The Whitewashing of Arab Identity

Recently, I paid a visit to the Arab American National Museum. Initially, I was extremely excited — as a Sudanese American, I’m not used to seeing my identity represented positively anywhere. I had a few pre-existent apprehensions: there is a strong history of marginalization of Black Arabs and of course racism exists in the Arab world, just as it exists all over the world. So, I knew there was a good chance that the Sudanese experience wouldn’t be represented in the museum and, in any case, I wasn’t even sure whether or not I self-identified as an Arab.

The museum started off with a map of the 22 countries included in the Arab League. Our guide made much of the fact that there were some non-stereotypically Arab countries included, such as Sudan and Somalia.

Unfortunately, this mention of Black Arabs was one of very few in the museum. We watched a video which pretended to show the full spectrum of Arab Americans. The only mention of Black Arabs? An out-of-context clip of a Sudanese wedding, presented without commentary. Every one else was both very white and very enthusiastically American.

The erasure of Africans in the museum is part of the much larger whitewashing that exists in our communities. All of the pictures displayed also showed Arabs who were conventionally attractive by Western standards, women done up like Hollywood bombshells, perfect white skin and, for the most part, all Western dress.

The reason for these choices is the same reason all the people in the aforementioned video were so gosh darn patriotic: The museum is a reflection of a larger push by some Arabs in the Western world to become, for lack of a better phrase, white enough to be accepted by the mainstream culture. The idea is that if we can prove that we are just like them, then we can defeat stereotypes and oppression. We can gain access to some of that sweet, sweet white privilege.

Here’s the thing, though: We can’t and we shouldn’t want to.

Let’s start with the obvious — only a certain type of Arab, one that fits Western standards of beauty and has certain beliefs, or is willing to espouse them, can take that path. That means, as I saw in the museum, Black Arabs are necessarily left out. Also left out are, ironically, Arabs who look “too Arab”.

This whitewashing is also unfair to Arabs who don’t want to toe the party line with regards to patriotism. It means that videos like the one shown in the museum can’t have people saying things like “I actually don’t know if I feel fully American” or “I feel one hundred percent American, but that makes me feel disconnected to my roots” or, worst of all, “I feel very American, but that feels like a betrayal of my parents because I know America is killing people in their country.”

Simply ignoring these thorny feelings won’t magically make them go away.

That’s the real problem with this kind of processing of Arab-American identity. It’s fundamentally dishonest and it does nothing to deal with the real issues in the community. Instead, it sprays a coat of white paint on them, hiding them and, actually, making them worse.

Even in terms of combating basic ignorance, this approach doesn’t really work. It doesn’t teach people to respect cultural differences, and it doesn’t help raise awareness of culturally sensitive topics. All it really does is teach the wrongheaded notion that all people are actually just like us, in every way, if you try hard enough to see it.

Although we do all share a basic humanity, the truth is there are also differences between different cultures. What we need to be focusing on is not erasing those differences, but rather realizing that different is not inherently inferior.

Image from