A lot of Israelis think it is rough growing up Jewish in the Western world, but we Palestinians and Jews share a lot. It’s just as difficult for us.
As a child, my friends once surrounded me and demanded to know “What are you?”
What am I, I wondered. “I’m American.” No you’re not, they insisted.
So I went home and asked my dad. “Dad, what am I?” My dad shook his head and said, “Ya rubbee. Don’t tell them you are Palestinian. Tell them you are Syrian or Lebanese.”
Imagine, it was okay to be Syrian or Lebanese back then. So I went back to school and the kids surrounded me again and they asked “What are you?” I told them: “I’m cereal. But I think my mother is a lesbian.” Badda boom! Great joke in my comedy lineup but also a true
reflection of the challenges facing Arabs in America.
Things haven’t improved at all. In fact, they’ve gotten worse.
Recently the US Census announced its decennial campaign to “count” all Americans. You see, in America, money is distributed based on the ethnic and racial demographics of the population – how many people each ethnic and racial group has.
If the census shows blacks living together in one spot, the government designs political boundaries to help black voters strengthen their voices in elections.
THREE TIMES over the past 30 years, the US Census has spent millions on lobbying ethnic and racial communities to convince them to fill out the census forms which ask questions about family size. Traditionally, though, minorities have resisted the census believing it is a way for the government to peek into their lives, and then punish them for things they might be doing wrong.
Hispanics fear that the government might discover some of their relatives are “illegal aliens,” for example. (Actually, things could be worse for me. Instead of being Arab, I could be “Hispanic” and have the word “panic” built in to my name.)
So the census has added “ethnic identity” to the form and identified 29 ethnic and racial peoples to help them more easily be counted. And, the more easily you can identity yourself, the more benefits you may get.
When you review the census form’s long list of 29 “recognized” ethnic and racial groups, you notice that Arabs, and Jews by the way, are not included.
The groups are:
Black people are listed in three different categories on the form: Black. African-American. Negro. (A strange apparition in 2010)
Hispanics are listed in five different ways on the form: Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. Mexican-American. Chicano. What country does Chicano come from?
The census also identifies American Indian and Alaskan native. They even give them space on the form to write in their tribe.
There are all kinds of Asians. Lots of them. Asian-Indian, Japanese, native Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian or Chamorro, Filipino, Vietnamese and Samoan. Just in case they missed someone, they’ve added categories for other Asians such as Laotian, Thai, Pakistani and Cambodian. They also have Pacific Islander, Fijian, Tongan. Who are Tongans?
I know why they don’t have Arab or Jew written on the US Census form. They don’t have any room left on the form.
Now, many people think that Jews already “control the news media” and don’t need to be counted. They have the highest voter turnout of any group in the country and are considered among the most politically empowered.
SO THAT leaves us Arabs. What do we have? Zip. Zilch. Zero. How many ways can I say ‘nothing’? The fact that the US government doesn’t want to know how many Arabs there are in America or where they live is really kind of strange, actually.
Because since September 11, 2001, the US government has done everything it can to identify Arabs and Muslims, too. Usually at airports, profiling us to pull us out of lines and give us the third degree. When it comes to something bad, the government is all over us as Arabs. But when it comes to getting something good, like power, the US government leaves us out. And it doesn’t count us.
We’re told when we complain that Arabs are not listed on the US Census form that we Arabs can just write our name on the “other” line at the bottom of the form.
That is so demeaning. I don’t want to be “other.” How much have we lost as Arabs in America because we’re not counted by the census?
Well, take a place like Chicago for example, that has 36,000 to 38,000 city jobs paid for by taxes (we Arabs pay taxes, too). Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was in Dubai last year trying to raise money for his near-bankrupt city, the second largest in America, by the way. He told
the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chicago has 250,000 Arabs. He treats them well, he boasted.
In fact, next month, Daley will be feted at a dinner hosted by the Arab American Institute in Washington for all the “good things” he has done for “his” 250,000 Arabs.
Well, it turns out he hasn’t done much for his Arabs at all.
Chicago has 3 million people. Do the math. Arabs are about 8 percent of
the population. That means we should have 8% of the city’s jobs, or
about 3,040 city jobs. Arabs have only about 200 total jobs in the city.
being paid to promote the census are angry with me. But I have learned
one important fact when it comes to American politics: If you can keep
ethnic groups from knowing how many they are, you can un-empower them.Named
Best Ethnic Columnist in America by New America Media, the writer is a
Palestinian-American columnist and peace activist. He can be reached at