The Arab American Experience: From Invisibility to Heightened Visibility

Authored by: Louise Cainkar

The Routledge Handbook of Asian American Studies

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415738255
eBook ISBN: 9781315817514
Adobe ISBN: 9781317813927


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The social history of Arab Americans is different from that of most other ethnic or national origin groups in the U.S., whether white or nonwhite. Early in the 20th century, Arab Americans as a group largely benefited from the social inclusion and perquisites that accrued to marginal whiteness. Defined as Caucasian [the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East] and said to share in the culture and history of the West, intermittent attempts to exclude them from the structural benefits accruing to whiteness were usually successfully challenged. Yet as the U.S. government increasingly engaged in global ventures of power after World War II, popular movements within the Arab world became obstacles to its and its allies’ aspirations for unfettered dominance. In order to justify U.S. ambitions and actions in the region, the U.S. government, mainstream U.S. media, and interested U.S. parties undertook extensive efforts to define Arabs as a problem for the West: they were a monolithic, fanatic, and uncivilized people who did not share Western values. Resistance to Western colonialism, domination, and oppression was [re-]framed as an inherent cultural proclivity to violence. As dominant social constructions of who they were changed, so did the social status and position of Arab Americans in the American racial hierarchy. By 2002 Arab Americans had become the least favored among American ethnic and religious groups, even less than Muslims, as measured by the Bogardus scale of social distance. 1 Over a span of time, Arab American experiences and their treatment by actors in government, mainstream social institutions, and the American public came to mirror the historic experiences of people of color. Indeed, these days one must often describe Arab American experiences and South Asian American experiences jointly, because in many ways their fates have aligned, especially in the case of South Asian Muslims and Sikhs.

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