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Boxed In or Out? The Paradox and Perils of Arab American Identity

Boxed In or Out? The Paradox and Perils of Arab American Identity

By Conrad Foreman
October 23, 2015

The Keep Dearborn Clean campaign of Khaled Beydoun’s youth was a “racially discriminatory city-wide covenant,” Beydoun—one of the nation’s foremost experts on the legal construction of Arab and Muslim American identity—said in a talk at U-M.

“Whiteness was the benchmark for American citizenship,” Beydoun said, “and to veer closer to whiteness, Arab Americans had to distance themselves from its racial antithesis: Blackness.” He went on to explain: “For whiteness to have any legal significance and meaning, it had to have a racial and legal antithesis, which was blackness. … The performance of whiteness necessitated the performance of anti-blackness.”

Beydoun, assistant professor at the Barry University School of Law, spoke October 13 in a lecture titled Boxed In or Out? The Paradox and Perils of Arab American Identity. The talk focused on various aspects of Arab American identity, including legal struggles of the Arab American community, specifically in relation to legal whiteness, and social struggles that Arab Americans face in a country where they are often viewed as outsiders.

Beydoun recounted personal experiences growing up Arab American in Dearborn, a city that borders Detroit and has long had one of the largest Arab American populations in the country. Beydoun shed light on the animosity within the Arab American community toward black Americans. Though Beydoun and his family technically resided in Detroit, just beyond the Dearborn border, his mother used a proxy address to ensure he attended Dearborn public schools—not only so he might receive a better education, but to keep him closer to the Dearborn Arab American community, and away from the more heavily black population in Detroit.

Arab Americans experienced positive legal consequences from disassociating with blackness, he said. Numerous times, he pointed out, Arab Americans have fought to be considered white by U.S. courts. At least one such case was ruled in favor of the Arab American as white partially based on popular depictions of Jesus. The logic followed that, since Jesus was white, others who hail from the very same region must also be white.

The desire to be considered legally white is best explained by the Naturalization Act of 1790, which mandated whiteness as a prerequisite to U.S. citizenship. Though the law was weakened over the years through challenges in the courts, it wasn’t until the passing of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that racial and gender discrimination were outlawed in the naturalization process.

However, for Beydoun, the discrimination against blacks within the Arab American community was as unacceptable as the discrimination Arab Americans themselves faced in white America. Beydoun cited the case of Malice Green, an unarmed black man who died during a confrontation with Detroit police in 1992 (an act that then Detroit Mayor Coleman Young publicly labeled “murder”), as sparking his passion for social justice.

Beydoun noted that, despite successfully attaining “whiteness” in the legal system, Arab Americans have received few benefits from this. “The Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local policing agencies view Arabs, particularly after 9/11, as anything but white,” Beydoun said, “However, the primary agencies responsible for defining Arab American identity—the U.S. Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget— classify Arabs as white. This fissure between law and lived experience is the paradox we grapple with today.”

Soon to be decided will be whether to include a separate box (or two) on the 2020 census for Arab Americans from the Middle East and North Africa. Though Beydoun noted that Arab American organizations “have clawed for an individualized box in the census since the 1980s,” he questioned the motivations for adding the boxes now. He asked, “Is the MENA box and its timing more about state, or community, interests?”

During the Q&A, Beydoun was asked a question regarding anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiment on social media. “I think it’s advantageous for individuals who advocate against islamophobia, to allow islamophobes to spew their racist venom,” he said. For Beydoun, such transparency allows people like him to “sit back and let these guys do the work for us.”

The event was presented by Arab and Muslim American Studies and the Department of American Culture and cosponsored by the Program in Race, Law & History at the Law School, the Department of American Culture, the Department of Political Science, the Department of Sociology, and the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

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