Disclaimer: There may be valid concerns from SWANA individuals regarding this proposal including legitimate fears of being wrongfully included on racialized terrorist watchlists and subjected to surveillance in a post-Patriot Act nation. To address this unease, we ensure readers of the SWANA community that race and ethnicity are protected under FERPA and the University cannot share that information outside its bounds, meaning your information will be protected.
Constructed by ethnography rooted in eurocentrism, racial classifications dismiss the multilayered aspects of cultural identities exhibited by people all over the world. However, as the University of Michigan currently utilizes a racial classification system, this piece is direct in asking for the inclusion of a Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) racial classification, commonly known as Middle Eastern North Africa (MENA). The phrase “Middle East’” was coined by colonizers that aimed to exploit the region; thus, we are purposeful in our language centering the region’s people rather than their oppressors by advocating for SWANA rather than MENA. Furthermore, SWANA is not a monolith as our alliance includes Algerians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Libyans, Moroccans, Omanis, Palestinians, Qataris, Saudi Arabians, Sudanese, Syrians, Tunisians, Emiratis, Yemenis, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turks, Yazidis, Azeris, Turkmen, Afghans, Druze, Kurds, Armenians, Afghans, Nubians, Copts and Imazighen, further accounting for the intersections of those identities.
As SWANA students at the University, we remain enraged by the whitewashing of SWANA students, faculty and staff by conflating them with white demographics, as is also the practice of the U.S. Census. The persistent lack of academic support, inability to address SWANA issues and the racial inaccuracy that occurs every time we fill out paperwork for the University has caused the erasure of the SWANA community on campus. With the frustration of being lumped with our oppressors like the French, the English and white Americans — as we are usually classified as white — fueling this piece, we are in full advocacy of implementing a SWANA racial category with internal campus documentation, one unlike the current system that hides the self-reported extended ethnicity indicator in the nooks and crannies of Wolverine Access and limits productive collection of data.
This isn’t the first plea the University has heard from SWANA students. In the winter of 2017, student organizers across the University’s three campuses — Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn — came together in the creation of the #WeExist campaign. The #WeExist campaign, choosing to advocate for MENA, rather than our proposed choice of SWANA, called for University documentation to feature a MENA category. Resolutions in favor of creating a Middle Eastern/North African identity category were passed by both the Central Student Government and the LSA Student Government. However, when the resolution was discussed at a Board of Regents meeting, the regents failed to adequately support the cause, either ignoring the topic or displaying muted interest with Regent Andrea Newman ambiguously stating that she had “some concerns about this issue.” Ultimately, according to the public record, the Board of Regents ignored the issue, choosing not to delve into the policy proposed by the #WeExist campaign. Due to their lack of support, several schools on campus were left without centralized support or resources to best implement a SWANA racial categorization. A small effort, LSA, Rackham and the University Health Service implemented MENA identity boxes which remain under the white racial category. However, this was a failed attempt as these boxes continue to misclassify students, faculty and staff. Through University applications like Handshake, the LSA four-year renewable scholarship or admissions to a particular school, SWANA or MENA are rarely guaranteed in terms of providing a racial category. These discrepancies amongst various departments, scholarship centers and administration facilities decentralize the issue rather than implementing a University-wide one, leaving open interpretation that should not be there.
This failure to account for SWANA students affects not only current students, but also prospective ones. While researching the University’s undergraduate demographics during the college selection process, SWANA students are completely unable to tell how many of their peers share their ethnic background. Every SWANA students’ identity is reduced to a “white” slice of a pie chart, and once again, entire racial existences are overlooked. Despite our genuine intentions to contribute to the school’s cultural diversity, the same realization ultimately dawns on us: we won’t be counted. Due to this universal racial invalidation, our cultural experiences are stripped to fit the white gaze. Our culture and history are completely overlooked with a forced check placed on a pearly white box, causing cultural angst that takes a tangible toll beyond the internal implications and constant self-invalidation of our identity.
A lack of demographic recognition for SWANA identifying students is more than a blatant disservice to an entire identity; it has insidious implications. Data is an invaluable tool utilized to create resources for specific groups, and to erase an entire group from the subset of statistics available to pull from consequently overlooks the unique needs and circumstances of these individuals.
This has particularly damaging consequences in gauging public health-related issues within the SWANA community. Without a clear racial identifier for SWANA citizens in the U.S., the medical research that studies this demographic is extremely limited. Despite emerging studies identifying prevalent health issues in SWANA communities, such as diabetes and hypertension, medical information on SWANA populations is scarcely available, leaving the community unaware of possible genetic predispositions. It is only through intentional and quantifiable research that these patterns can be recognized and addressed through productive public health efforts. As such, including a distinct racial category for SWANA students, faculty and staff is crucial in collecting and aggregating accurate data that can be utilized by researchers and health care workers in facilitating this goal. Since our healthcare system is already riddled with racial and ethnic disparities, the lack of an identifier that facilitates the observance of specific health patterns in the SWANA populations would only hinder diagnosis and recognition of the unique risks within the population, neglecting SWANA patients on a systemic level. This directly translates onto the University’s campuses. With a nationally leading hospital, elite research and a campus in Dearborn — a city that has the largest proportion of SWANA residents in the nation — the University extends these failures onto itself.
With a SWANA category regularly utilized on official documents, individuals from SWANA groups would no longer be misclassified as ‘white’ or cast into the ambiguous ‘other’ category. Instead, surveys involving medical needs, economic research, mental health, public opinion, public health and more would acquire a new, valuable specificity accurately reflecting the social experiences and patterns within the SWANA population. Researchers can then utilize this data to garner specific findings regarding health risks that may be unique to this minority population and cultivate any necessary treatments or public health interventions. Thus, a SWANA identifier is more than just a matter of cultural recognition, but an urgent call for justice and representation within already inequitable systems such as health care.
Over recent trends in history, SWANA individuals have become an increasingly large target for discrimination, and the University must support us. It is imperative that we have identification separate from “white” to ensure the SWANA population at the University is graduating and securing jobs at a consistent rate. Acknowledging our unique experiences as being separate from white society is a step toward solidifying our existence in America as more than an invisible minority. This information would provide the University with tools to analyze incoming class racial compositions, allow SWANA students to garner financial and academic aid specific to our varying religious and cultural needs and move us one step closer to true diversity within the university. Without any of this data due to lacking racial categorizations, SWANA students grappling with college decisions may be left wondering how they will be supported at a predominantly white institution.
For the aforementioned reasons, we demand a SWANA racial category be implemented university-wide. Time and time again, the University has failed its SWANA students on campus, with effects of erasure reverberating outside University bounds. Enough. We call on the University to own up and provide for its SWANA members and, undoubtedly, the first step must be recognizing our existence.
MiC Columnists Layaill Mustafa and Yasmine Slimani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Assistant MiC Editors Eman Naga and Grace Garmo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.