DUBAI: As US President Barack Obama seeks to reconcile the relationship between America and the people of the Arab world, it will be interesting to see how the relationship within America, between Arab Americans and the American mainstream, will evolve as well.
As an Arab child growing up in the United States, I often felt like my Arab culture and heritage were not represented in the American melting pot. In the early 1990s, American culture differentiated people based on race and culture, the categories being white, black, and Hispanic, but not much else.
This distinction was propagated most noticeably by the entertainment media, which generally failed and continues to fail to depict the daily lives and concerns of other cultural groups in American society. This in turn reflected on society itself, which came to recognize only these three segments of society, with everyone else making up a mysterious minority fringe.
One of my most vivid memories was as a little girl in Ohio, when I was unable to choose between a black doll and a white doll because I felt that neither represented me. That experience, among others, left me confused and desperate for any sign that people who did not fit into any of these two extremes were still a part of American culture.
Later, I began to see Asian Americans in the mix of identities represented by the media, but Arabs and Muslims, though equally present, remained unseen in mainstream American media, and therefore in society.
In America, the metaphor of a “melting pot is often used to explain how the country’s diverse immigrant cultures melt together to form an entirely unique cultural flavor. An essential part of this metaphor is the expectation that newcomers will assimilate completely into mainstream society.
Accordingly, American children of all backgrounds are expected to share a relatively common experience, such as attending the prom dance after graduating from high school, taking ballet lessons, and going to sleepovers at friends’ homes. However, many Arabs and especially Muslims, including my own family, feel that our culture is incompatible with some of these activities, and we are therefore unable to take part in these quintessential American experiences.
This made it easier to mark us as strangers, to perceive us all, as a group, of being different, rather than recognizing in us the humanity and the desires which are shared by everyone seeking to achieve the American dream.
Many Arab Americans were born in the United States and have lived there their entire lives, and their fundamental desires are the same as all Americans. Arab immigrants come to America in the hope of achieving better lives for themselves and their families, just as all immigrants do.
They want to be gainfully employed and lead peaceful lives with their families.
Is full assimilation required to build a strong American society? Does assimilation ensure homeland security? The answer, in my opinion, is no.
In reality, American culture has always been more of a multicultural stew than a melting pot of assimilation. The traditional white Protestant culture that dominated American society for so many years has moved on, and society as a whole is more accepting of cultural differences. Today, people from different backgrounds stand up and declare their pride in their individual heritages.
In fact, mainstream American culture has attempted to incorporate aspects of other cultures. For example, the bilingual children’s show Dora the Explorer, which teaches children Spanish in an interactive way, is popular with children of all backgrounds. Different cuisines, such as Italian and Chinese, are a regular part of the American diet. Movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding celebrate heritage, and the popular TV show The OC introduced Chrismukkah, a blend between Christmas and Hanukah.
This can also happen with Arab and Muslim cultures. Perhaps one day Arabic will become a popular second language taught in American schools, not because of politics, but because it is beautiful and expressive. Movies and television shows would celebrate the Arab American family and support its individuality and personality, embracing it as a part of the American cultural mix, rather than eschewing it as other.
Americans may learn to appreciate musicians such as Outlandish, a multi-religious, multi-ethnic group whose songs focus on religion and life, and Native Deen, a band of Muslim African- Americans who sing about the difficulties faced by Muslims in America.
There will always be spices from different cultures in the American multicultural stew, and that’s all part of the American flavor.
Nadia Eldemerdash is a freshman at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, majoring in Mass Communication. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).