Honoring Arab-American Heritage: Recognition and Justice

Published on : April 8, 2021

By Jessica Saba, MSW (current MFP doctoral fellow) 

I was enjoying a morning walk with my friend. “Can I ask you a question?” She paused and then added, “I don’t mean to be offensive.” My heart raced, and I noticed my body tense up, and I let out some nervous laughter. “What do you mark on the census?” The day before, she had seen an advertisement for the 2020 census, and she recognized something was missing. I felt validated because with family origins in Palestine, this has been my struggle since grade school. Looking at the neat boxes, I feel confused about where I fit. I alternate between opting for “other,” Asian, and Latina. Palestine is in Western Asia, and my mother’s family is in Chile, having immigrated from Palestine in the 1800s. I recognized from a young age that the complexity of my identity was not represented on paper. 

In light of the observance of Arab Heritage Month and National Minority Health Month in April, I would like to share some thoughts on Arab representation and experiences in the United States.  

There is no ethnic or racial category for Arab Americans, as we are instructed to mark White on state and federal surveys. This means that an entire community of South West Asian, North African folks is rendered invisible. Estimates of Arab Americans range from 2 million to 3.6 million (Arab American Institute, 2018). Inaccurate numbers are problematic, especially as related to the allocation of resources. Beyond the lack of recognition, health data is not being adequately tracked, and health disparities are difficult to identify because demographic surveys typically rely on the U.S. Census categories. 

Early immigrants, particularly those from the Levant region (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) fought to be categorized as White to avoid anti-Asian exclusionary and racist policies and gain U.S. citizenship, which was reserved for free White people (Kayyali, 2013). Although on paper Arabs are categorized as White, this does not translate to social privileges. Additionally, racism against Arabs and Muslims has been linked to adverse health outcomes (Samari et al., 2018). 

As social workers, our profession’s values and mission urge us to advocate for social justice. This starts with educating ourselves and others about the continuing racism toward Arabs and Muslims. This includes recognizing and addressing intergenerational trauma in this community, especially as so many immigrated to the United States fleeing war, displacement, and economic devastation. 

As social workers, we should continuously interrogate our own biases and dismantle White supremacy. We must work to challenge anti-Arab racism interpersonally and politically. Finally, this issue is not independent of other struggles for justice and equity and should be engaged as a part of a broader antiracist and anti-oppressive movement. As Dr. King reminds us, “an injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.” 


Arab American Institute Foundation (2018, April). Demographics. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c96c17de5f7d145081a1f94/t/5ca26409a4222f1874262cb9/1554146316265/National_Demographics_SubAncestries+2018.pdf

Beydoun, K. (2016). Boxed in: Reclassification of Arab Americans on the U.S. Census as progress or peril?  Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 47, 693–760. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2760604

Kayyali, R. (2013). U.S. Census classifications and Arab Americans: Contestations and definitions of identity markers. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39, 1299–1318. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2013.778150

Samari, G., Alcalá, H. E., & Sharif, M. Z. (2018). Islamophobia, health, and public health: A systematic literature review. American Journal of Public Health, 108(6), e1–e9. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304402