At first glance, it may have seemed that we Arabs were not that present in the news this week. Syria was mostly out of the headlines, the Palestinians and Israelis are in their secret cove somewhere negotiating, and the rest of the Arab world was relatively quiet.
But if you watch the news the way we Arabs watch the news, you would realize that we never get a day off. We are there even when it seems we aren’t.
On Monday morning, we all woke up to the horrific news of the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. We watched as news outlets told us there were three shooters, then two shooters, then one, and he was dead. And in case you wonder why you didn’t hear from any of your Arab friends until that afternoon, it was because we were all sitting in front of the TV, shaking our heads, quietly mumbling to ourselves, “Please don’t be Arab. Please don’t be Muslim. Please don’t be anything that looks like Arabs or Muslims. Please.”
Well, he wasn’t an Arab. He was an African-American named Aaron Alexis, a former member of the United States Navy. He had a high-level security clearance, and entered the Navy Yard lawfully where he was working as a contractor. It was later discovered that he had been arrested in 2010 for discharging his gun, treated for mental problems, and prescribed anti-depressants as recently as last month. His security clearance was never revoked or re-investigated. This was clearly the case a senseless tragic shooting where the individual responsible had fallen through the cracks of a stretched system.
So when it became utterly clear who the DC Navy Yard shooter was, I was relieved. I was relieved that he was not Arab or Muslim. And I felt like a bad person for feeling that way.
I was ready to turn off the TV and get on with the rest of my day. And then it happened. CNN and other news outlets started quoting law enforcement personnel, government officials, and analysts. They were all telling us that there was “no evidence that this was an act of terrorism.” And that’s when I knew that rest of my day was going to be lousy.
I watch the news a lot. I am somewhat of a professional. And I have come to know that “no evidence that this was act of terrorism” really translates into “no evidence that Arabs or Muslims had anything to do with this.”
And there we were, in a news story that has absolutely nothing to do with us other than the fact that everyone had to be told that it had absolutely nothing to do with us. That’s the way it works for us. Even when it wasn’t us, they have to tell everyone that it wasn’t us.
And since the DC Navy Yard shooting was “not an act of terrorism” (see translation above), its news cycle was short. By Tuesday afternoon, we had moved on.
And that wasn’t my only non-encounter encounter with the news this week.
Nina Davuluri became this year’s Miss America last Sunday night. She is the pageant’s first winner of Indian descent. Immediately, the Twitterverse lit up like the Fourth of July. And much of it was not very nice:
How is miss America Indian? This is America… Not India. Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11.
More like Miss Terrorist.
Miss America right now or miss Al Qaeda?
Those are just mean.
I swear I’m not racist but this is America.
This one was not too surprising. Racists never think that they are racist. They need to be told.
Then we got to the really special ones.
How the f*** does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab!
And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic.
Now, I am Arab, and I can tell you, there is nothing “classic” about us winning anything.
Even Miss America has been outsourced to India.
Ok, that one was funny.
Now, Nina is not an Arab, and she is not a Muslim. She is an Indian, and she is a Hindu. And news outlets were quick to point all of this out. They screamed from the mountaintops, “This is so unfair to Nina! She is not an Arab! She is not a Muslim!”
It reminded me of when John McCain was running for president in 2008. At a rally in Minnesota, one of his supporters came to the microphone and told the crowd that she could not trust Barack Obama because he was “an Arab.” McCain quickly interjected, “No ma’am, he is a decent family man.”
And so there we were again, in a news story that had nothing to do with us until the racists misidentified their target as one of us, and then everyone corrected the racists.
I guess I should look on the bright side. It’s kind of like we have a magical power to appear in news stories that we don’t actually appear in. Who else can say that?
No one wants to be an Arab if they don’t have to. And I can’t blame them. It’s tough. The food is great, but that hardly makes up for everything else. We are the only group that you can still say racist things about and get away with it. Who would want to be one of us?
When people first look at me, they can’t always figure out where I’m “from from.” They might say, “Are you Greek, Italian, Puerto Rican, Asian?” I say, “Asian, really? You guessed Asian?” They never guess Arab. That would be insulting.
So, Nina, I know what it feels like to be misidentified. But my world is different.
It’s bad enough to be mistaken for something that you’re not. But it’s even worse to be the thing that no one wants to be mistaken for.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."