Person of Color Column: What’s in a number?

My least favorite part of standardized testing has never been the test itself. For that matter, my least favorite part of starting any new job, applying for an internship, or submitting a college application, comes within the first page of questions—when you’re asked to check off the category for your race or ethnicity. 

If you’ve ever looked closely at the racial or ethnic categories on a census form, college application, or employment form, you’ll notice the same categories repeated as options: American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiin or Other, Pacific Islander, and White. But if you look closely at the “White” category, you’ll notice the definition—according to the U.S. Census, this category is for, “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” 

Every time I have to check off the box for “White,” even though I’m checking it off for the Middle Eastern qualifier, I still feel like I’m erasing part of my identity. 

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Including Middle Eastern and North African people in the same category as white Americans is not an arbitrary decision. It can be traced back to legal decisions made in federal courts in the early 20th century regarding how people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent should be classified. 

At the time, due to the Naturalization Act of 1790, being categorized as white meant that you were eligible for citizenship in the United States—so naturally, Arab immigrants wanted to be classified as white. Through a series of court cases, such as Dow v. the United States in 1915 and Ex Parte Mohriez in 1944, it was eventually decided that certain people from certain regions of Asia and North Africa were counted as “white” persons. 

While it may have been beneficial to be counted as white and earn all the privileges and benefits of that classification in the early-to-mid-20th century, living in a post-9/11 society has entirely changed the meaning of what being Arab in America entails. 

According to the estimates from the U.S. Census in 2010, there are a little over 2 million Arab Americans living in the United States. However, adjusted data from the Arab American Institute Foundation puts that number closer to 3.6 million. 

That’s 3.6 million people who are being counted as white, even as they face discrimination for the color of their skin or country of origin. The problem here arises in the fact that the census provides data on where ethnic communities are located and what resources they need. Without this data, there’s no concrete way to designate resources for largely Arab American communities to help with language assistance, health research, education statistics, and various public assistance programs. 

My grandmother grew up in a strong Lebanese community in Easton, Pennsylvania. To this day, a large portion of the population is still of Lebanese descent or origin—there is even an annual festival to celebrate the Lebanese heritage of the community. But if you were to look at the census data for this region, it would be counted as a predominantly white community. 

Beyond the statistics and economic disadvantages of counting Arab people as white, it also erases an important part of people’s identity. When I applied to my current job, the application asked for my ethnicity to have an accurate representation of diversity among their employees—and I had to check off white. Even though I don’t want to be used as a diversity statistic in some database, it’s still important to me that I be recognized for my identity, especially when that identity has a complex history. 

So in America, Arab Americans and their descendants are stuck in a limbo that feels impossible—the law tells us that we should count as white. However, when it comes to how we’re perceived in daily life, Arabs are called terrorists, told to go back to their own country, and routinely “randomly selected” for no reason at security checkpoints. 

Strangers ask me, “So where are you/your parents from?” or “So, what are you?” when they see my skin color. I got stopped and frisked repeatedly at airports while studying abroad, while my white friends all cruised through without a problem. So, every time I have to check off “White” on an application, a census form, or a questionnaire, I feel like I’m erasing part of my identity and experiences. It hurts me to deny my family’s history, my own experiences, and my pride in my ethnicity to just call myself white. 

There is a strong movement in America to add MENA, Middle Eastern or North African, as an option on the U.S. Census. The Census Bureau already announced that the 2020 census will not add it as a category, but activists are still fighting to have it included on future censuses. Activists like Omar Masry have run campaigns such as “Check it right, you ain’t white,” and plenty of other individuals have spoken out on how they feel misrepresented. 

The 2020 census categories may already be decided, but individual institutions can make their own changes in the meantime. It’s time for Arab Americans to be properly counted—because it’s more than just a number. It’s our identity. 

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