Having “The Talk” when you are Arab in America

Thursday 3 September 202001:56 pm

Having “The Talk” in the United States colloquially refers to a conversation about racism, discrimination, and police brutality that African American parents feel compelled to have with their kids and that constitutes a rite of passage for all black children. A less known Talk is the one Arab and Muslim families are having on islamophobia and how to navigate anti-Arab prejudice that escalated to hyperbolic proportions since the 9/11 events and the appearance of ISIS on our screens.

My son is eight, and I am already fighting my inner demons trying to find the accurate words, appropriate timing, and pedagogical manner to announce to him that we are “different”, or more precisely “alien” to use the exact technical term coined by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Not the green wide-eyed aliens living in outer space and promoted in science fiction movies but equally dreaded and misjudged species. One that is portrayed in popular imagination as barbaric “towelheads” imbeciles who ride camels in the desert, eat a full-size calf for lunch, beat their female counterparts, and blow up towers for their leisure.

A less known Talk is the one Arab and Muslim families are having on islamophobia and how to navigate anti-Arab prejudice that escalated to hyperbolic proportions since the 9/11 events and the appearance of ISIS on our screens

Never Make a Bomb Joke

Prejudice in the US can take many forms and is often very subtle due to the political correctness façade that individuals like to maintain. Arab couples usually avoid giving common Middle Eastern names their children in order to protect their offspring from bullying and ensure that they ascend the social ladder without having to face ethnic bigotry and sabotage. They mostly choose from a limited glossary of acceptable names like Adam, Ryan,

Sarah, Sofia, and company. Unlike some European countries, it is very rare to be attacked in the street because of your skin color or the way you dress, but how likely would you get a job if your name is Mohamed or if you wear Hijab? How often would your neighbors entrust you with their kids or properties? Who will be the first suspect if you happen to be in a terrorist attack site?

In America, Arabs arrive as "aliens", portrayed in popular imagination as barbaric “towelhead” imbeciles who ride camels, eat a full-size calf for lunch, beat their female counterparts, and blow up towers for kicks. How do we counter that narrative?

My son is fascinated by war games, toy weapons, plastic soldiers, and monster trucks like any young boy from the pre gender-neutral era. Many of the teachers that he had throughout the years would label him as impulsive and aggressive and will not hesitate to mention that “he must have acquired violence from where you come from”. He is not an isolated case; we all remember Ahmed Mohamed the clock kid who was suspected of carrying a bomb because of racial profiling and security obsession in schools. I personally have been subjected to several xenophobic instances, like the time I have been denied a lease because the landlord prefers not to rent to “my people” or when I was asked at multiple occasions “when do I intend to go back home” or even praised for being a “civil and educated Arab”.

When Afro Americans have The Talk with their kids they often say “If you are stopped by the police: Always answer 'yes sir, no sir'; never talk back; don’t make any sudden movements; don’t put your hands in your pockets; obey all commands; if you think you are falsely accused, save it for the police station. I would rather pick you up at the station than the morgue" as stated in the 2017 PBS documentary on the subject. The Arab equivalent will be “Never say Allahu Akhbar in a public place; don’t speak loudly in Arabic on a plane or other means of transportation; shave your beard or change your name to get a job; don’t transfer big amounts of money back home, if someone asks you about your religion say it’s a private matter, don’t panic if they stop you for extensive search at the airport, and never make bomb jokes if you don’t want to end up in Guantanamo bay”.

According to a Gallup poll Muslims are the primary focus for purveyors of hate. Over 43% of Americans are harboring some degree of prejudice against them and doubt their loyalty. Another study indicates 57% of Muslims believe they are discriminated against

The Sisyphus Stone of Migrants

According to a Gallup poll Muslims have become a primary focus for purveyors of hate. Over 43% of Americans are harboring some degree of prejudice against them and doubt their loyalty. Another study indicates that 57% of Muslims do not believe to be treated as equal citizens, while 48% of the population have likely experienced racial or religious discriminations, the highest rate among all interviewed minorities. These self-declared opinions might be misleading and even concealing more alarming figures.

Some civil society actors and public personalities have been forthright about the matter and actively work to counter Islamophobia like the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR), which offers a dedicated website and tools for parents and communities. Still, I witness around me a lingering chronic stress whenever a new war in the region is looming or when an act of violence is perpetuated against a western country. Our Sisyphus stone as Middle Eastern migrants is to be eternally doomed to prove our allegiance and innocence from violent extremism, some even opt to negate their culture and roots all together for the sake of integration and acceptance.

My moral predicament as a mother persists: How can I possibly explain to a kid who believes that his skin color is “caramel” that his ethnicity and name are contributing to the biases he is subjected to? How can I prepare him for a lifetime of bullying and harassment, and shield him against radicalization in a tense political climate? Maybe making him read this article can be a modest conversation starter for a delicate yet necessary Talk.

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