Discrimination and bigotry are as American as apple pie. A cursory glance through a history book will confirm this simple fact.
What’s new on the continuum of collective bigotry in America are its intended targets and the collateral damage inflicted upon other groups.
“Most people are not aware that Arabs and Muslims have been vilified in American culture for more than a century,” said Dr. Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”
Although negative stereotypes have, as Shaheen says, been around for over a century, anti-Arab bigotry reached a zenith in the weeks following 9/11, with the FBI reporting a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001.
The intense virulence and concomitant rhetoric produced a fear that compelled some Arab-Americans to hide their heritage and ancestry.
Catherine Joseph, 21, a Stony Brook University senior, was in second grade when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. She was too young to fully grasp the significance of the events, but she was yet aware that something terrible had happened.
“I remember so vividly being out to dinner shortly after 9/11 with my family when I began nagging my father about visiting Lebanon,” Joseph said, via email. “Being both Italian-American and Lebanese-American, I was always compelled by both of these cultures. He looked at me and replied: ‘From now on when people ask, you are strictly Italian-American.’ For years following the attacks, I did exactly as my father said.”
“I had no idea that he was shielding me from the harsh stereotypes and discrimination associated with being Arab-American.”
In the almost-14 years since 9/11, discrimination against Arabs, Arab-Americans and those perceived as belonging to those groups continues to rise.
South Asians, Sikhs, Hindus and some non-Arab Middle Easterners are often targeted because they are mistaken for being Arab.
Amir Razani, 20, is well-acquainted with this mis-perception.
“I identify as Iranian-American or just simply Persian,” said Razani, via email. “I do sometimes get mistaken for being Arab-American simply because most people don’t really know what Persian is or where Persians are from. Even when I say I am from Iran, some people still think that Iranians are Arab, which isn’t true.”
According to the United States Department of Justice, hate crimes against these communities has remained high since 9/11. During that time, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has investigated over 800 hate-related incidents against these groups.
Sumeet Singh, a 20-year-old Stony Brook junior and practicing Sikh can relate.
In her community, many are reluctant to express their faith through wearing a turban (men) or long hair (women), both of which are symbolic of the Sikh faith.
“Because of this backlash against people of Indian descent,” Singh said, “people who cut their hair felt that they needed to in order to survive in this society.”
“I think a lot of Sikhs lost confidence in being able to show proudly that they are Sikhs with their turbans, because that’s a main way to identify Sikhs,” Sing continued.
Although there are no easy solutions to ameliorate this trend, groups such as the Arab American Association of New York, the Sikh Coalition and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) have been formed to protect the rights of these groups and to advocate in the face of rising discrimination.