By Louise Derman-Sparks with Merrie Najimy
What messages are you hearing from the mainstream media about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt? What about the fighting in Libya or the government crackdowns in Syria and Bahrain? If the messages and images of Arabs and their countries are confusing to you, imagine what children are picking up from them. These new messages occur in a social environment full of existing stereotypes, misinformation, and incidents of discrimination and hatred directed at Americans of Arab descent. For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) reports that in 2011, the number of discrimination complaints handled by the ADC legal department is the highest since 2003—even more than after 9/11/2001 (2010 ADC Legal Report: Legal Advocacy and Policy Review).
If you work with Arab American children, you will want to assess how your learning environment supports their positive identity and home culture. As anti-bias educator Merrie Najimy relates:
Growing up Arab American in the ’70s and ’80s—not quite white, Semitic nose and lips, black hair galore—I felt like I lived in two worlds, “Arab” and “American”—the former not to be shared in the latter, because of concerns about being different from the dominant culture. My Arabic world was my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and first cousins all living nearby, regular Sunday dinners at Sitto’s (Grandmother’s) house, her friends chatting in Arabic, the elders smoking fruit tobacco on the Argeelee (water pipe). Women walking hand in hand and men arm in arm with no homophobic stigma attached. My cousins picking up the tabla (drum) and making powerful music, the beauty of the men dancing, and so much more. I had many friends, yet felt like an “other.” I made faces at Dick and Jane in the basal reader and scribbled in the book because their lives were nothing like my life. They represented a life that I was supposed to emulate. When kids found out I was Lebanese, they often asked, “What’s that?” which made me feel like my ethnicity was a disease. I now realize that the awkwardness I felt was due to the absence of a multicultural education—i.e., an anti-bias framework. (From Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, 2010).
Now is a crucial time to assess how you are teaching children about children of Arab heritage.
Teacher Preparation Guidelines
1.) Be aware of prevailing societal stereotypes. Young children are often quite aware of widespread stereotypes and the prejudiced attitudes of adults. In addition, they tend to generalize what they see and hear, applying stereotypical images or negative comments about Arabs living abroad to Americans of Arab descent.
- Common stereotypes include “All Arabs have the same culture” or “Arabs look the same.”
- A predominant and possibly harmful stereotype from mass media is that Arabs are scary and they hurt other people.
- People often erroneously think that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arabs.
- To see more stereotypes with full descriptions, go to this companion page: Countering Arab Stereotypes.
2.) Learn about how your particular group of children thinks. Use this data to plan for long-term materials and activities to correct and expand children’s ideas and foster unbiased interactions.
PREPARATION STRATEGY 1
Make time to listen and observe your children identifying themselves and expressing their feelings about their own and other’s race and ethnicity. As children play, talk, draw, and paint pictures they often reveal how they see themselves. They also indirectly express their feelings though their choices of playmates, toys, images, and books. Watch for children’s playmates, and for teasing about Arab heritage and/or their family’s way of life. Also, note any rejection based on biases directed toward them.
PREPARATION STRATEGY 2
Generate conversations with your children about their ideas and feelings about people of Arab heritage. Using images and stories, ask them who they see and who do they think people are. Where do they think people live, have a family, go to school, and work. Listen for misconceptions and statements that make others uncomfortable. As a rule, when you are collecting information, do not intervene. You want children to feel comfortable to express their true views, not what they think you want to hear or see. However, if you think something will especially hurt a child of Arab heritage, you can say something like “Not everything being said is true or fair. Soon we will be learning about what is really true and fair.” Merrie Najimy relates that when she intentionally plans a lesson that will expose negative images and hurtful stereotypes about Arab people, she talks to her Arab heritage students in advance. She explains what might be raised in conversation. She affirms their identities, makes clear that these images are not true or fair, and explains that the lessons are to help everyone to recognize and stop misinformation.
3. Examine your own ideas and feelings.
Children are not the only ones vulnerable to misinformation and negative messages about people of Arab heritage; most of the people living in the United States have been surrounded by considerable anti-Arab prejudice from mainstream media for many years. Among the most serious myths affecting adults is that all Arab men are extremist and/or terrorists, out to get Americans; Islam is responsible for Arab terrorism; and all Arab women are much more oppressed than women from other ethnic or religious groups. None of these are true. As in all groups, a small minority of individuals may fit one or more of these characterizations, but not the vast majority. Honestly uncovering stereotypes, misinformation, and learned prejudices will enable you to eliminate their insidious influence on your thinking, attitudes, and behaviors.
4. Design appropriate activities to counter misinformation and help children resist prejudice.
Keep in mind that “Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images” (Wingfield & Karaman, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, p.138).
5. Make sure that children of Arab heritage in your program are visible in your learning materials, your curriculum supports their home culture (including being Muslim if that is the religion of their family), and fosters bilingualism if their home language is other than English.
STRATEGIES FOR SUPPORTING HOME CULTURE
As with learning experiences about any group of people, do not expect children of Arab heritage to be their ethnic group’s expert or spokesperson. Instead, create a safe environment for that child to volunteer personal stories of culture or identity if she or he chooses. One popular strategy is for children to share their family’s holidays. This strengthens the child’s positive self-identity and classmates’ awareness of and comfort with diversity. In this example, from a private college kindergarten, Adam, a Muslim, Arab American child, initiated the following activities. (Be aware that the activities are not about teaching children what religious beliefs to practice—rather it is child sharing his family experiences.)
In the weeks before Christmas, the other 4- and 5-year-olds in Adam’s class begin talking about Santa Claus, including asking each other what Santa Claus was going to bring them. Adam keeps calmly saying: “I don’t believe in Santa Claus. I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Muslim.” His classmates are puzzled. That night Adam tells his mother: “The children at my school do not know about Muslims. My teachers celebrate Christmas, so let’s get them Christmas presents. I celebrate Eid ul-Fitr so let’s get them Eid [pronounced “eed”] presents, too.”
Adam’s mother related this conversation to his teachers, who invited Adam to tell his classmates about what his family does for Eid, and to share Eid food and a game with them. Adam then decided to ask his Imam and his mother if he could bring his class to his mosque. The teacher and Adam’s mother arranged for a visit. Adam was thrilled that his classmates visited his mosque, and it was a lovely experience for everyone. Subsequently, other children also decided to tell their classmates about their families’ religious practices—and an ongoing theme for the curriculum emerges.
Assemble and create accurate teaching materials. This task will require you to search beyond the traditional sources and to also make your own materials—especially for young children. There are a few good books that focus on Arabs in other countries; however, young children need to know that there are many Americans of Arab heritage and that they live in a variety of ways. Ask Arabs from your community if they will help you create books, photos to use for learning games, etc. (See Anti-Bias Education, chapter 4, for more ideas.)
Concepts for Children
Concept 1: Arab American families live in a variety of ways.
Arab American families live in a variety of ways. They are both alike and different from your own families. (With older children—upper elementary, middle, high school—you can also expand to include Arab families in other counties.)
Always connect learning activities about different kinds of families to the similarities and differences among your children’s families. Affirm all the ways of being a family and help the children make the connection between their experiences and those of the children in the stories about Arab/Arab Americans. In Merrie’s case, she was able to use her story about growing up Arab American, the year she lived in Lebanon as a child, and her visit to Lebanon and Palestine as an adult. If you cannot do this, you may know people of Arab heritage who can tell you or your students directly about their families.
Two children’s books to use are Everybody Bakes Bread by Norah Dooley and Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye. Dooley’s book depicts real people who live in the author’s neighborhood, including a Lebanese family who own a restaurant, and Nye’s depicts an Arab American child who visits her grandmother in Palestine. Talk with your children about how Sitti’s experiences are like theirs (e.g., stories about visiting their grandmothers; grandmothers who have fruit trees in their gardens), as well as the differences, like where the grandmothers live.
Concept 2: Arab American people work and contribute in many ways.
Arab American people work and contribute in many ways. (With older children, expand to include the work and contributions of Arabs in other countries.)
You might be able to assemble a wall chart of such images, with the title of “Arab American people work in many ways.” Many anti-bias educators use the technique of storytelling with dolls that have the identity and heritage of the group under discussion (e.g., Miriam’s mother is a doctor and works in a hospital; her father is an actor on television). Called “persona dolls,” this technique allows you to explore several concepts with children (families, work, where people live, and stereotyping). It has shown itself quite effective to build knowledge, emotional connections, and critical thinking. (See Anti-Bias Education for ideas and further resources.)
Concept 3: Untrue/unfair stereotypes about people of Arab heritage.
Be alert for unfair practices that directly affect their lives. The children or you may identify the problem.
With preschool/kindergarten-age children:
The most useful strategy is to provide learning experiences that counter the information and stereotypes children hold about people of Arab heritage. To do this, you must first find out how they think. Then, provide photos, books, and, if possible, direct experiences that contradict erroneous ideas and offer alternative information. Help the children compare and contrast inaccurate and accurate images and ideas (e.g., Arab people live in deserts vs. an assortment of true images of people living in cities, coastal plans).
With primary school-age children:
If you have worked with the children on the previous concepts, they are ready for critical analyses, which is identifying untrue and unfair images and messages. Focus on critiquing images and information in the media—cartoons, news clippings, photographs, videos—that contradicts their new information. Critiquing the Disney movie Aladdin is one example where anti-bias work becomes visible.
Although most children do not realize the movie is about Arabs, they can often name its many negative images: “People chasing other people with knives”; “The tall guy is creepy, with red eyes, and snarls”; “The bad guys have darker skin, the good guys have lighter.” One student’s comment illustrates how insidious racism can be in the media: She explained that in the movie, “the darker skinned people are the Arabs, and they are trying to kill the lighter skinned people, who are not Arab.” However, she did not recognize Aladdin and Jasmine, who are light-skinned, as Arab. It was a terrific opportunity to explore the “light/good, dark/bad” stereotype. The children were able to connect the discussion to how dark-skinned African American characters are often the “bad guys” and people from Africa get portrayed as “savages.”
Concept 4: Building empathy with ordinary people in countries of conflict.
(For primary and older school children) Build understanding and empathy for the people living in countries where U.S. troops engage in armed conflict with particular political factions or governments. Primary graders (and beyond) are old enough to hear about stories of conflict, presented in an age-appropriate, sensitive context that focuses on the lives and actions of ordinary people who are caught up in the conflicts.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq (J. Winter) puts a human face on a people in the midst of war and shows that even then, individuals can work together for good in their community. This book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library. Set in 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Alia is worried about protecting the library’s 30,000 books. Because the government refuses to help, she recruits friends to help her move the books into a nearby restaurant. The library is bombed nine days later.
One student asks: “Why go through the risk of trying to save the books?” I let them discuss and debate it as a group: “She wants to save them to remember the people”; “Books give info on how to stop troubles”; “Books give you relief so you can feel happier.” Although it may be beyond school-age children’s developmental level to understand that books transmit history, culture, and identity to future generations, they can explain why books are important to them. They also can understand the bravery and resourcefulness of the librarian of Basra.
We are interested to hear about more strategies being used in classrooms. Share your ideas for teaching about Arabs and Arab Americans.