- New Wave Arab American Studies: Ethnic Studies and the Critical Turn
In March 2011 some fifteen hundred activists, artists, academics, and public intellectuals gathered at the University of California at Riverside for the first Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) conference. Its theme—“Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler-Colonialism, Heteropatriarchy, and White Supremacy”—indicated a sense of urgency, as attendees congregated to assess, and even disrupt, the heretofore-established field of ethnic studies. The CESA conference sought to rethink ethnic studies by decentralizing race and ethnicity as primary vectors of analysis and emphasizing instead decolonial, antiracist, queer, Third World, and feminist of color analytics. The sense of rupture and possibility that existed in the CESA conference is evident in the recent publications in Arab American studies under review, including [End Page 231] the work of Nadine Naber, one of the conference organizers. These works represent a turning point within the emergent field of Arab American studies in their departure from the field’s origins in postcolonial and area studies, their reclamation of Arab American studies as a distinctly critical ethnic studies project, and their careful attention to structures of power.
Situated for many years between the margins of Middle East, American, and ethnic studies, Arab American studies is now claiming its space in relation to these fields. The field originates in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s with works like The Arab-Americans, edited by Elaine Hagopian and Ann Paden, Arabic-Speaking Communities in American Cities, by Barbara Aswad, and Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, edited by Baha Abu-Laban and Faith Zeadey, followed by major contributions to the field in the 1980s and 1990s with Alixa Naff’s Becoming American, Michael Suleiman’s Arabs in the Mind of America and Arabs in America: Building a New Future, Evelyn Shakir’s Bint Arab, and Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs.1 While the earliest publications in the field grew predominantly out of the social sciences—which their emphases on quantitative data reflect—the 1980s and 1990s saw a notable turn toward more qualitative analyses.
The past two decades have proved challenging for scholars working in the field, in terms of both political context and methodology. As Naber points out in the introduction to Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11, although working in Arab American studies was once considered “academic suicide,” its intellectual and political importance has increased with the rapid expansion of US imperialism after 9/11 (4). The five works reviewed here employ a methodological approach that synthesizes the previously distinct quantitative and qualitative periods within the field while also prompting questions of disciplinarity, institutionalization, and belonging as the field negotiates its position within the academy at large. These texts represent a critical Arab American studies informed by decoloniality, radical feminist of color theory, and queer of color critique, and is invested in anti-imperialist and antiracist coalition-building both within the United States and transnationally. This shift in the field is part of a larger critical turn within ethnic studies, as exemplified by the founding of CESA.
Arab American studies’ historical marginalization from ethnic studies largely stems from the history of Arab racial formation in the United States, as outlined in Sarah Gualtieri’s monograph...