Children, Arab Heritage, and Anti-Bias Education
by Louise Derman-Sparks with Merrie Najimy
What messages are you hearing from the mainstream media about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt? What about the fighting in Libya or the government crackdowns in Syria and Bahrain? If the messages and images of Arabs and their countries are confusing to you, imagine what children are picking up from them. These new messages occur in a social environment full of existing stereotypes, misinformation, and incidents of discrimination and hatred directed at Americans of Arab descent. For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) reports that in 2011, the number of discrimination complaints handled by the ADC legal department is the highest since 2003—even more than after 9/11/2001 (2010 ADC Legal Report: Legal Advocacy and Policy Review).
If you work with Arab American children, you will want to assess how your learning environment supports their positive identity and home culture. As anti-bias educator Merrie Najimy relates:
Growing up Arab American in the '70s and '80s—not quite white, Semitic nose and lips, black hair galore—I felt like I lived in two worlds, “Arab" and “American”—the former not to be shared in the latter, because of concerns about being different from the dominant culture. My Arabic world was my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and first cousins all living nearby, regular Sunday dinners at Sitto’s (Grandmother’s) house, her friends chatting in Arabic, the elders smoking fruit tobacco on the Argeelee (water pipe). Women walking hand in hand and men arm in arm with no homophobic stigma attached. My cousins picking up the tabla (drum) and making powerful music, the beauty of the men dancing, and so much more. I had many friends, yet felt like an “other.” I made faces at Dick and Jane in the basal reader and scribbled in the book because their lives were nothing like my life. They represented a life that I was supposed to emulate. When kids found out I was Lebanese, they often asked, “What’s that?” which made me feel like my ethnicity was a disease. I now realize that the awkwardness I felt was due to the absence of a multicultural education—i.e., an anti-bias framework. (From Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, 2010).
Now is a crucial time to assess how you are teaching children about children of Arab heritage.