(CNN) — The culture of Arab Americans will be honored this month, with the designation by the State Department of April as Arab American Heritage Month, reflecting the group’s contributions to the US “are as old as America itself,” a spokesman said.
“The United States is home to more than 3.5 million Arab Americans representing a diverse array of cultures and traditions. Like their fellow citizens, Americans of Arab heritage are very much a part of the fabric of this nation,” Ned Price, a spokesman, said in a video statement on April 1.
“And Arab Americans have contributed in every field and profession, many of them, in fact, serve here at the State Department and throughout the interagency.”
Advocacy groups say this is the first time the State Department has designated a particular month for Arab American Heritage Month. States that have recognized April as Arab American History Month in 2021 and years past include Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.
Arab Americans trace their origins to 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Arabs began immigrating to the US in the late 1800s fleeing war, persecution and economic hardships, according to the Migration Policy Institute. California, New York, Michigan and Illinois have the largest populations of Arab American residents in the country, based on data from the 2015-2019 ACS Ancestry survey.
While the State Department made this announcement, Arab American History Month is not officially recognized by the entire US government. A bill sponsored by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, was introduced to Congress in 2019 and is still pending.
Advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) have been advocating to get April designated as a month to celebrate Arab Americans for two decades.
“This is a breath of fresh air,” said Samer Khalaf, president of the ADC, about the State Department’s move. “It will give the community a sense of pride and it’s a chance to show what the community is all about, to educate people and dispel stereotypes.”
Maya Berry, executive director of the AAI, sees the recognition as a high-level opportunity to celebrate Arab American life in a visible way.
“The formality of it coming from an agency at this level is fantastic,” she said. “This month is about sharing our story with our fellow Americans.”
While the State Department has dedicated the month of April to AAHM, Arab Americans still don’t have a racial or ethnic identifier on forms like the Census, forcing members of the community to tick “White” or “other.”
The ADC and AAI have been pushing for a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) categorization, which is a geographic designation that includes ethnic and racial options, to be adopted by the US government for decades.
The Biden-Harris administration drafted a “plan for partnership” with the Arab American community prior to the 2020 election, pledging to “support the creation of a new Middle East North Africa (MENA) category.”
CNN has contacted the Office of Management and Budget, which sets the standards on racial and ethnic identifiers nationally, for comment. The OMB is the agency that will determine if the identifier is added to Census forms and other documents.