By Dr. Luay Shalabi, principal of Central Academy, a public charter school in Ann Arbor, Michigan managed by GEE (Global Education Excellence), a vehicle for developing nurturing educational environments where all children are offered quality educational opportunities. Shalabi, a 30-year veteran educator, was named the 2012 Michigan Council for the Social Studies “Social Studies Citizen of the Year” in recognition of his efforts to increase tolerance and celebrate diversity among all people. 

The traditional public school system rarely acknowledges the struggle that Arab American students face while trying to cope with two cultures. This often results in a crisis of identity, stemming from the fact that children and their parents are physically distant from what they call their “homeland” at the same time they are culturally distant from their adopted country. Between their parents’ past and their own present and future, Arab American students become very confused, frustrated and bewildered. Whether they have been born in America or are newcomers, Arab American children have a difficult time defining their identities.

Is knowing the Arabic language sufficient to grant them an Arab identity? Does not knowing the Arabic language disqualify them from being Arab? Where does following or breaking certain cultural rules put them in relation to Arab identity? What about parents’ expectations and the pressure of the dominant culture?  How confident are Arab American students in declaring their Arab identity in a culture with a largely negative perception of Arabs? 

These are only few examples of the confusion that leads Arab students to ask “Who am I?”.  During this struggle, Arab American students may take several paths in an effort to clarify their identity, including going to extremes. Some may completely dismantle their culture and try to fully adopt the host culture. Others may reject anything that is not Arab. Still another group of Arab Americans may maintain their heritage and at the same time, fully interact with American society. 

Members who belong to the first group might completely reject anything that relates them to their own culture. “I want to be like all the others,” a 7th grader once told me. This child, like many others, has very little opportunity to identify with the ideals around him because they are unattainable.  This leads to feelings of emptiness and alienation. “When I look around,” another high school student once said, “I see very few or no members of my ethnic background in the same positions or as important as members of the dominant culture.” Another student said, “I wish I were American. I want to be a part of the big picture.” What leads to this rejection of one’s identity is that these students feel that being part of the minor culture will prevent them from being part of the main one. When they see how ridiculed and ignored their culture is, they feel that being part of it is the only obstacle keeping them from success. 

The only way, they think, that they can break these boundaries is to reject their culture and disassociate themselves from it. Their heritage becomes worthless and shameful to them. They become very anxious to dismantle it and try what’s “American.”  Students then adopt a behavior of denying their Arab personality. This group of students will always make it very clear to both people from their own cultural background and people from the dominant culture that they are rebelling against their traditional culture. Research has proven that this group suffers the most, academically and socially. Their lives become marginal because they lose their character as a result of denying their identity. Without that focus, they lose direction. They deny their own culture yet can never attain the “American” identity. They lose the most important factor that helps humans achieve identity and maintain it—preserving one’s heritage. 

The second group represents the other extremes in terms of relating to the Arab heritage and dealing with the American culture. Individuals of this group form a defense mechanism to avoid the identity crisis by rejecting everything that is not characterized as Arab. They find that fully attaching themselves to home and their own community members is the only solution for forgetting about the identity issue and resting the continuous pressure. When they are among their family members, Arabic is usually spoken, parents are with them and teaching them, and they feel normal. Contrary to the previous group, this group believes only its own heritage, values and beliefs are valid. Everything else is viewed as worthless and it is considered shameful to adopt any part of it. This group might go to such an extreme as to “estrange” any member of the community that would adopt any other values.  The struggle of this group is much harder than of the previous group because they are running against the current in every aspect of their life.  Serious consequences such as physical or mental health problems, inability to achieve financial or academic goals, and serious family problems and frictions may result.

The third group is those Arab American students who are able to achieve and maintain their identity while simultaneously playing a valuable role in American society. They are proud of their heritage and identity and at the same time, they contribute in a positive way as citizens of a nation populated by immigrants and their descendents. They believe that America’s culturally diverse heritage is a major source of richness, beauty and power. They perceive the American people and the U.S. Constitution support Arab Americans’ and all minorities’ desire to preserve their heritage, in keeping with the values upon which this country was based.

It is this third group I hope to see more of. We all need to do whatever we can to raise generations that are proud of both their Arab and American heritage. After all, this is America – a nation of nations.


©2012 Dr. Luay Shalabi