Discrimination: not left in the past
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“The new Miss America is…”
Gripping each other tightly on the stage, 24-year-old Nina Davuluri and 22-year-old Crystal Lee, respectively Misses New York and California, tensely anticipated the results of the Miss America pageant on Sunday, September 15. After what felt like an eternity, host Chris Harrison revealed the winner: “…Miss New York!” The crowd erupted in cheers as Davuluri, overwhelmed by shock and happiness, accepted her crown and sash and hugged her fellow contestants.
Miss America had its first winner of Indian descent.
It was a dream come true, but all too soon, social media turned the event into a living nightmare. Several Twitter users immediately began to make racist remarks about her skin color, first assuming that she was Arab and Muslim and going so far as to call her a member of al-Qaida. One user wrote, “Miss America or Miss al-Qaida?” while another remarked, “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America?”
Clearly, 12 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, many Americans still don’t know much about Middle Eastern peoples.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, several researchers reported hate crimes toward Arab-Americans spiked as much as 1600 percent. A 2009 UC Berkeley study revealed job applicants with stereotypical Arabic names were less likely to get a job interview than an applicant with a stereotypically white name. Earlier this spring, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission reported that in 2012, Arab and Muslim employees filed more retaliation charges than any other minority groups, meaning they were harassed, demoted or fired for reporting workplace discrimination.
It is nearly impossible to get an accurate count of Arab-American presence nationwide. The Arab-American Institute estimates at least 3.5 million Americans of Middle Eastern descent. However, other reports state there is only a third that many. Any Arab-American can tell you the reason for this discrepancy: the US Census has no category for them to mark their ethnicity or race. Despite the distinct culture of Middle Eastern peoples, the federal government places them in the same category as European-descended Americans: white.
A 2010 Time article partially explained the history behind this: “Part of the problem is that Arab immigrants a century ago petitioned the Federal Government to be categorized as white to avoid discrimination.” However, this move has actually harmed more than helped the Arab- American community.
Professor Carmel Saad of the psychology department, herself an Egyptian-American, has focused her career on cultural identity. “I think people who look more characteristically Arab probably get the brunt of [discrimination] because of their phenotype. Especially if they are wearing a headscarf, then people just assume they are associated with terrorist activities when they are very likely not,” Saad said. “I think a lot of people tend to think Arab-Americans are all Muslim, Arab-Americans are all terrorists, Arab-Americans are all angry . . . I would like to see people differentiate more between those of Middle Eastern descent."
Second-year Madeleine Tappy spent many summers living abroad as her father worked on archaeological excavations. “Airport security officers seem to have no problem stereotyping and picking out some travellers, often Arabs, because security is their highest priority. I believe all people are created in the image of God and that God created us as cultural beings. Cultural differences are what make life on earth fascinating and intriguing. Consequently, I think racial profiling has a dehumanizing element, considering [a certain people group] to be ‘the other’ rather than appreciating and learning from our differences,” said Tappy.
Second-year Muhammad Mehai is mixed-race Algerian and has experienced discrimination firsthand. “For the most part, over the past year or so, since I’ve been here, most people are pretty open-minded. I never really felt out of place or singled out. But overall, I’ve had some pretty bad experiences traveling outside of the States and coming back in . . . I remember one time me and my dad went to Algeria for a couple months, and on the way back in, we get off the plane and there’s basically FBI waiting for us. And they just tell us, ‘Come with us’ and it’s like three hours of questioning. So after that, I think we were put on a list of some sort. Every time we travel, you just kind of expect it now. I’ve gotten used to it. At first I was pretty angry about it, but you just get used to it,” Mehai said.
Change is occurring, though. The Huffington Post reported in June that the FBI will begin tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs. Media portrayals of Middle Eastern peoples have drastically improved in recent years.
However, various views on how to continue making gains exist. Although “cultural color-blindness,” viewing people as individuals distinct from any racial, religious or cultural group, is a common philosophy, more current studies promote “color consciousness,” understanding individuals through their various group identities.
Mehai added, “Most of the problems that are started around the world just start from our own ignorance, not knowing what’s going on. If we just learned more about each other and how other people interact and how they worship and what they believe in, it would just be a huge step.”
Professor Heather Keaney of the history department spent 11 years living and teaching in Cairo, and she focuses her studies on the modern Middle East. In regard to the Middle East as well as Arab-Americans, she emphasized that there is really nothing of which to be afraid.
For Christians, she offered even more reason not to fear. “Isn’t that the commandment that’s repeated more often than anything else in the Bible? Do not be afraid,” Keaney said. “So I just think if we find ourselves being motivated or reacting out of fear, we should definitely be pausing to say, ‘Where is this coming from? This is not of God.’ And if we feel that there are speakers or people or writers who are trying to play on that fear, rather than listening to them, we should be calling them out on it, asking, ‘What’s going on here? What are you gaining from making me afraid of this?’ I think Christians, of all people, should not be acting out of fear.”