Children, Arab Heritage, and Anti-Bias Education


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.

Teacher Preparation Guidelines

1. Be aware of prevailing societal stereotypes. Young children are often quite aware of widespread stereotypes and the prejudiced attitudes of adults. In addition, they tend to generalize what they see and hear, applying stereotypical images or negative comments about Arabs living abroad to Americans of Arab descent.

  • Common stereotypes include "All Arabs have the same culture" or "Arabs look the same."
  • A predominant and possibly harmful stereotype from mass media is that Arabs are scary and they hurt other people.
  • People often erroneously think that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arabs.
  • To see more stereotypes with full descriptions, go to this companion page: Countering Arab Stereotypes.

2. Learn about how your particular group of children thinks. Use this data to plan for long-term materials and activities to correct and expand children’s ideas and foster unbiased interactions.

3. Examine your own ideas and feelings.

Children are not the only ones vulnerable to misinformation and negative messages about people of Arab heritage; most of the people living in the United States have been surrounded by considerable anti-Arab prejudice from mainstream media for many years. Among the most serious myths affecting adults is that all Arab men are extremist and/or terrorists, out to get Americans; Islam is responsible for Arab terrorism; and all Arab women are much more oppressed than women from other ethnic or religious groups. None of these are true. As in all groups, a small minority of individuals may fit one or more of these characterizations, but not the vast majority. Honestly uncovering stereotypes, misinformation, and learned prejudices will enable you to eliminate their insidious influence on your thinking, attitudes, and behaviors.

4. Design appropriate activities to counter misinformation and help children resist prejudice. Keep in mind that “Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images” (Wingfield & Karaman, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, p.138).

5. Make sure that children of Arab heritage in your program are visible in your learning materials, your curriculum supports their home culture (including being Muslim if that is the religion of their family), and fosters bilingualism if their home language is other than English.

Assemble and create accurate teaching materials. This task will require you to search beyond the traditional sources and to also make your own materials—especially for young children. There are a few good books that focus on Arabs in other countries; however, young children need to know that there are many Americans of Arab heritage and that they live in a variety of ways. Ask Arabs from your community if they will help you create books, photos to use for learning games, etc. (See Anti-Bias Education, chapter 4, for more ideas.)

Concepts for Children

Concept 1: Arab American families live in a variety of ways. They are both alike and different from your own and other families. With older children—upper elementary, middle, high school, you can also expand to include Arab families in other counties (such as Sitti’s Secrets and Everybody Bakes Bread). Merrie’s story is about herself—ask someone you know to share something similar.

Concept 2: Arab American families work and contribute to our country in many ways. With older children—upper elementary, middle, high school, you can also expand to include the work and contributions of Arabs in other countries.

Concept 3: Untrue stereotypes about people of Arab heritage exist and are unfair.

Although this essential work can be done beginning with preschool/K children, activities will change developmentally if you teach primary and older children.

Concept 4: (For primary and older school children) Build understanding and empathy for the people living in countries where U.S. troops engage in armed conflict with particular political factions or governments.

Primary graders (and beyond) are old enough to hear about stories of conflict, presented in an age-appropriate, sensitive context that focuses on the lives and actions of ordinary people who are caught up in the conflicts.

We are interested to hear about more strategies being used in classrooms. Share your ideas for teaching about Arabs and Arab Americans.

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Recommended Books on Arabs and Arab Americans


Images taken from Beyond Heroes and Holidays, Sugar Comes from Arabic, One Green Apple, and The Librarian of Basra.