a timely opportunity to critically examine the state of research on Arab Americans, as well as the work that has formed the foundation of this field. Undoubtedly, important contributions of substantial worth form the foundation of contemporary Arab American studies. However, as in any field of scholarly endeavor, we need to critically reexamine this work and determine how it pertains to the Arab American experience today. 
Certain paradigms or tenets have tended to dominate research, works, and discussions on Arab Americans. The first paradigm is that since Arab Americans emanate from the Arab world, Arab American studies is therefore an outgrowth of Arab or Middle Eastern studies. As such, scholars with expertise in Arab or Middle Eastern studies are likewise experts on Arab Americans. In this light, Arab Americans and their experience are observed as derivative features of Arabs and Arab life “back home.” From this standpoint, study and field time spent by researchers in Amman, Beirut, or Cairo represents adequate training and experience, producing prerequisite familiarity with the Arab American communities of Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles.
This assumption is also related to what I will call the “assimilationist” paradigm, which forms the basis of contemporary Arab American studies.  This view holds that since Arab culture is the baseline against which Arab Americans are measured, any “deviation” from “Arab culture” is evidence of a loss of Arabity (authenticity) or community membership (i.e., legitimacy). This paradigm informs us that the most “real” Arab Americans are those who bear a close resemblance to being “real” Arabs. They are the ones who have not “lost their culture,” or have not become “Americanized.” If one is fully “American” (something which is never defined in the Arab American context), then one cannot be Arab American (read Arab), because American and Arab are mutually exclusive categories. In short, the more American you are, the less Arab you must be.
Whether one is or is not an authentic Arab American is often determined through a battery of questions, which are frequently administered at cultural events or social gatherings in order to ascertain “levels of Arabity.” One such question is “Are both your parents Arab?” Answers of “No” yield assessments of the person being “only half, quarter, eighth,” etc. Here, we observe Arab culture rendered as a racial construct. Culture and Arabity are in the blood and genes, and any dilution of Arab “purity” detracts from cultural legitimacy. While “one drop” (or grandparent) is better than nothing, the more drops the more legitimate.
Another question may deal with linguistic ability. An Arab American’s inability to speak Arabic detracts from authenticity and may yield an admonition for not having learned Arabic (e.g. “You should really learn Arabic”). The offender often feels compelled to explain why they cannot speak Arabic, such as “My (grand)parents never taught me” or “I’ve always wanted to learn.”  Any disinterest in learning Arabic is taken as evidence that you are not interested in “your culture” and are in fact totally assimilated or “Americanized.”
This inquisitive climate regarding authenticity creates what I call the deficit model of ethnic identity. Thus, every “wrong” answer results in a reduction in points on the Arab American Culture Scorecard. Can’t speak Arabic? Minus points. Never been to the “Old Country” (whichever country that is)? Minus points. Not “one hundred percent Arab”? Minus points. Married to a person that is not Arab? Minus points. And so it goes until so many points are lost that the person has lost legitimacy as a member of the category Arab American. At the same time, however, proper praxis can gain a penitent some points, e.g. if one is involved in the “right” political causes, activities and organizations. Such behavior includes attempts at learning Arabic, being situated near or within Arab enclaves, incorporating elements of “native” dress in one’s wardrobe, frequenting Arab American haunts, becoming a member of an Arab American cluster of friends and displaying a hyper sense of Arabity. All of this is needed to prove that they haven’t “lost their identity.”
Given that individuals of Arab ancestry have been in the United States for over a century, we should question the validity and utility of such views.  Can we expect a person who is third, fourth, or even fifth generation to display fully Arab cultural traits, however defined, given that they have likely never set foot in an Arab country? Could Ralph Nader or John Abizaid be anymore Arab than they are, given their American-ness? This raises the question of whether “Arab culture” (in its back home manifestation) was ever theirs to lose. As the old blues standard goes, “You can’t give what you ain’t got, and you can’t lose what you never had.” 
While much has been made of “values” lost in the process of coming to and living in the U.S., it is not explicitly clear what these values are. The term “values” is notoriously vague. We need more concrete discussion regarding exactly what constitutes Arab and American “values,” and thus what it means to be American and Arab before declaring outright that each category has different values.
Given that Arab and American have been considered mutually exclusive categories, those traits and behaviors linked to being Arab can then be assumed to be absent in American society (and vice versa). In popular discourse, the United States is “modern,” the Arab world “traditional.” The U.S. is “individualistic,” the Arab world “collective.” The U.S. is “secular,” while the Arab world is “religious.” Society takes these oft-repeated maxims to be true without discussing what they actually mean as a part of everyday life. Furthermore, little or no discussion is given to traits and/or values that are found in American and Arab culture. We assume difference and thus render similarities invisible.
Before we can enter into a discussion of what has been lost through assimilation, we first need to do more to define what is actually there, and what the categories “Arab culture” and “American culture” mean. Of course, neither American nor Arab culture are monoliths. Like all cultures, they are dynamic, fluid, and malleable. However, by presenting Arab culture as fundamentally different from American culture, one is feeding into the dominant perception that Arabs aren’t like “us” (e.g. Americans, Westerners, Christians, etc.). This view also means that the category “Arab American” is a contradiction in terms. Since Arab and American are mutually exclusive and, some might say, opposite, being Arab American is then a unity of opposites (perhaps the ultimate dialectic?). 
With this dualistic and dichotomous view of Arab and American cultures, we condemn Arab Americans to live eternally in-between, never fully one or the other. Being Arab American means never being fully one thing, but being less than either of its components. Rather than being greater than the sum of its parts, the Arab American is lesser. The Arab American will then suffer from a double marginality where they cannot be fully part of either American or Arab culture. From this perspective, the Arab American can never be a fully complete thing unto itself, but rather a bankrupt hybrid incapable of original genesis.
Clearly, this cannot be true; for there is no evidence that Arab-American hybridism is an unproductive cultural pool. To the contrary, the national Arab American culture-scape suggests otherwise: after all, not all Arab Americans are “torn between two cultures,” and many more are very comfortable with the blendings, compromises, and even contradictions that arise within their ethnic communities. 
Since individuals of Arab ancestry have been in the U.S. for well over a century, we need to develop a field of work that more accurately and fully represents the experience of being Arab American, with all of its complexity and diversity. For instance, using Arab and Middle Eastern studies (especially when they are informed by Orientalist or neo-Orientalist ideas) as the baseline against which Arab Americans and Arab American studies are measured will retain the foundation of assimilation (or exclusion, for if you are not fully Arab you are excluded from the discussion). This will always render the Arab American experience as lacking authenticity in terms of Arab culture, and always “Othered” in American culture. While Arab studies can be used to inform Arab American studies and experience, it cannot be used to define it. Furthermore, Arab American studies is more suited to the field of American studies, as it is an American phenomenon.
Furthermore, rather than examining what Arab Americans aren’t, we need to do more work on who Arab Americans are in their everyday lived experience, in all its mundane-ness and diversity. This includes people whose families arrived in the U.S. 100 years ago and those who arrived one month ago, because all people of Arab ancestry compose the greater Arab American community in the U.S. Dismissing the “assimilated” and “Americanized” as irrelevant and illegitimate is nothing more than cultural gate-keeping. 
Since Arab Americans exist in a specific context—primarily in the U.S.—Arab American studies may belong more to American studies than Arab studies. Or it may belong to neither.  Either way, “Arab American” is not reducible to being solely Arab or American. It is its own hybrid, as are other ethnic identities.  As increasing numbers of “experts” try to define who Arab Americans are, we need to clarify how we want to be defined and who we are as a complex, dynamic, and diverse ethnic community.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, No. 44, Summer 2003.

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