Every now and then, I come across Arab Americans who tell me, “Why are you hung up on this thing about getting Arabs a box on the census form? Let’s just stay white.” My disappointment is usually too visible for their liking.
To those of my brethren, I simply say: This white thing is not working out that great for us. Some Arab Americans think that assimilation is the way to acceptance. But assimilation into what? Listen, Ali (or Al, or Allen, or Alex, or Ollie, or whatever you call yourself), white guys are never letting you into their club. It’s highly exclusive, and you don’t even meet the minimum requirements. You can try as hard as you want, but white people are never going to think you’re white. They just aren’t.
And how do I know this? As I was making my movie “We’re Not White,” I walked the streets of a few American cities asking white people about Arabs. My conversations went something like this:
Me: Do you have any Arab friends?
White guy: Sure.
Me: Do you think they’re white?
White guy (confused look): Um, no.
That’s really the only test that matters.
Some Arab Americans try their best to be as white as they can be. And their white friends might even fool them into thinking they are part of the club. But it’s not happening. Trust me. As a child, my best friend was a white kid (we’ll call him Tommy) who lived across the street. His parents were really nice middle-class people. They totally accepted me into their house, and they even let me join them for Hamburger Helper dinners every now and then. I loved it. In my house, we never ate food I saw on TV. Our dinners were more likely to be featured on the Discovery Channel. Eating at Tommy’s house was always fun. But without fail, Tommy’s dad would always pat me on the head and say, “Tastes better than that camel meat you eat, huh?” I didn’t realize how racist that was until I got a little older. And we never ate camel meat! I mean, I don’t think we did. Right, Mom?!
Whether some Arab Americans choose to believe it or not, we are in the middle of a civil rights movement. We are not fighting against some anecdotal instances of racism here and there. No, we are struggling for the simplest of things: basic acceptance in American society. Some of us think, because we have made money and generally done well for ourselves, that we have been fully received into American culture. But the beauty of American is that anyone can be a multi-millionaire. Look at Flavor Flav.
Yes, our struggle is not defined by poverty, and that’s a good thing. And it’s not defined by undocumented immigration. Undocumented Arab immigrants don’t really get the same immigration hearings as their Latino counterparts. They get deported Monopoly-style: Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Our struggle is defined by simply asking American society to stop seeing us a threat to the American way of life. Maybe after we get past that, we can start talking about assimilation. But we can’t assimilate into something that sees us as perpetually foreign.
So, stop thinking you can ride this white thing out. I wish we were actually white. It’s seems pretty great. White people have never had to struggle for civil rights in this country. Well, that’s not totally true. There has been one white civil rights movement: the gay marriage movement. And look at how quickly that’s moving along. It took black Americans 250 years to end slavery, another 100 years to get the right to vote, and they’re still fighting today. California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas used to be part of Mexico, and to this day, white people are still telling Mexicans to get out of places called San Antonio and Albuquerque. But the fight for gay rights has a white face. And anti-gay marriage laws are being struck down quicker than you can say “destination wedding.” Meanwhile, John McCain is still telling people that Barack Obama is not an Arab, he’s a “decent family man.”
Maybe all Arab Americans should just pretend we are gay. I mean, our men already kiss each other on the cheek. If we just move it to the lips, we might get somewhere.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."