I Want My Son to be Proud
When he was 12, my son, Mike, walked into our living room and said to me, "Dad, I hate Arabs."
I was shocked. My parents' background is Lebanese. I thought I'd taught Mike to be proud of his Arab heritage. Of course, like most kids born here, he thought of himself as American, period.
I asked why he hated Arabs. Mike said it was because of what he saw in films and on TV.
As a student at Detroit's Wayne State University, I'd learned how media stereotypes can create public attitudes. But that lesson only hit me emotionally when I saw how it had affected my son's self-image. I became more aware of how traditional Arab stereotypes get full play: from Rudolph Valentino's 1921 portrayal of The Sheik (with its memorable line, "When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her"); to bad Arabs with big swords pursuing everyone across the desert, from The Three Stooges and Hope & Crosby to Beatty & Hoffman; all the way to recent films, where Arabs appear only as terrorists. At the same time, the positive contributions of Arabs throughout history -- and of the Arab-American community -- are skipped over as if they didn't exist.
That imbalance creates racism.
Americans with Arab heritage who have contributed to our nation include innovators in science and medicine like Dr. Michael DeBakey, the pioneer heart surgeon, and Prof. Elias Corey, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for chemistry; entertainers like Paula Abdul and Paul Anka; political figures like John Sununu, President Bush's former chief of staff, George Mitchell, the Senate Majority Leader, and Donna Shalala, President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services; and sports figures like Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, and Rony Seikaly, the pro basketball star.
Recently, I asked prominent Americans of Arab descent how they had dealt with racism. The answers ranged from confronting it head-on to staying silent. But, in every case, they rose above it.
James Abourezk, a former Senator who today heads the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), confronted the racism. Abourezk, whose parents were Lebanese, was called a "damn Jew" by some people in his hometown of Wood, S.D., who knew nothing about Arabs or Lebanese.
Arab-bashing ballooned in the '70s. After the Abscam scandal, where FBI agents posed as oil sheiks to "sting" law-breaking members of Congress, outraged Arab-Americans asked for Abourezk's help. Turning down another term as Senator, he founded the ADC in 1980. The organization, which calls attention to instances of bias, today has 30,000 members in more than 70 cities. Abourezk, who once was nicknamed the "Syrian Sioux," also defends the rights of Native Americans.
"You look at the popular media," he says, "and you don't find any Arab or Arab-American portrayed in a positive light. The last one was Danny Thomas in his TV shows [in the '50s and '60s], and then they were called Lebanese. I think the only movie where I've seen a positive Arab was Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. But 99.95 percent of all portrayals of Arabs are vicious. That's why Arab-Americans are invisible.
"We've found in ADC that some Arab-Americans have changed their names to make them sound more Anglo, because they just don't want to get in trouble," he adds. For example, F. Murray Abraham - the American born, Oscar-winning actor (Amadeus) - uses an initial because, as he told one reporter, his Syrian name, Fahrid, "would typecast me as a sour Arab out to kill everyone."
Joseph Jacobs grew up in Brooklyn, where the goal was to blend in as Americans. He worried less about taunts like "camel jockey" and more about whether his mother spoke Arabic in front of his friends. Today, he says he feels lucky to have his heritage: "The ethics, pride and sense of honor I learned in my ethnic community were important contributors to my business career."
Businessmen and intellectuals were Jacobs' role models. He recalls that many uneducated immigrants like his dad made great successes of themselves: "What business are you in?" was a question I invariably heard asked when a Lebanese came to visit us.
Jacobs became a professor of chemical engineering, but his mother insisted he'd never be a success until he went into business for himself. So, in 1947, he started a one-man consulting firm. Today, Jacobs Engineering Group, based in Pasadena, is one of America's largest professional service firms - a billion-dollar international corporation.
Any racism he experienced as a youth, Jacobs says, gave him "additional incentive" to accomplish something and get the respect of your peers." He adds, "Being accepted and respected in the American culture was a powerful motivator for me."
Candice Lightner's Lebanese-American mother was taught to "mainstream" and wouldn't teach her daughter to speak Arabic. But there was still Arabic culture at home. Lightner first experienced the pain of discrimination at 13, when a school friend's parents refused to let her visit Lightner because she was Lebanese. "I remember telling my parents and being very hurt," she says.
In 1980, after losing her daughter in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), lobbying across the nation for tougher laws. Today -- 2000 new laws later -- "drunk driving is no longer socially acceptable," she says.
"The press would never print that I was an Arab-American," she asserts. "So, when I started doing live media, I'd bring it up." When Lightner protested the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, her boyfriend called her "anti-Semitic." The relationship ended. Her non-Arab father knew better. "Honey, you are a Semite," he said. "That's the way I was raised," says Lightner. "We [Arabs and Jews] are all Semites."
Prejudice may have held back Fawaz "Tony" Ismail's dream of a pro football career. As a high school student in Texas, the Palestinian-American got good grades and excelled in soccer, track and weight-lifting. But, for three seasons, a new coaching staff didn't start him in a football game. "I felt I was being discriminated against because my name was different," he says.
In 1985, Ismail joined his father, selling flags on the road. Today, his Virginia-based Alamo Flag Co. is the largest retailer of flags and flag-related items in the U.S. Ismail has sold Swedish flags in Minnesota, Italian and Irish flags in New York, and flags to citizens whose ancestries reach around the globe. Last September, he supplied the Palestinian flags and lapel pins for the historic signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord at the White House.
Kathy Najimy grew up in San Diego proud of her heritage. The actress says she thought being Lebanese "was the coolest thing to be."
One of her feminist role models was Marlo Thomas, Danny's daughter and star of That Girl on TV (1966-71). "She was the first actress in [television] history whose character was single, independent, had a job and didn't live with her parents!" says Najimy.
As an aspiring actress who wasn't built like a "Barbie doll," Najimy succeeded through comedy. She wrote and co-starred in a feminist cabaret it, The Kathy & Mo Show. She played a bubbly nun in the popular film Sister Act and its recent sequel.
While she didn't suffer racism as a child, Najimy ran into bigotry in the late 1970s, when anti-Iranian sentiment swept the country. Technically, Iranians aren't Arabs, but it made no difference. Angered by the intellectual stupidity expressed in anti-Iranian bumper stickers, Najimy went around ripping them off cars.
People "need to have...someone they can feel better than - or hate," Najimy says. It's "sad," she adds, "because it comes from wanting to belong, to feel like part of a group."
The actress believes that all ethnic groups benefit from knowing their own heritage: "Identifying yourself as something strong and positive helps you to overcome the things that you're going to meet along the way as a woman."
Farouk El-Baz identified himself as a conservative Muslim raised in Cairo when he came to the United States in 1960 to earn a Ph.D. in geology. He soon learned that the beliefs of Egyptians about Americans were as incorrect as those of Americans about Arabs. "Americans did not really know about the Arab world - except for what was presented in the media, especially the movies," he recalls.
His accent was no hindrance when he joined America's space program in 1967. "In social settings, it even served as an icebreaker," he says. El-Baz worked on Apollo missions 8 through 17, helping to select landing sites, training astronauts in visual observations and photography, and naming features of the moon. He pioneered the use of space photography to locate ground-water and petroleum in the Earth's deserts. Today he directs Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing.
In 1971, El-Baz was interviewed for a TV special. Rick Berman, the sound man, was so impressed that in 1989, as executive producer of TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation, he named a shuttle craft El-Baz in the scientist's honor.
Arab-Americans are more visible today than when he was starting out, El-Baz says, but they still experience racism. "Racism originates from fear of the unknown or lack of knowledge," he says, adding that this is "usually alleviated by the spread of information on the Arab culture and its diversity."
Information is Helen Thomas' life. She fell in love with journalism in high school and has pursued it ever since.
A 50-year veteran with UPI, Thomas has covered eight Presidents and was the first woman admitted to Washington's Gridiron Club for journalists (1975) - as well as its first woman president (1992). She alternates with the AP reporter in opening Presidential news conferences and closes them with the words, "Thank you, Mr. President."
Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese, was raised in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Detroit and doesn't recall feeling set apart from others. Her parents were determined to be American, says Thomas. They taught her "a sense of justice, love of freedom, democracy...really cherishing and appreciating what this country had given them and their children."
Thomas rejects labels and hyphens. "I think everybody who was born here or becomes a naturalized citizen is an American, period," she says. "You shouldn't have to have a hyphen between your nationality and your ethnic background or your religion or anything else." To improve race relations today, Thomas says she would teach tolerance in the schools, from kindergarten on.
In the years since my son said he hated Arabs, I've
confronted Arab defamation in our society by highlighting positive contributions made by Arab-Americans. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Those sentiments, spoken by President Kennedy, were expressed earlier by, among others, an Arab-American philosopher and poet -- Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet. He was proud of his Arab heritage and a champion of U.S. citizenship. Arab-Americans have reflected that sentiment ever since they first arrived, more than 100 years ago.
This article was prepared with the help of Jay Goldsworthy, a colleague of Casey Kasem. It first appeared in Parade magazine and is reprinted in The Arab American Dialogue with the permission of Mr. Kasem.
About Casey Kasem
Millions of fans around the world find the name Casey Kasem synonymous with musical countdowns. He now celebrates his 23rd year of counting down the hits on the radio, currently with "Casey's Top 40, With Casey Kasem." He can also be heard on adult contemporary stations with "Casey's Countdown" and on his daily, five-minute show, "Casey's Biggest Hits", all on the Westwood One network.
The man who once dreamed of becoming a baseball player but ended up as a radio sports announcer in high school, has since become the youngest member ever inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. And he has his own star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame as well. Casey Kasem's friendly, 'crackling' voice style has taken him to the top of his profession.
All this is a long way from the days back in Detroit when young Kemal Amen Kasem, son of Lebanese Druze parents, was a member of his high school's radio club. It was a short hop from sportscasting to radio acting. While majoring in speech and English at Wayne State University, he landed roles in national shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." During military service in Korea, he coordinated and acted in radio drama on the Armed Forces Network.
A civilian again in 1954, Casey soon became a disc jockey, work that took him from Detroit to Cleveland, Buffalo, San Francisco and eventually Los Angeles. Along the way, his easy-going style became his vocal trademark- but not before Casey's station manager in Oakland told him to change his format from wild, improvised comedy characters.
Casey recalls what happened next vividly. Just minutes before his next show, still stuck for a new format idea, he spied a discarded magazine, Who's Who in Pop Music, in a trash barrel at the studio. It was full of facts about recording artists -- exactly what he needed. That night, he began telling stories about the true lives of popular musicians, teased with lead-ins a few minutes before each story was told. This "teaser/bio" format was to become a standard in the radio industry, and a familiar part of "American Top 40", which debuted on July 4, 1970.
In 1963, Casey moved to Los Angeles, adding TV to his radio work when he hosted "Shebang", a dance program produced by Dick Clark. He branched into film acting with several American International pictures, and, in 1968, into voice-over commercials. Kasem's voice immediately became sought after for spots, promos and cartoon shows. He has done over 2,000 episodes in series like "Scooby Doo", "Super Friends", "Mister Magoo" and "Transformers", as well as 'letters' and 'numbers' on "Sesame Street."
Through the 1970's and 1980's, Casey continued acting in films and TV, guest-starring on series from "Charlie's Angels", "Quincy" and "Fantasy Island" to "ALF" and "Amen". Meanwhile, his TV hosting included not only "America's Top Ten" but also the annual American Video Awards. And for a dozen years, into the '90s, he hosted the syndicated weekly musical countdown, "America's Top Ten," on TV.
Away from work, Casey has co-hosted Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association since 1981. He has received the prestigious Founder's Award for aiding Danny Thomas's St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. A vegetarian, he does TV spots and specials aimed at combating alcohol abuse, drunk driving and hunger, as well as a major campaign against smoking for the National Cancer Institute.
Casey is a member of the board of directors for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He has spent much of his time since 1986 calling the entertainment industry's attention to ethnic stereotyping and getting favorable responses. He has also helped promote and support workshops like the Cousins Club that bring Arabs, Jews and others together to discuss conflict resolution.
Casey has received numerous awards, most recently, the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action presented him a special Peace Award for his work "towards a just peace in the Middle East and for a maximum communication and cooperation between Arab-Americans and Jews in this country."
A full and active life, yet there is the persistent belief in him that he can do more. His message to each individual is to believe that "I can make a difference" -- then get involved. And he sets the example himself.