Discrimination Against Arab-Americans In the Workplace

By Jenna Kern-Rugile
Published in Fortune Small Business at fsb.com, Nov. 2001

One of the horrific results of the Sept. 11 attacks has been a backlash against the Arab-American community, or anyone appearing to be Muslim. Hundreds of innocent people have been the targets of hate crimes ranging from taunts and threats to physical violence and murder.

Luckily, most Arab-Americans have not experienced acts of such obvious discrimination. Still, they cannot help but be affected by the current climate.

“It’s natural that Arab-Americans are going to feel trepidation now,” says Dr. Nuha Abudabeeh, a clinical and forensic psychologist and consultant in private practice in Washington, D.C. “We’ve always been perceived as outsiders, but the situation is far more pronounced since the 11th.”

The fear of possible reprisals prompted Julie Swenson to consider renaming her firm, Abbas Public Relations, a Minnesota-based business she started less than a year ago. Swenson, whose family has been in the United States for generations, named the company in honor of her grandfather and her mother, the former Judy Abbas.

On Sept. 11, Swenson’s mother called her daughter and insisted that she change the company’s name that very day. “It was obvious why she wanted me to do it,” says Swenson. “She was trying to protect me.”

Swenson was ready to acquiesce, believing that “Swenson Public Relations” was a safer moniker, but she reconsidered after speaking with her clients. “People said, ‘Even though you don’t look like me, you’re as much of an American as I am,’ ” says Abbas. “They said I should keep the name. I figured, if the name plays with mainstream Minnesotans, it could play anywhere.”

Her mother hasn’t given up, she adds.

In reality, it’s too early for Swenson to know if there might be any negative fallout from her decision, especially when it comes to winning new business.
“People have a difficult time being prejudiced against someone they know and like,” says Dr. Abudabeeh. “When you’re a stranger, it’s easier for others to vilify you, lumping you into a category that equates Muslim or Arab with terrorist.” The climate of fear and suspicion is heightened, she adds, with media reporting that the hijackers were just like any of your next-door neighbors.
So how can Arab-Americans or Americans of Middle Eastern descent know if they lost a customer or didn’t win a new assignment because of their heritage?
In most cases, they can’t. Ramin Ganeshram, 33, a freelance writer in New York whose background is half Trinidadian and half Iranian, acknowledges that she has felt compelled to alter some of her behavior since Sept. 11 out of concern that she will lose business or be otherwise discriminated against in some form. She’s quick to add, however, that it’s impossible to know for certain.

“A postal clerk was very rude to me,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it because I look Middle Eastern? I wasn’t sure if it was real discrimination or if I was being paranoid.”

When soliciting new clients, Ganeshram notes, she now calls rather than utilizing her previous method of first sending e-mail or letters. “When they hear me, they know I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, and that I shouldn’t be filed under category of ‘the enemy,’ ” she says.

She has also stopped wearing traditional Middle Eastern jewelry or makeup. “Justified or not, I feel like when I’m working I have to make it clear that I’m American and was born here,” says Ganeshram. “I feel I have to make my appearance cause as little attention as possible. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

Such reactions are perfectly understandable, says Dr. Abudabeeh. In discussing her recent train trip to Boston, the psychologist says she couldn’t help but fear that someone might react with hostility upon seeing her or hearing her name. “It would be foolish for Arab-Americans not to be concerned,” she says.

Still, Dr. Abudabeeh acknowledges that it’s often impossible to determine whether prejudice enters into the equation when business situations go awry. That rings true for Sellam Ismail, a Livermore, Calif.-based consultant and vintage computer expert who was let go from an IT consulting job.

“The guy had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and he was kind of a jerk from the start,” says Ismail, 30. Eventually, however, the client “warmed up” to him, even recommending him to other businesses.

At one point, however, when some a server glitch hit the system, the client became incensed, according to Ismail. He not only fired the IT consultant, but morphed Ismail’s photo onto the photo of a Taliban leader and posted it on his Web site.

“He never made an anti-Arab comment to me, before or after the attacks,” says Ismail, who says he’s still not sure what motivated his client to post the photo. “Is he a racist? I really don’t know. But what he did was outrageous.”

Ismail adds that he can’t tell whether the slowness in his workload now has anything to do with the fact that he is an Arab-American. “The times are tough for everyone in my business these days.”