Imagine you are filling out the census. You get to the “race” section and scan all the options. You feel confusion. You feel frustration. You feel exhaustion. There are many people in our world who feel this when trying to put their background physically into a box that may not accurately represent them. One group of people where this has been exhibited is Middle Eastern people. On a census, Middle Eastern folks have been pushed into the category of “White”. But, are Middle Eastern people really considered “White” in our America? Why has the US Census not broken down racial identities into more categories that accurately represent a large group of people in its country?
Middle Eastern people in America have typically had a “Brown” experience although they are considered “White” when it comes to their race. What does this do for the Middle Eastern community? Persis Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State said that “it’s another erasure of both Middle Eastern and North African people”.
Besides Middle Eastern people having self-identity issues when it comes to checking the box that says “White”, it also actively harms this group of people in terms of community benefits. Maya Berry, the Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, said that “years of undercounting have deprived our community of access to basic services and rights, from language assistance at polling places, to the allocation of educational grants for cultural competency training…” and more. When Middle Eastern people cannot have accurate translation services, educational grants or trainings, they experience a lack of support that hinders their success. This is another form of discrimination that our American society has placed upon an underrepresented group of people.
However, a few years ago there seemed to be a spark of hope. In 2015, the census began testing new racial categories including MENA, which stands for “Middle Eastern or North African”. This would include numerous countries, including Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, that have been under the “White” category for decades. The issue that census officials have with this change is that MENA could be considered part of ethnicity, not race. This still needs to be researched, according to census officials. The next chance that census officials have to add MENA is in 2030, when the next set of census data will be collected.
The question stands…are Middle Eastern people really considered “White”? It’s complicated.
On the other hand, there are Middle Eastern people who are “white-passing”, which is when a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) person is perceived as a white person. To many, I have been considered a white-passing Iranian-American. This gives me White privilege in many cases. I have heard people say, “You don’t have to worry about this, you’re White” or “Why are you annoyed you have to check ‘White’ on the census?”.
I have also felt the other side. There have been times when I have been the “most diverse person in the room” or heard phrases like, “Wow, you are so ethnic!”. As a white-passing woman of color, it can get complicated. Depending on the scenario, you can be White but you can also be Brown. If you see my face, you could think I’m White. If you hear my name or the language I speak with my family, you would think I’m Brown. It can be confusing and frustrating for Middle Eastern people when they don’t know where they lie on the spectrum of race. I have heard of white-passing folks in other underrepresented communities have similar struggles and can say from personal experience that it puts people in a tough spot – are you truly Brown if you look “White”?
Here’s what it comes down to – can you honestly tell me that when a White person and a Middle Eastern person go to the airport, both technically “White” people, that they will be treated the same? If you can look me in the eyes and say that you think they would be treated exactly the same, then I applaud your color blindness.
Considering Middle Eastern people as “White” is disparaging and confusing for more ways than one. Sure, people want to be considered “White” because that’s what our colonized homogenous society wants. People don’t want to be different, especially after all of the trauma they have gone through for being “Brown”. Will the census and our country decide that Middle Eastern people should stand as their own community? Time will tell. For now, we have to check “White”.