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West Asians and Asian Identity

The Asian continent is extremely diverse, extending from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east, from Sri Lanka in the south to Siberia in the north, and including a variety of cultures and peoples. Because of a history of racism and imperialism, however, the stereotype of Asian people is much more limited. In the United States, for example, the term 'Asian' usually brings to mind someone from an East Asian background. While a major portion of the continent's population and cultural richness is in the east, this is not the whole picture. To claim the big picture of Asia is an important step on the road to our solidarity and liberation as Asian people.

Some personal history may help to illustrate these points. My maternal family's roots are in West Asia, a region that includes the independent countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Union of Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as many other non-independent cultural groups. Two of my grandparents were born in the Christian Arab communities of Lebanon (then part of Syria) in the late 10's. Over the past century, our understanding of ourselves and our heritage has gradually evolved to the point where I have been able to claim Asian identity today.

At the time my grandparents immigrated to the United States (1906 to 1912), there was no common Arab identity in the Arabic-speaking countries as there is today. Most people identified according to their national and cultural groups (my family called themselves Syrians during their first decades in the U.S.). It was only after World War I that an Arab nationalist movement swept through the Arab world, pressing for independence from the European powers and claiming a common identity as Arabs as an expression of unity. Far away in California, this new movement apparently had only limited influence on my family and their community, who continued to call themselves Syrians. In the 1940's, when Lebanon became independent, this identity began to change from Syrian to Lebanese.

Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's in Los Angeles, I learned that I was 'Lebanese': my family spoke 'Lebanese,' ate 'Lebanese food,' and were from 'Lebanon.' Occasionally, someone would say Syrian, as in 'Syrian bread,' but this was less frequent. Sometimes, especially as people of other heritages entered the family through marriage, the conversation would turn to these words we used, what they meant, and who we were. Since our education in the U.S. about our own heritage had been limited by racism, there was always a lot of confusion and argument and trying to straighten out exactly who we were and weren't. Internalized oppression kept us from thinking clearly about ourselves. I remember once asking my mother if we were Arabs, and she passed along the misinformation she was given that no, Arabs had darker complexions and were Muslim, and we had lighter complexions and were Christian. (This may have been the view of my grandparents at the time they were living in Lebanon, even though they spoke Arabic, and it persisted for several generations.)

Throughout my grade school years and most of college-all in southern California-I don't remember ever meeting another Arab student or hearing any information about Arabs in my classes. Once I wrote to an Arab-American organization asking if I could join as a Lebanese and if I was considered an Arab. I received a reply saying that most of the organization's members were Lebanese-Syrians and they certainly did consider themselves Arabs. I began to get a glimmer of reality.

When I started Co-Counseling in the mid-1970's, clear information about my cultural identity finally began to reach me as a result of the early discussions then being held about Jews, Arabs, and the Middle East. For the first time in my life, good attention and support were available to begin discharging and thinking about being Arab. I began to call myself an Arab (rather than the familiar 'Lebanese') as a direction against internalized oppression. Some confusion continued to arise in my mind, though, whenever RC groups would meet separately as whites and as Third Worlders. In the late 1970's, while attending a mixed workshop on eliminating racism, another Arab in attendance and I were invited by the Third World people to join them. My Arab friend immediately agreed, whereas I struggled with ambivalent feelings about whether I belonged. While I was sitting with the Third World people, however, the tears flowed and my life changed.

During the 19's I continued joining people-of-color groups at workshops, and gradually the next step in my liberation emerged. The idea began to surface that people with roots in West Asia could be included in Asian RC. (Our Asian Inheritance No. 5, published in 1985, included for the first time articles by a Palestinian man and a Turkish woman.) During these years I started identifying myself at workshops as Asian and occasionally joined Asian support groups. Usually, the sight of my blue eyes required a fresh explanation each time, since the concept of 'West Asian' wasn't widespread yet.

In the 1990's I took the further step of standing up to join an Asian panel outside of RC. It went well, people seemed to understand the information I gave, and I felt a new confidence in the world. Instead of feeling excluded when Arabs were not mentioned in wide-world discussions, I could choose to feel included when Asians were mentioned and could share information about Arabs within that context. (There are many Arab countries in Africa, but the Arab elements of these cultures have their roots in the Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia.)

Recently there have been encouraging new signs of support for West Asians in RC. In the pamphlet The Liberation of Asians, Cheng Imm Tan writes, 'Our homelands stretch from the Middle East to . . . the Pacific Islands.' (Many of the Chinese cultural patterns mentioned in this pamphlet bear a striking similarity to Arab and Armenian patterns I have observed among friends and family members.) Occasional Present Time articles, such as 'Welcome, Assyrians' (January 1995), have reminded the Communities of their West Asian members and our inclusion in Asian RC. When Francie Chew, the International Liberation Reference Person for People of Chinese Heritage, led an Asian Liberation Workshop for the West Coast of North America in February 1995, I received solid encouragement to attend from my Regional Reference Person and Co-Counselor, Dan Kwong. At the workshop itself, Francie was a very thoughtful ally to me, and the weekend was a great experience-my first Asian workshop in nineteen years of RC! During cultural sharing, I sang a song in Armenian to an enthusiastic and supportive crowd. (I plan to learn an Arab song for the next workshop!)

Throughout this century and our previous history, the terms we Asians used to identify ourselves changed as our people creatively developed language and ideas as forms of resistance to oppression. By steadily bringing together the many threads of our Asian heritage through the ongoing use of RC, we can weave a solidarity stronger than has ever existed before. Through our cooperative actions, Asians can finally transform the oppressive class societies that our people have struggled against so brilliantly for so long.

Victor George Nicassio
Los Angeles, California,

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00