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Presently Invisible: The Arab Plight in American Classrooms

To create more inclusive classrooms and counter negative narratives about Arab Americans, educators can include Arab American history and culture in their current curriculum. Here are some ways to do that.

Growing up a third culture kid, torn between my Palestinian-Arab ethnicity and my American nationality, I was constantly made aware of my otherness. During my formative years, I was unable to reconcile these feelings or articulate them properly. Many years later, I recognized how I had felt—invisible. 

When taking standardized tests and filling out the race bubbles, I never could find the right one to check: White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American. This small set of choices left me perplexed. As an Arab American, I knew my experiences and race were not the same as my white peers’, but I also did not fit into any of the other categories. 

Arab Americans are often forgotten when it comes to representation, whether it’s on the census, in political strategies to gain voters, in the media or—most commonly—in the classroom.

And while inclusive and social justice-based curricula are making their way into elementary and secondary classrooms, I cannot help but ask: Where are all the Arab Americans? Even among the most progressive and socially conscious educators, we see a lack of Arab representation in many K-12 classrooms. 

But even though Arabs are invisible in conversations about history, politics and curriculum, we are constantly vilified. Arabs are invisible when talking about the complexity of American history, and our contributions to society are often minimized. Yet in the media, movies and stories—especially after the events of September 11, 2001, and more recently in the “Muslim Ban”—Arabs and Muslims are portrayed as foreign, out of place in the United States, with beliefs that do not belong in American society. How can an entire race be both invisible and vilified? 

While Arabs immigrated individually to North America before the United States became a nation, the first significant wave of Arab migration to the U.S. happened in the 1800s, with a substantial mass immigration happening in the early 1900s. This is not dissimilar to other migrant groups like Italians, Greeks and Portuguese. But, unlike Arab Americans, these other immigrant groups are seen as a part of the American fabric. This history of erasing, vilifying and othering Arab Americans—coupled with blatant and overt racism, Islamophobia and daily discrimination—has affected Arab Americans’ self-esteem, mental health and engagement in American politics.

To change the perspective, we need to include Arab American voices in the classroom.

This could be done in a variety of ways, such as by diversifying classroom libraries with texts that center Arab characters and are written by Arab writers. For example, Naomi Shihab Nye is the current Poetry Foundation Young People’s Poet Laureate. Nye writes about her experiences as a Palestinian American growing up torn between two worlds.

The inclusion of Arab American authors and books with Arab protagonists provides students a chance to read and experience Arab identities. Not only will Arab students start to see themselves in the texts; other students will be able to have a window into these experiences.

Teachers should also look for places to include Arab American history in their current curriculum. During the month of April, Arab American Heritage month, teachers can have students research prominent Arab and Arab American figures. But this learning can continue year-round.

For example, educators can cover Arab history when discussing the U.S. labor movement. Arab Americans have played a key role in union organizing on behalf of workers on farms and in the auto industry.

Ralph Nader, an Arab American, has been directly credited with the creation of landmark consumer protection acts, such as the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act and, most notably, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Educators can also highlight the contributions of Arab Americans today. For example, Moncef Slaoui led Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to spearhead development of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

While small additions are not comprehensive, they can help educators start the process of being truly inclusive in their classrooms. In today’s political climate, children are exposed to over-simplified and biased perspectives of the world and the people in it. The inclusion of Arab Americans in our curriculum will not only help to negate much of the misinformation, but it will also cultivate a new generation that works toward a future where things like FBI surveillance based on race or “the Muslim Ban” could be unimaginable.

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