How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Preface Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Talking and smoking with his friends at a hookah café in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 24-year-old Palestinian-American Sade is distraught to have learned that someone he considered a friend was actually an undercover detective, spying on Muslim Americans to investigate terrorism. This is increasingly common; trust is hard to come by for people like Sade, who works at a technology company full of immigrants after losing his job on Wall Street. There, other employees had been vocal about their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings. Sade says that Arabs are “the new blacks” in America.
Bayoumi opens with this anecdote to emphasize the human dimensions and implications of 21st-century America’s pervasive anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, which affects Sade in every domain of his life: through the formal government channels of legal surveillance; at work, where his employer fires him without cause (which he later argues relates to his identity); and informally, in his coworkers’ off-color remarks.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Speaking of the African-American experience under the system of Jim Crow segregation more than a century ago, the black sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois asked, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Throughout American history, groups from Native Americans to Catholic immigrants to Jewish, Asian, and Hispanic Americans have been treated as threatening outsiders. Arabs and Muslims are the new “problem,” despite the pervasive American belief that people should not be judged by race, gender, religion, or country of origin. Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims have risen precipitously since the September 11 attacks and many Americans—39 percent, according to one poll—openly admit their prejudices against Muslims.
Bayoumi’s provocative comparison between contemporary Arab and Muslim Americans and African-Americans after the Civil War suggests that Arabs and Muslims have become something of a racial underclass, an exception to the supposed inclusivity and tolerance that remains so central to the United States’ self-image. But he notes that this internally contradictory core value—the belief in equality, but only for some—is a historically consistent feature of American life with historically measurable (and currently palpable) effects.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
The government has also relentlessly tracked and arrested Muslims since September 11—George W. Bush even made Arabs and Muslims the only legal exception to his ban on racial profiling. A profile, by definition, is an incomplete view, an outsider’s perspective devoid of detail. And profiling now affects Arabs and Muslims in all realms of American society, treating them as either “the exceptional assimilated immigrant or the violent fundamentalist, with very little room in between.” Although stereotypes and images of them are everywhere, they almost never get a chance to speak in public. When they are asked to speak, Arabs and Muslims are mostly forced to answer for others’ crimes and affirm their loyalty to the United States. Otherwise, they speak in the private spaces that will accept them; “the human dimensions” of their lives are still invisible to most.
Bayoumi suggests that “profiles” are the wrong way to view people because they latch onto details that might seem defining to observers but actually say little about people themselves. Like the discrimination Sade experiences, these profiles cross the porous borders between government policy and popular attitudes, which end up reinforcing one another. The split between “the exceptional assimilated immigrant or the violent fundamentalist” is an insistence that people can either become American or stay Arab and Muslim (and therefore anti-American). These identities are understood as opposites, and there is no public understanding that someone can truly be both Arab and American. Bayoumi seeks to offer pictures of this invisible experience, but from the inside rather than the outside: through people’s own words, not profiles; through experience, not theory.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Bayoumi has written this book to uncover “what it is like […] to be young, Arab, and Muslim in the age of terror.” He includes the stories of seven Arab Americans living in Brooklyn, focusing on the paradox of their youth: their elders expect them to contribute to their communities, yet the national culture feels threatened by them. While Arabs and Muslims are a younger and more affluent demographic than America as a whole, many in Brooklyn are working-class, and the Muslim experience is remarkably diverse—the Arab experience is less so, even though the majority of Arab Americans are Christians. But “Arab American Muslims are at the eye of today’s storms,” and Brooklyn has the largest population of them in the nation. It is one of the most diverse urban areas in the world, with innumerable communities and ways of life coexisting packed densely together.
The popular understanding that Arabness is the opposite of Americanness creates a false choice for the young people Bayoumi interviews, who are forced to publicly pick a side and therefore asked to forsake either their families or their country. The implicit question throughout this book is what being both Arab and American means, requires, and creates for the world. Bayoumi emphasizes that there are many Arab and Muslim American experiences to counteract the single, essentialist image of Arab and Muslim life that circulates in the American public sphere, and he chooses Brooklyn because it is the epicenter of not only Arab and Muslim diversity, but also the more general multiculturalism that plays such a central role in American identity.
Themes
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Bayoumi begins his research by reaching out to friends and community leaders; he is an Arab American Muslim, but from an elite academic background, unlike most of those who appear in this book. His subjects welcome him with open arms—one imam even tries to marry him off, and he is allowed to attend a private community meeting between Muslim leaders and the FBI, “an example of the failed communication that marks our era.” The FBI tells the leaders they should revere America’s “precious freedoms” and asks them to condemn terrorism. The FBI does nothing to help the community leaders, who ask how to strengthen Muslim charities and avoid the no-fly list.
Bayoumi’s own unique Muslim Arab American experience attests to the diversity and complexity of Arab and Muslim identities, and as both an Arab Muslim and an American elite, he is in a particularly unique position to help overcome “the failed communication that marks our era.” The meeting between the FBI and Muslim leaders shows how both sides are fixated on the image of Muslims as anti-American terrorists: the FBI assumes this profile and tries to talk people out of an extremism they do not believe in, while the Muslim leaders want to overcome this image and show the government that their interests match the interests of the United States as a whole.
Themes
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Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon
After hearing about his project, some people even reach out to Bayoumi. But the author insists that his seven stories do not tell the whole story of Arab American life. The most substantial gap is regarding Arabs who have decided to “pass” as another race “out of either shame or fear or both,” most often as Latinos.
Bayoumi does not want the reader to simply replace their existing “profile” of a large and diverse community with a new, more favorable one; rather, he wants them to see the limits of profiling altogether, how it not only renders certain experiences invisible but even leads some Arabs to choose invisibility to avoid racism. The fact that many Arabs “pass” as Latino shows how racism defines people based on arbitrary, inaccurate judgments: if Arabs were really all fundamentalist anti-Americans, it would be easy to tell them apart from others with similar skin tones.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
This book’s “very American stories” concern young Arab Americans who want the same thing as most other people of their age: “opportunity, marriage, happiness, and the chance to fulfill their potential.” They face various burdens that others do not, however, including discrimination, violence, surveillance, cultural misunderstandings, and more. Yet Bayoumi is optimistic, realizing that his subjects have “an enviable maturity” about their situation and need to negotiate multiple identities. They are incredibly knowledgeable about their struggle’s place in American history, and their stories have the potential to reveal the humanity of a profiled people, to help others overcome their prejudice through empathy and recognition.
Bayoumi points to another concept of Americanness, one based on inclusion in common purpose rather than exclusion from a community of political interests. The portraits he offers are not merely stories of suffering and discrimination: they are also stories about how people have managed to define themselves and “fulfill their potential” despite suffering and discrimination. Bayoumi suggests that these young people’s early struggles, based on identities they have been assigned rather than any personal choices, have forced them to build the kind of wisdom and moral strength that are necessary to overcome prejudice in their personal lives and in society at large.
Themes
Racism, Discrimination, and Foreign Policy Theme Icon
Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Justice, Activism, and the Future of American Democracy Theme Icon