Throughout the course of my academic career, my race has “changed” three times. In elementary school, I was advised by my teacher to bubble in “Asian” on a standardized test since my parents’ mother countries of Iraq and Lebanon are geographically located on the continent of Asia. A few years later, when I got to middle school, my race was suddenly “Other” since Asian was reserved for Southeast Asia and India. Then, when I went to take the PSAT my freshman year of high school, there was a startling new addition to the race category: “White (including Middle Eastern origin).” Of all the questions on the exam this was the most confusing bubble I had to fill in — to identify myself.
The generalization and erasure of Middle Eastern and North African culture has been a constant tumultuous addition to the already ongoing identity struggle many young adults go through. MENA Americans and white Americans have different reputations, different cultures and different struggles in the United States. Even now as I write in a newspaper section designated for students of color, the U.S. government continues to label me as white. These two statements directly contradict each other, yet it is a perfect analogy for how we are treated and perceived in America. Bubbling in “white” in the race category on any standardized test or legal form almost feels like disrespect, because throughout my life, several of my white classmates persistently made it a point to socially isolate me and made sure I knew that we were not the same. Tokening Middle Easterners as “white” when convenient and “Other” when convenient is how American society interacts with us historically, and now, it has been declared on a piece of paper.
When I bubble in “white,” I am actively neglecting my arched eyebrows, my enlarged nose, my olive complexion and my thick dark hair. I am repressing all the times my peers have asked me if my family is associated with terrorist organizations and snuck judgemental looks at my parents while speaking our native tongue. I am shoving aside my identity struggles as an Arab-American who has no race to identify with because we were an afterthought without a spot left for us. As a community, MENA individuals socially receive the negative consequences of having a minority status, yet on legal documents we are forced to check a box that misrepresents us.
As a student of color, diversity was a tremendously crucial factor in my college application process. I was excited to add to the universities’ cultural variation and share my experiences with my new peers. However, every time I got my hopes up, the same realization would dawn on me: I won’t be counted. When researching the University of Michigan’s undergraduate demographic, I couldn’t even tell how many MENA students there were. All I could see in the pie chart was a large slice of ‘white,” and my identity was lost somewhere within it. Despite the Common Application allowing students to make the distinction between “white (European)” and “white (Middle Eastern),” all this did was give MENA students a false glimmer of hope despite a total lack of practicality. The fact that MENA students get excited when our existence is officially acknowledged on a form blatantly illuminates the problem at hand.
On the U.S. Census, tens of thousands of Hispanic or Latinx individuals bubble in “white,” yet also have the opportunity to make the distinction of their ethnic background which shows up on virtually every legal form. This distinction is commendable, and I believe that MENA individuals should have the same opportunity. Especially in a post 9/11 world, Muslims and Arabs have become a larger target for discrimination, and it is crucial that we have a separate legal identification to ensure that the MENA population is showing up to the polls, securing jobs at a consistent rate, and graduating from high school. This distinction is not to distance ourselves from white Americans as though there is something wrong with being white, and none of these reflections are to disregard the privileges that come with being white passing as a person of color. There are multiple systems and institutions that we benefit from, and that must be acknowledged in everything we do to liberate ourselves. Recognizing our existence as being separate from white society is a step toward recognizing our existence in America as more than a complacent minority.
I firmly believe that Middle Easterners and North Africans genuinely have a unique and enriched perspective on the human condition that deserves more attention. Although we’ll have to wait another decade to see if the Census is updated, institutions across the United States can enact these changes much sooner in order to reflect a more accurate student demographic. The U.S. government needs to follow suit — hopefully they will.