Written by Martha Barry, PhD, Chief Racial Justice Officer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 leaves us rethinking our personal skills (washing our hands for second seconds, physical distancing, learning to use technology to keep in touch with loved ones) along with maintaining perspectives on our global interconnectedness.
We see how Asian Americans have faced hate crimes and bigotry as the virus is referred to as the Kong Flu and Chinese Flu. No group should be identified by stereotypes. It is important that we pause, look beyond the misinformation we’ve received about our Asian American Pacific Islander family, colleagues, and friends, and embrace each other as part of our human family.
This month, our focus is on Arab Americans. 3.5 million Arab Americans claim the United States as home. My brother-in-law is Egyptian, my niece’s boyfriend is Palestinian. They are both United States citizens who speak Arabic fluently, grew up in largely Muslim countries, and now claim this country as their own. Wisconsin’s Arab American population is small but includes people who might identify their home countries as Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iraq, or Jordan.
Having traveled to Egypt and meeting my brother-in-law’s family, I was struck by the country’s amazing beauty, the burial grounds of ancient kings and queens, along with the intense pride of the people. I grew accustomed to the call-to-prayer in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan. I could not imagine learning to drive or being a driver in Cairo. I rode with my brother-in-law’s cousin while she took us to the public market (with so many vehicles, people and limited traffic lights, let’s just say it was harrowing). Lena shared her love of Cairo and its history while discussing what studying terrorism as a graduate student had meant to her.
But while I welcomed the food, the history and the sense of being in North Africa, I could tell I carried stereotypes of what to expect in this land. Having spent time on the Nile, meeting Nubian people, seeing Lake Nassar and eating delicious Mediterranean comfort food, I was changed by the experience. Any stereotypes I carried diminished with each passing day.
These and other Arab Americans carry rich culture, language and traditions. Their perspectives may be different from our largely Christian nation. A 2010 survey reveals nearly 75% of the US population claimed some Christian faith, followed by two percent Jewish, less than one percent Islamic, and over 18% claiming no religious heritage. Yet, our holidays, our celebrations, and our history are built on European Americans declaring religious freedom by “claiming” the United States as home. This narrative erases the native people who were here and claimed this land as their sacred home.
As we celebrate Arab American heritage month, we ask you to go deeper. Consider the land you stand on as Indigenous. Get to know Arab Americans and other people whose background, traditions, thinking and perspective is different from your own. Open your heart and mind to those around you who can bring you a much richer understanding of yourself.
And stay safer at home. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.