July 17, 2008

Combating Stereotypes


AS A CHILD in New Jersey, I would often go to school and be asked where my family was from. People would sometimes look at me and guess the usual, such as Hispanic or Italian. They would never think of guessing that my ethnicity was Egyptian, usually because they had not interacted with an Egyptian-American before. But their reaction to my Arab-American heritage was always the same: "Does your family back in Egypt live in a pyramid and ride camels?"

Then that question was soon followed up by: "Do you guys walk with your hands in the air like on those hieroglyphics?" (I received that question most when a particular dog food commercial became popular, and when the rock group The Bangles released a music video titled "Walk Like an Egyptian" that was popular on MTV).

These and other silly questions were symptoms of an ignorance that resulted from a lacking education system. But now that Governor Corzine will be creating the Arab Heritage Commission this October, as has been repeatedly requested by the Arab-American community, the state's education system will no longer dwell in ignorance about one of its large ethnic communities.

I can recall my high school Spanish class, where there was an illustration of a physically disabled student in the textbook. The teacher was asked why they included such an image, to which she responded that it was the next step in an effort to reflect the diversity of our community in the pages of our school textbooks.

A positive step

Indeed,the textbooks that New Jersey schools were using in the Fifties are not likely to include any illustrations of an African- American, Hispanic or even physically disabled students to complement the text. Adding such nuance at a subliminal level has been a positive step for the education system.

But the same has yet to be done for the Arab-American community. If, for example, the word problems of a math book were to include a student named Mohamed in addition to a student named Billy, who are traveling on two separate trains in opposite directions, an actual student named Mohamed may be more readily accepted by his peers.

That's where the Arab Heritage Commission comes in. It will bring a representation and accurate information about the Arab-American culture, its contribution to American society and a general sense that citizens of Arab descent are just as American as those with Irish, Italian and Jewish roots.

The strength of America stems from its diversity, and that is especially true in North Jersey, which is both densely populated and highly diverse. If the various people of this community were to join together under one umbrella, an American umbrella, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.

But for that to happen at its full potential, all have to feel that they are not so different. The Arab Heritage Commission will help to further integrate a key part of our society under that common umbrella.

Corzine should be lauded for making the Arab Heritage Commission a reality. And as difficult as it was for the commission to become a reality, it was also the easy part. Now the challenge is for the commission to ensure that a child in the New Jersey school district is never so ignorant as to accuse another student of being a camel jockey from the desert.


Ahmed Soliman's column appears Thursdays.

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