Tag Archives: Arab American

Day 6- Mixed Women’s Activism in the US

All Children.  One Love.

Image by Keo 101 via Flickr

“Identity, loyalty and belonging are issues which reside at the very heart of our existence and it is up to us to define who we are and identify our needs.”[1]

Most Americans who are not recent immigrants have some Native American ancestry, whether they know it or not. If this heritage is not visible it is often overlooked or even concealed.

Self-definition can be problematic and difficult for women who identify as mixed-race in the United States because the dichotomous and superficial nature of American society assumes that whatever a person looks like is all she is.

All minorities are marginalized in the media and mainstream U.S. pop culture but mixed-race people may be the most invisible of all. Even when a mixed-race person does achieve notoriety they are usually referred to as the most visibly apparent aspect of themselves–like Barack Obama is the first black President: Obama is half Kenyan and half white (English and German).

Because light skin, hair, and eyes tend to be recessive and darker features tend to be dominant, this most likely accounts for the assumption that someone who “looks black” is only black in American culture. Many mixed-race celebrities have risen to fame in the U.S. but often their mixed racial or ethnic heritage is unknown.

A victory for mixed-race Americans came in 2000, when, for the first time, people were allowed to “check more than one box” to describe their race on the national census. Chairman of the Census Advisory Committee of Professional Associations, David Swanson states, “There is no set definition as to what race and ethnicity is. There’s social categories, social constructs, self-identification, maybe some voting-rights acts, but there’s no hard and set definition as to race and ethnicity.”[2] This is clearest for people of mixed heritage.

Often if a woman is mixed white and “colored,” the non-white ethnicities in her background are seen to taint the “purity” of her white blood, and commonly her white heritage is denied her. Denying women their white European heritage harkens back to the racism of the “one drop rule,” but because of their appearance many women with mixed white and “colored” heritage are not afforded the privileges of whiteness. “Though there exist stereotypes of people of all races and cultures, negative stereotypes are often attributed to people of colour.”[3] For this reason, and others, passing is a difficult and emotionally charged idea for many mixed-race people, especially if others in one’s family, such as siblings, are not able to “pass” for white.

Mixed-race women’s identities occur “in the context of a racist, classist, sexist society which places greater value on people who are fully able-bodied and young. Our personal experiences often parallel the experiences of women with whom we identify. Yet, because of the way in which skin colour and physical characteristics are socially graded, despite these parallel experiences, the mixed race experience is seen as different. However, this perceived difference does not place it outside the experience of racism. When we foster discussion as to who is the most racially oppressed, we encourage the colonialist tactic of divide and conquer.”[4]

Because of their similar experiences with racism, many mixed-race women who participate in social movements and strategic nonviolence do so within the context of groups aimed at women of color in general. Few organizations exist to specifically address mixed-race women, which may be another explanation for their likely participation in women of color groups.

Some of the organizations for mixed-race people were started by interracial couples who have mixed-race children, and later organizations were founded by mixed-race adults. Few movements are so forward thinking and proactive, and because they also address transracial adoption, there seems to be little homophobia in the burgeoning mixed-race movement.

Many organizations for mixed people that exist cross national in addition to racial boundaries. Since 2004, June 12 has marked Loving Day around the world, the celebration of multiracial people and couples, commemorating the end to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.

The first organization to address the needs of mixed-race people in America began in 1978, iPride, or Interracial Intercultural Pride. In 1988 the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA) was established and remains the most visible and active mixed-race advocacy organization in the U.S. today. Project Race was founded in 1991, Mavin began in 1998, Blended People America (BPA) was founded in 2007 and My Gene Mix (MGmix)[5] and Swirl, Inc. started in 2008. MixedChildMixed Folksthe Mixed Heritage Center, and the Mixed Network are all collaborative sites of resources for mixed-race people.

One group specifically for mixed women is Mixed Chicks Chat, a live weekly radio show that addresses what it is like to be a woman with mixed racial and ethnic heritage in the U.S. This group hosts the annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, “an inclusive event targeting the growing population of multiracial and multicultural individuals and families.”[6]

The Topaz Club, established in 2004, is another organization specifically dedicated to mixed women, more specifically women with African heritage.

Despite the relative lack of organizations dedicated to mixed-race women, there is no shortage of heroines for mixed women to identify with. Unfortunately many mixed-race celebrities, politicians, and athletes are only identified as mixed within the blogosphere and not in mainstream media.

In addition to the mixed Native American and white women named yesterday, some notable mixed-race women include Linda Chavez, a mixed Hispanic/white politician and labor organizer; Marie Laveau and her daughter Marie Laveau II, both black and white creole Voodoo priestesses; anarchist and socialist activist Lucy Parsons of African, Native American, and Mexican heritage who married a white former Confederate soldier; Frida Kahlo, renowned Mexican and Hungarian artist; Japanese and white television journalist Ann Curry; painter Pashyanti Carole Hand, of African-American, Native American and white heritage; Miss America 2003, Erika Harold of Greek, German, Welsh, Russian, Native American and African-American ancestry; model, actress and AIDS awareness supporter Karin Taylor of Brazilian, Jamaican and Chinese heritage; black and Japanese model and businesswoman Kimora Lee Simmons; Dr. Maria P.P. Root, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mixed-race issues and created the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed HeritageMildred Loving, the black and Native American plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court ruling that allowed interracial marriages; Queen Noor of Jordan who is Arab and white; Alice Walker’s daughter, bisexual black and Jewish feminist author Rebecca Walker, founder of the Third Wave Foundation; and María de la Soledad Teresa O’Brien, a television journalist of Afro-Cuban and white heritage who uses her position to showcase stories that would otherwise go untold in the mainstream media due to bigotry.

In 2010 California elected the first female, first African-American, and first Asian-American Attorney General in it’s history, and the first Indian-American Attorney General in the United States, when marriage equality supporter Kamala Harris won by more than 55,000 votes.

There are also many famous mixed-race actresses, singers, and athletes in the U.S. including Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Jennifer Tilly, Jessica Alba, Raquel Welch, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Hudgens, Alicia Keys, Foxy Brown, Mariah Carey, Martha Redbone, Norah Jones, Alexandra Stevenson, Jamila Wideman and Tasha Schwikert.

These women, in embracing and naming their own racial and ethnic heritages, are making a political statement and becoming activists for equality. As non-famous mixed-race women stand up too, they will pave the way for more acceptance in America, and less racism. Women and men are always more than one portion of their identity, and race is no different.

“Rather than criticize barriers imposed externally, women must be vigilant about ones over which we have control and include our surmount of them as integral to our political work.”[7] This politicizing of the personal is important–as one woman explains, “I am tired of being afraid to speak who I am: American and Palestinian, not merely half of one thing and half of another, but both at once–and in that inexplicable melding which occurs when two cultures come together, not quite either, so that neither American nor Arab find themselves fully reflected in me, nor I in them.”

For women who have mixed heritage each of their racial and ethnic identities is as different and as integrated into their whole being as their sexual orientation, religion, age, class, and ability.

[1] Camper, 1994.

[2] Cordova, Randy. 23 March 2010. “Some Hispanics puzzle over race question on census form.” The Arizona Republic. 6 July 2001. http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/03/23/20100323census-form-hispanic-question.html

[3] Camper, 1994.

[4] Camper, 1994.

[7] Camper, 1994.

Women’s History Month 2011: Day 1- Arab/Middle Eastern American Women’s Activism in the US

Western and Saudi Arabian women.

Image via Wikipedia

Happy Women’s History Month and Women of Color Day all! Today marks the first of 31 days of blogging about women’s participation in strategic nonviolent activism. Tune in tomorrow for a look at how Asian American women are exercising their choices to change the political landscape of America.

After 9/11 Arab and Middle Eastern people in the United States faced the most overt racism the country had seen in forty years. “The FBI created the first ever Arab American Advisory Committee [on March 28, 2003] following an increase of 1700 percent in reported hate and bias crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim since the events of September 11, 2001.”[1] People whose ethnic identities were nowhere near Middle Eastern–Mexican, Indian, Native American–were physically attacked because of their skin color; they were supposedly mistaken for being Arab or Muslim (as if the attackers would have been pardoned had the victims been Muslim).

Let’s be honest: most Americans are ignorant of the other people and places in the world.

American society confuses the “categories ‘Arab,’ ‘Middle Easterner,’ and ‘Muslim’ as if there are no differences among them. This conflation can be seen in the U.S. news media, TV shows, and Hollywood films about the Arab world.”[2] Even the term “Middle East” shows the Anglo-centric view that white, “mainstream” Americans have adopted from their European ancestors.

Geographically, the Middle East is difficult to pinpoint but generally alludes to majority Muslim countries in Southwest/Central Asia and North Africa. The Middle East has a long and complex history of religion, custom, travel, and change. From Morocco to Pakistan Islam is the religion of many people but it is certainly not the only religion practiced in the region. Judaism and Christianity, among other smaller religions, are widely practiced in the “Middle East” as well. Ethnically there are many Arabs in the Middle East but there are also Persians, Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Assyrians, Bedouins, the list goes on and on. Linguistically–although many people in the region speak Arabic–Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, and Hebrew are widely spoken, as are a vast number of other languages.

But, Americans see “brown people” who are not Latino and assume they are Arab Muslims… “Americans see them as foreign, not because they look neither white nor black, but because they look Muslim.”[3] The media does not help, it “exaggerates and often focuses on the victimization or violence of Arab women, in order to racialize Arabs as backwards, violent and uncivilized.”[4] Racist propaganda has long been a part of the American political machine and also reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy.

“Within mainstream U.S. media, the ‘nameless veiled woman’ is either crying and screaming or passively accepting her oppression. These images mark Arab and Muslim women as either ‘out of control’ or ‘having no control’—there is no space in between for them to assert their identities or power as agents of social change.”[5]

For these reasons and many others it is imperative that Arab and Middle Eastern women, Muslim or not, are fully included in the fight for equality in the United States. Especially with the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Gulf States, Arab women have asserted that they are powerful agents of social change. There are an estimated 3.5 million Arabs[6] in the United States, yet “most Americans seem to ignore the fact that the term ‘Arab’ does not refer to a race and even less to a religion, but rather to a language and a culture. An ‘Arab’ is a person who partakes in the history of the Arab world.”

In fact, more than 60 percent of Arab Americans are Christian.[7] Yes, you read that correctly, more than 60 percent.

Despite sharing a common religion white Americans have long had a tenuous relationship with their Middle Eastern countrymen. From the Gulf Wars to 9/11, stereotypes of Middle Eastern women as either submissive harem girls or burqa-wearing terrorists still linger in the American consciousness and “a lack of credible information about Arab peoples and their struggles contributes to Arab-American women’s invisibility within progressive and feminist circles in the U.S.”[8]

Most Americans believe that women are included in the United States Constitution: they are not. One of the biggest surprises for Americans who gave their moral blessing for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure women’s equality is that the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives fighting for the inclusion of women in the constitutions of those countries when women stateside are not yet afforded those same rights.

Much of the activism Arab American women undertake is to re-educate Americans about what it means for them to be Arab and to make themselves visible. Have you ever noticed how it’s usually white men and women arguing over whether or not Muslim women should have the right to wear whatever clothing they deem to be religiously appropriate?

Undoing the damage the media has done is not easy but outspoken Egyptian American writer, academic and activist Mona Eltahawy sure makes it look easy. Also in the media, last year an Arab American woman, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-born American immigrant and advocate for breast and ovarian cancer awareness and birth control, won the title of Miss USA.[9]

Women are actively involved in membership and leadership of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)across the country and have been since its inception 30 years ago. Groups like the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (ASWA) United are also internationally active in women’s issues and are not afraid to stand up to white mainstream feminists to expose their racism.

“Those who are active in the U.S. feminist movement agree that Zionist racism reinforces the myth that Arab and Arab-American women are extremely oppressed and therefore need to be saved and/or spoken for by their Western feminist ‘sisters.’ Those who speak about Palestinian rights agree that they are excluded, silenced, censored, and/or erased….”[10]

White feminists must respect every individual’s right to speak for herself and choose her own battles. Allowing racist preconceptions to cloud their judgment is unacceptable and completely counterproductive. Feminists must listen to what all women say they want and need and then work with those women to achieve their goals. Consent is an issue in fighting for human rights too.

Members of ASWA United have vocally spoken out against US-Israeli policies of discrimination and violence towards Palestinians but found that “the voices of Arab American women activists are regularly policed and silenced.”[11]

Despite this, Islamic feminists have been active in carving out space for women in mosques, conferences on Islam, and multi-faith committees across the country. Arab American women activists “have developed feminist critiques for challenging sexism within their communities, nations and the neo-colonial societies that seek to racialize them….”[12]

[2] Naber, Nadine, Eman Desouky and Lina Baroudi. “The Forgotten ‘ism:’ An Arab American Women’s Perspective on Zionism, Racism and Sexism. Arab Women’s Solidarity Association San Francisco Chapter: Berkeley, CA. 2001

[3] Karim, 2009.

[4] Naber, et al. 2001.

[5] Ibid.

[7] Habib, Gabriel. 17 March 2004 “And What About Arab Christians?” Presentation at Al-Hewar Center: Vienna, Virginia

[8] Naber, et al. 2001.

[9] Hutchinson, Bill. 20 May 2010. “Rima FAkih, Miss USA 2010 winner: Lebanon-born Miss Michigan is first Arab-American to take crown.” Daily News. 10 June 2010.  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/2010/05/16/2010-05-16_miss_michigan_rima_fakih_becomes_first_arabamerican_to_win_miss_usa_pageant.html

[10] Naber, et al. 2001.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

%d bloggers like this: