Attitudes toward Arab immigrants have not been given a great deal of attention until now. Indeed, it is likely that for most Americans, ideas about Arabs and about Muslims are not well differentiated, and attitudes about Arabs in particular are not well defined. More general work on attitudes toward immigrant groups suggests that both simplicity and negativity of image are associated with immigrants whose culture is unfamiliar, and who are more “different” from the U.S. norm in appearance, language, and culture, all of which could characterize Arab Americans. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that, prior to September 11, the prevailing stereotype of Arab Americans was somewhat negative but not particularly well articulated and, indeed, that many Americans had given little thought to the subject.
On such a weakly defined concept, the impact of a dramatic and terrifying event such as September 11 can be considerable, overwhelming the field and creating images that are both vivid and lasting. Such is the case, I believe, for many people, whose image of Arab Americans and Muslims now begins and ends with a terrorist. Such images, in turn, lay the groundwork for incidents of prejudice and discrimination toward the target group, many of which have been reported in the media.
It is in this newly-defined context that the Arab American immigrant must consider questions of identification of the kind that Anika Rahman raised: What do I call myself? What does it mean to be that kind of person? And how is that ethnicity valued, by me and by others? These questions are central to the study of identity and to an understanding of the processes by which identity is negotiated.
Read Deaux’s full essay here.