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Intra-Arab discrimination in Dearborn

By Banen Al-Sheemary | openDemocracy

I have grown accustomed to the skeptical glances and displeased faces that accompany the “othering” question, “where are you from?” Whether I’m dealing with white America in Ann Arbor or intra-Arab hierarchy and Lebanese superiority in Dearborn, I am soon aware of a hierarchical, classist, and racist mentality that is left uninterrogated by our society.

Moving through Arab Detroit as an Iraqi hijab-wearing woman refugee, I have been unwillingly placed near the lower tiers of social constructs utilized to exclude and debase already marginalized groups. I call these identities “my layers.”

Arabs in the community are quick to locate themselves as oppressed by a white supremacist racial hierarchy, but few acknowledge the ways Arabs reproduce similar hierarchies that privilege certain Arab ethnic groups at the expense of others. I am constantly bombarded with negative experiences because of this unfortunate hierarchy.

Look for example at our community’s anti-Black racism or the ill treatment of Yemeni Americans that is so widespread in its acceptance. Remnants of white supremacy have partially created this hierarchy. Dearborn has taken on a Lebanese identity and is deemed a Lebanese space, but many immigrant groups have called it home for a long time.

Iraqis compile ten percent of the population but are a third of all immigrants in the area. Within the next two decades, the number of Lebanese and Iraqi citizens will be approximately the same. And this will change the way in which Dearborn functions.

Both within and outside of the Dearborn context, the way Lebanese proudly repeat phrases that emphasize their connections to whiteness—like “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East”— draws on a deeply embedded and internalized logic within our community.

Nationally, as well as in Dearborn, the powerful presence of Lebanese in political, business, and academic arenas, has helped them to successfully dominate the discourse on Arab identity in ways that other groups haven’t achieved. This is largely due to name swaps, a longer presence in the United States, and greater assimilationist abilities.

The ability of many Lebanese to pass as white is prized and used for political and economic gain in a world in which being Arab or Muslim carries negative notoriety. To distance Lebanese-ness from Arab-ness is to try to achieve white middle class acceptability at the expense of marginalizing other Arab ethnic groups. Bilal becomes Bruce, and the privilege can only truly be obtained if Mohammed can pass as Mike.

The intra-Arab hierarchy that privileges Lebanese is also defined by the ways Lebanese superiority and Lebanese hyper-nationalism are mobilized to “other” and marginalize Arab ethnic groups that are deemed of less value. This ideology has created obstacles for refugees and deepened their struggles of integration into the Dearborn community.

One of the most difficult of these struggles is overcoming housing discrimination. Lebanese homeowners discriminate and refuse to rent to Iraqis, to exclude them from majority Lebanese neighborhoods. Rather than facilitate the inclusion of immigrants, the Lebanese landlords diligently isolate marginalized communities, like Iraqis, by pushing them off to the South end or Detroit, making access to resources more difficult.

It is a shameful and gross exploitation of poor people. With language barriers, extreme poverty, and lack of knowledge about their legal rights, Iraqis are too often mistreated and taken advantage of—at times illegally.  This mindset permeates through our mosques, social service agencies, non-profit organizations, youth programs, and the groups they cater to.

We are teaching the younger generations these inequitable practices through lack of education and the historical decontextualizing of Arab history and migration. The Iraqi refugees who arrived in the second wave following the 2003 US invasion, hold commonalities to the Iraqis that arrived in the mid 1990s. They come from a background of severe trauma, occupation, and poverty. There’s a lack of understanding about the refugee intake process and how it sets up families to struggle for decades, as debilitating poverty and language barriers impede their ability to succeed.

A recent study of Arab households demonstrates the socio-economic position of the Iraqi community. As a community we need to historically contextualize the factors that lead to these type of economic outcomes. Rather than victim-blaming communities for their economic circumstances, we should hold the US accountable for the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, employment discrimination, language barriers and other roadblocks to social mobility.

Often, the dominant narrative thrust upon Iraqis is that they are lazy, poor, and unable to assimilate due to their own lack of effort. These stereotypes are also projected onto Iraqis by more privileged members of other Arab ethnic groups, including Lebanese, while other middle-class Arabs attribute their own material success simply to hard work, and fail to mention their proximity whiteness and other factors that also facilitated their inclusion.

There is a complete and intentional disregard for the power dynamics at play between Arab communities. The dominant narrative on Iraqi refugees makes no mention of the unequal power structure framing this unbalanced conversation. We fall into the same culture and religion blaming that we see on major news outlets.

The process of acculturation for Iraqis and building a home in Southeast Michigan is ongoing. This is difficult enough if you are deemed a problem by the majority of white America; it is made even more difficult when members of your own community accuse you of tainting the image of middle-class respectability that the Lebanese have worked so hard to cultivate, and undermining their progress in assimilating into the larger white American community.

Lebanese immigration starkly contrasts to that of other Arab groups, particularly Iraqis that have populated and rewritten the history of Michigan. Irai refugees didn’t come here for economic stability or to find a home of their own free will. They were violently uprooted and forced from their homes. They lived within refugee camps for years, have suffered extreme psychological trauma, and were left to try and piece their lives back together. Many of these refugees actually came from economically stable homes and positions of status in Iraq.

This article was written six months ago, but my experiences lead back to my first day in Michigan. It is with hesitation, and some tactful warnings from my friends and academic colleagues, that I share this piece. This is a humble attempt to express views and experiences forged from a system that we as a community have partially created and perpetuated.

It is a conversation that must happen because of the incoming Syrian refugees into Southeast Michigan and the problem of politicized sectarianism and nationalism that they will be facing, due to the polarizing conversation regarding the uprising in Syria. One can foresee the parallels between the experiences of incoming Iraqi and Syrian refugees, due to this selfsame hierarchy.

I have the privilege of writing this piece to contribute to the little bottom-up dialogue that we have done as a community. More importantly, it is in recognition of the many old and new refugees that have taken up a life of uncertainty and transformed it into a life of hope and inspiration – people we can learn from and support.

What is the Arab community, but an agent of white superiority and a supporter of the hegemonic American discourse, when it oppresses its own as a method to excel and attain white aspirations? Must we segregate and exclude members of our community on the basis of borders drawn by governments in a quest for power and territory?

The historical narrative is centered on dominance and we as a community have fallen into the trap of divide and conquer. Refugees did not endure years of living in tents, dirty drinking water, and lack of food, to get called “trash” by their own community members. In Dearborn in particular, we must appreciate and learn lessons from immigrant stories, whether they be a century old or a decade old. We have a unique history that binds us to one another. We have a plethora of rich and intersectional experiences and cultures that must be valued and shared, so that we may be able to continue to work towards a progressive community.


Originally published in openDemocracy, reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.