The Question of Arab American Assimilation

I was approached last week by a journalist from the UK who was doing a piece on how Arabs in the UK are being criticized for not fully assimilating and integrating into English society. She was wondering if the same “problem” existed here in the US. That got me thinking – why is assimilation and lack thereof defined in such black and white, good and bad terms? Is it really a “problem” if Arabs don’t “assimilate”?

 
Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to fit into mainstream “white” society. During the day, I walked, talked, dressed and acted just like my American peers. It wasn’t until at night that the Arab in me truly came out – at home with my parents, talking in Arabic, watching Arab movies, eating Arabic food and following our Arab customs and traditions. It was almost as if I was living a double-life - white by day and Arab at night. My neighbors and school friends would tell me that I was “Americanized”, and I wore that moniker as if it was a badge of honor – an achievement I attained despite my parents’ better efforts.

 
I didn’t really learn to appreciate my “Arabness” until many years passed by. For the last two years, I’ve become immersed in the Arab-American community and have come to realize the beauty of having that dual identity. In accepting my Arab identity, I’ve come to appreciate the benefit of being more than just “an American” – a homogenized individual who shunned his/her heritage and ethnicity.

 
It’s funny, because in elementary school, we were taught how amazing America is with its diversity. The term “melting pot” was tossed around quite frequently, signifying a truly amazing and unique society where individuals of numerous ethnicities all came together and flourished on the same soil. We were taught that America wasn’t great in spite of the number of different immigrant communities that inhabited its borders; it’s great because those communities exist. New York without Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India, etc. would not be the same. In school, we were taught to value and welcome the ethnic mixture; in the real world, however, we are somehow taught to believe that we are not truly accepted until we are able to eschew that diversity in culture and become one and the same – denounce the first half of our hyphenated identity and declare ourselves simply “American”.

 
Personally, I don’t see the need to do so. Sure, at times, Arab culture and mainstream American culture may inevitably clash. And sure, that makes our lives as Arab-Americans that much more difficult; trying to find a suitable balance between the two could be trying for even the most grounded individuals. But again, that’s what makes the American experience all the more rewarding – holding onto timeless traditions and a rich heritage while still operating as an integral thread in the greater American fabric. Finding that ultimate point of Zen – whether it be leaning more towards one cultural direction than the other or finding a place suitably in the center – that is a journey that each individual must undergo on his/her own. To me, that is the true American experience.

 

I wonder if I would change my perception of my identity if I had to do it all over again – if I would be able to accept and appreciate being Arab as a teenager as I do now. To tell you the truth – I’m not really sure. All I know is that now, I’m proud to be Arab and proud to be American. Quite frankly, I’m proud to be Arab-American. I celebrate my hyphenated identity and see it as a “problem” anyone who forces me to do otherwise. To me, there’s nothing more American than that.

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About Eman Ahmed

Born and raised in New York, Eman Ahmed is an Egyptian-American attorney specializing in employment discrimination. She received her B.A. from St. John’s University, Suma Cum Laude, and her J.D. from New York Law School where she also served as an editor at the New York University Law Review. Eman is an active member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and is a member of the NYSBA Committee on Women in the Law. She appeared in the 2003 edition of Who’s Who Among American Law Students and currently appears in the Madison Who’s Who.

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