Each April commemorates Arab American Heritage Month in the U.S., a time to honor Arab (pronounced “Air-ub,” not “Aye-rab”) culture and heritage, as well as the contributions of many Arab Americans throughout history. Arab individuals are often underrepresented and misrepresented in the media and in U.S. workplaces, which is why it is so important to learn and think more deeply about how to best support your Arab American colleagues.
Even the term “Arab” is often confused with other racial, ethnic, and/or religious identity groups. The ‘Middle East’ refers to the region itself, while ‘Arab’ refers to the 22 Arabic-speaking countries and their distinct cultures – some in Africa and some in Asia. Arab people come from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds and as such, Arab people may also identify as Black, White, multiracial, or more. Yet the U.S. Census has put “Middle Eastern & North African” within the “White” racial category, which is not an agreeable classification to most Middle Eastern people, North African people, and other people of Arab descent. The Census Bureau is now working to update its racial and ethnic identity categories, but many employee forms, surveys, and other data collection systems still don’t acknowledge Middle Eastern or Arab as a separate racial or ethnic category, which contributes to the lack of visibility and inclusion for many Arab Americans.
The total Arab American population in the U.S. is estimated to be around 3.7 million people, although the Census count is most likely underestimating the number of people in America who are of Arab descent, ancestry, or heritage. The reasons for this undercount might include lack of clarity of the current racial and ethnic identity categories available on the Census, reticence to self-identify as “Arab” for fear of being mislabeled or targeted by hate and violence, and/or distrust of government surveys which have historically been used in negative ways to further marginalize specific identity groups.
Even with lack of representation and misrepresentation over the years, the Arab American population continues to grow. The Arabic language is also one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. and is currently the 5th most-spoken language in the world.
Although Arab American Heritage Month typically occurs alongside Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community, it’s important to note that not all Arab people are Muslim, and not all Muslim people are Arab. Workplaces should avoid making the assumption that Arab-identifying employees are all practicing Muslims.
So, what can workplaces do to better understand and support Arab employees and colleagues in ways that are truly inclusive and not just performative in nature?
• Respect & Appreciate Cultural Differences. It may seem basic, but acknowledging and valuing human differences is key to creating a more welcoming and inclusive workplace. Anyone in the workplace can do this by openly learning more about the lived experiences of Arab Americans and their culture and sharing this knowledge within your organization. You can explore the Arab American Institute, The Arab American Museum (online or in person), or Arab America, the national media organization founded with the purpose of promoting an accurate image of the Arab American community and the Arab world.
• Ask Questions – Just Think Ahead Before Asking. Consider this great advice from The Diversity Movement, …you should only ask someone about their ethnicity when it is relevant to the conversation or if you are developing a friendship and genuinely want to learn more about this person. Never ask “What are you?” which is offensive and belittling. Instead, you might try “Which country is your family from?”; “Do you speak multiple languages?”; or “Would you feel comfortable telling me a little bit about the history of your country? I’d like to learn more.” By asking respectful questions like these, you are showing your Arab American colleague that you are genuinely interested and their lived experience is valued in the workplace.
Asking respectful questions is also a good way to learn what sort of accommodations may be necessary for any cultural or religious observances and/or other accommodations needed for Arab-identifying employees.
• Avoid Assumptions. Unfortunately, Arab Americans have experienced many levels of bias, harassment, exclusion, and violence in the U.S. and in workplaces. Often this treatment comes from lack of accurate information, lack of understanding, stereotypes, and incorrect assumptions about who Arab people are. Before making any assumptions, be willing to get to know and respect each person as an individual with their own distinct values and beliefs. In fact, values, principles, and practices of respect are major pillars of many Arab cultures and are often the foundation for the way they interact in the workplace.
• Focus on Inclusive Language. In an effort to be open to other cultures and to learn more about your colleagues, we can sometimes make someone feel like the “other” in the room, which leads to exclusion and a feeling of “I don’t belong here” for some individuals. Some Arab individuals may have been raised in another country with a primary language other than English or they may have worked in other countries in different settings from your current organization. Comments such as “Your English is great” or “You speak so well” may be intended to be complimentary or inclusive but can instead have an off-putting or offensive impact on the person receiving the comment It’s important to remember that “imperfect” spoken English is not a sign of weakness or a lack of intelligence or anything else that’s negative. Instead, it shows adaptability in learning and speaking more than one language – an added value in many work environments (paraphrased from The Diversity Movement). If you happen to overhear another person making similar comments, it’s a great time to speak up and show your support for a colleague that may not speak in the same way others do.
Arab American Heritage Month is one good reason to learn more and better understand your Arab-identifying friends and colleagues, but April isn’t the only time to do this. We can all contribute, in big and small ways, to a more welcoming and inclusive workplace culture all year long if we take the time to try.