Supporting Arab American Students in the Classroom

Educators can uplift Arab American students, counter negative narratives and make classroom content more inclusive. Here’s how to start.
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Despite the fact that Arab Americans are the fastest growing diasporic group in the United States, it is often hard for schools to identify their Arab American students. In fact, many educators and administrators may not even know how many Arab American students are in their schools, because these students are classified as white by the United States Census Bureau.

Since traditional textbooks and single-subject credentials don’t provide educators with information about Arab American identity, it’s incumbent upon educators to make sure they know the facts.

There are an estimated 1.5 million people with Arab ancestry in the United States. This population includes a diversity of nationalities, ethnicities and religious identities: Arab Americans come from a range of ethnic groups from the Middle East and North Africa and a total of 22 Arab countries. And despite common assumptions about Arab American religious identity, 77% of Arab Americans are Christians.

I did not disclose I was Arab for the majority of my academic life. I grew up in a system that did not encourage me to take pride in my cultural identity but instead pushed me to hide from it. It was realizing this that led me to pursue my doctorate and focus my research on Arab American students in the American education system.

Arab immigrants and Arab Americans continue to struggle with discrimination, profiling and subjugation in the United States. Despite their diverse backgrounds, Arab American students are often grouped into one monolithic identity. The Arab world has long been portrayed as “at war” with the West. This negative narrative continues to be perpetuated in our schools and within our curriculum.

Like many Arab American families, my parents did everything in their power to help me develop my cultural identity at home, but the hours I spent at school negated it. I found myself doing the daily switch from my white, school self to my Arab, home self. This endless tug of war left me with feelings of confusion, shame, anger and loneliness.

My experience wasn’t unique: Studies show discrimination against Arab American youth may decrease self-esteem and increase psychological distress. Schools need to find ways to help students feel safe in identifying as Arab Americans and to support them in navigating through this identity process.

In the Classroom

As an educator, have you reflected on any discomfort that you may feel when it comes to Arab and Middle East studies?

Examine any cognitive biases you may have about this population and how they might show up in your classroom. Understand that there is a widespread stereotype that Arab students are somehow connected to terrorist groups. We cannot begin to change the narrative until we confront these biases.

Teachers are often uncomfortable discussing terrorism in the classroom, which can cause more harm than good. Rather than educating students on the fact that extremist groups do not represent the Arab population, are you leaving students to make their own assumptions and allowing the negative narrative to continue? Students need to know that these groups do not make up the majority of the Arab world. Educators need to acknowledge Arab American students as the diverse youth that they are and begin to correct misinformation.

See Arab American students in a way that I was never seen by my teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you don’t know something. And don’t avoid conversations or topics out of fear of discomfort—doing so can send the message that certain identities or cultures are taboo. For example, during the War in Iraq, my teachers treated the issue like the elephant in the room, afraid to address it because of the Arab student in their classroom. But instead of making me feel better, this made me afraid to ever admit to my classmates I was Arab for fear of being othered and stereotyped.

Explore how Arab Americans appear—or do not appear—in your curriculum. Start with your school and local library, both of which probably carry country fact books. Once you educate yourself on these countries, you can begin to introduce writers and stories coming from this part of the world. Give Arab Americans a seat at the table by representing them through the content in your classes.

If you teach younger students, try The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi or (a favorite of my children) The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter. For middle school, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat and A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Schami (translated by Rika Lesser) allow for a deeper exploration of the lives of students around their age that they can identify with. Finally, How Does it Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi does a phenomenal job of addressing the lives of Arab Americans in the United States in a post-9/11 world. This book is appropriate for high school and above, and it can be coupled with novels such as Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel-Fattah or Figs and Fate: Stories about Growing Up in the Arab World Today by Elsa Marston.

Another way to uplift Arabs in the curriculum is to explore their contributions to art and architecture. The Middle East Institute website has a plethora of resources to get teachers started. One of these includes a discussion and information about Islamic art. Despite its label, this art is not necessarily religious, and this site can introduce students to art forms from throughout the Arab world, including contributions in architecture, painting and calligraphy.

Finally, the National Gallery of Art is another great resource, offering educators an extensive free booklet on Islamic art and architecture that can be utilized in a variety of ways by classroom teachers from kindergarten to college.

Be a conduit to positively connect Arab American students with their cultural background, rather than give them another reason to hide it. Allow them to see themselves in the curricula to help them develop a sense of belonging in their schools.

And change the narrative about Arabs and Arab Americans in this country—one child at a time. Foster a learning environment that turns Arab into a word kids are not afraid to say—and, more importantly, are not afraid to be.

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