Steven Salaita’s book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today was published nine years ago and he has had his share of struggles over the last couple of years, but I think this book is worth mentioning over and over again.
In the opening chapter of the book, Salaita reflects on his childhood days (in the USA), writing:
“Things weren’t much better at school. I was sensitive about my brown skin as early as I can remember because it seemed to inspire fascination among other students, who, as they became more inculcated into American exceptionalism, gradually turned the fascination into scorn. Since my mother, a Nicaraguan of Palestinian origin, taught Spanish at the local middle and high schools, I was treated to continual insults about the Rio Grande, border jumping, refried beans, and laziness. The more knowledgeable students taunted me about riding camels, fucking goats, and bombing the school. By the time I reached high school I quit trying to fight back; the foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools.
I can’t remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting me. In fact, at times it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students. A first-grade teacher once reffered to the warag dawali (grape leaves) my mother had packed me as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of a laughing children. Another teacher once snarled, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you damn foreigner.’ Other examples are less explicit: being sent to the principal’s office an extraordinary amount of times; being suspended for actions that resulted in no punishment for others; being made into the token example of everything ‘foreign’ or ‘international’.”
Since all kinds of racism are deeply present in the American society, it is hard to delineate the existence of an anti-Arab racism, because it is often ‘in the mix’ with all the other racisms (like in the childhood examples Salaita gives). However, Salaita links the anti-Arab racism and its special features directly to the moment when the American capitalist system came into contact with the resources of the Arab World. He examines the pre and post 9/11 experiences of anti-Arab racism in the USA with the broader historical patterns of racism in the USA.
Since 9/11, Salaita points out, anti-Arab racism is America’s elephant in the living room. It is very much connected to Islamophobia. In general, there seems to be a great dislike towards everything labeled as Arab, Muslim, Islam. But it doesn’t stop there. On this note, Salaita writes:
“Finally, it is necessary to determine against whom Islamophobia is directed. The most immediate answer, of course, is Muslims, but Islamophobia, if we strictly examine its prejudicial functions, appears at times to be directed at non-Muslims such as Arab Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, or even Hispanics – i.e., anybody perceived to be a Muslim, which indicates that Islamophobia doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor.”
A part of the book is also dedicated to the notion of Arab violence. Salaita writes:
“My point is a simple one, and I say it with as much clarity as possible: in discussing Arab violence, you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.”
Salaita does a great job connecting his personal stories with various surveys and anaysis of anti-Arab racism, making this an easy and enjoyable read (Salaita, luckily, doesn’t have that off-putting need to show off the language of academia). This is a book one can relate to, but still makes you wonder and question yourself , your thoughts, your society (that’s the part that stirs you up).
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