Abstract: Impacts of Multiple Interacting “Positionalities� Among Arab/Middle Eastern youth and young adults: Navigating Contexts and Categories (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Impacts of Multiple Interacting “Positionalities� Among Arab/Middle Eastern youth and young adults: Navigating Contexts and Categories

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 4:00 PM
Union Square 22 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Benson, PhD, assistant professor, social work, Ann Arbor, MI
Arab/Middle eastern youth and young adults, many of whom are Muslim, face many issues within the USA, and intersectionality frameworks show much promise in illuminating complex interactions between experiences and contexts to inform programming for these populations. There are beginning to be some studies using these frameworks focused on Arab and Muslim populations, but less attention to younger populations and implications for health. In this paper, we explore how a sample of Arab and Arab-American youth and young adults
  • understand and experience themselves and their environments,
  • identify difficult to supportive environments, and
  • engage with and are impacted by these environments.

We will also identify what enhances capacities for well-being and growth and promotes resilient individuals and environments.

Methods:  Twenty-eight youth (ages 15-18) and young adults (22 to 32) participated in four focus groups. All identified as Arab or Arab-American in varied ways and on other dimensions. They identified positive, negative and neutral environments, how they navigated and were impacted by these, and what was helpful in promoting positive experiences and coping with negative ones. Groups were transcribed and coded by multiple investigators. Procedural and conceptual memos then allowed us to map patterns, variations and relationships.

Results:  Participants report complex positionalities, using many different terms to describe ethnicity (sometimes indicating countries of origin) and/or race, often intertwined with indicators of gender, religion and economic class. Religion provides both sources of meaning and purpose, as well as tensions and risks in particular environments. Issues related to gender and sexuality were sometimes discussed openly, and sometimes in very oblique ways. Important environments identified included micro, mezzo and macro contexts, and many settings (e.g., school/work, home, mosques, airports, different communities), with external and family roles and responsibilities evolving with age. Visibility is important in the salience and consequences of particular positionalities. Some are always visible (like gender, physical features and skin color, size), while others one can emphasize or minimize. Positive or negative environments influenced whether and how participants displayed their ethnic, religious, cultural and/or gendered selves, being “outwardly Muslim” (e.g., “being a scarfy:, length of beard, using Westernized nicknames). Girls and women described complex negotiations between school or work, and family relationships and expectations. The boys and men described being emotionally drained by the constant vigilance required in navigating their lives. Some contexts allowed them to explore and define themselves while many costs were incurred in others (stress, anxiety, withdrawal, diminished self-esteem with health consequences). Some settings allowed participants to be very proactive in engaging with their environments to educate others and work for change.

Discussion:  We discuss implications for individual and community resilience and capacity building, and the value of intersectional approaches for examining and addressing interactions among complex positionalities and environments. We also identify some particular issues for youth and young adults who share middle eastern origins, and Muslim faith, but with complex histories and origins within these categories, and also many other factors that influence how they navigate these complexities.