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Arabs and the Racial Lessons of 9/11

By Carol Chehade

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 of racism.

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 of Whiteness.

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

Copyright © 2002 Carol Chehade

-- February 28, 2003

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