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Speaking up for Arab Americans

What Assistant Professor Germine Awad experienced after Sept. 11, 2001 altered the focus of her research on prejudice and discrimination.

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This story originally appeared on The Alcalde Web site.

Germine Awad was a psychology graduate student in Illinois on Sept. 11, 2001. As people flocked to TV sets blaring footage of burning buildings, a professor approached her.

“Don’t be upset if people yell at you, because they’re really just upset about what happened,” the professor said. Awad, who is Egyptian American, reacted with disbelief. “I thought, are you kidding me? How could I not be upset?”

Awad’s parents, Egyptian immigrants who owned a business in Cleveland, experienced discrimination with increased frequency in the months after 9/11.

“People of all ethnic backgrounds would come into their store and say things like ‘Your people bombed America!'” she recalled. “Number one, Muslims in America had nothing to do with 9/11, and number two, my parents aren’t Muslim. People just really didn’t get it.”

Even more alarming to Awad was the realization that this lack of understanding pervaded academia as well. As she pored over psychology journals for her graduate coursework, she faced the same frustrating overgeneralization over and over again: Many researchers falsely assumed that “Arab American” and “Muslim American” were synonyms.

“People were confounding ethnicity and religion. But if we look at the statistics, most Arab Americans are Christian,” Awad explained. According to a 2002 Zogby poll, only about 24 percent of the roughly 3.5 million Arab Americans are Muslim, while the largest group, comprising 35 percent, is Catholic. A few of the many countries of origin for Arab Americans are Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Algeria, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Germine Awad

Assistant Professor Germine AwadPhoto: Kae Wang

Though Awad was already focusing her research on prejudice and discrimination, she hadn’t specifically studied Arab Americans. But after 9/11, “I felt like we needed more people to tell this story,” she said. “I realized that as an Arabic speaker, as someone who is ethnically identified, I was in a unique position to help tell it.”

It’s a story she’s been telling ever since. In her 2010 study, “The Impact of Acculturation and Religious Identification on Perceived Discrimination for Arab/Middle Eastern Americans,” she surveyed 177 Arab Americans and found that those who were both Muslim and highly acculturated, or acclimated to life in America, perceive more discrimination than other Arab American groups.

This shows that discrimination toward Arab Americans is not just based on perceived foreignness, Awad said: “Even when individuals didn’t have an accent, when they weren’t living in an ethnic enclave, when they were less obviously ‘foreign’ — they were still experiencing a lot of discrimination. And Muslims had it the worst.”

This isn’t an earth-shattering finding — and to the many Arab and Muslim Americans who’ve been subjected to discriminatory comments, it’s hardly surprising. But Awad is one of the first researchers to document it empirically. There are still very few Arab American psychologists, whether researchers or clinicians, and Awad said this underrepresentation makes it difficult for Arab Americans to receive mental health care tailored to their needs.

“In the long run, I hope my research helps people get better care,” she said. “Therapists who may be afraid to take on Arab American clients — I want to help them gain more understanding.”

Now she’s won a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health to do just that. Awad’s next study will measure the effects of discrimination on Arab Americans’ mental health. She predicts that people who experience more discrimination, especially Muslims, will also be more likely to suffer depression and anxiety.

Ultimately, Awad said, we’re all responsible for acknowledging our own prejudices. “Everyone has them,” she said. “And we need to stop being politically correct. Don’t be afraid to sound ignorant and ask questions. How will we learn more about one another if we’re afraid to ask?”