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Rackham Graduate School announced last month they will include Middle Eastern and North African identity options on their applications for Fall 2019. The identity will fall under the white racial category, with Middle Eastern and North African identities as further specification, along with options for applicants to identify as European or other. The move follows requests from Arab students, staff and faculty for the University to officially recognize their identities in a campaign titled #WeExist.

The #WeExist campaign began two years ago when current and former students Silan Fadlallah, Jad Elharake, Devin Jones, Ibtihal Makki and former Central Student Government vice president Nadine Jawad had conversations about what the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan could mean for the Arab community. However, they soon realized the Middle Eastern/North African community was not included on any University of Michigan documents. Arab students marked themselves as white or other.

Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, oversees key offices within the University that supervise the collection and reporting of student data. Ishop said input from the Islamophobia Working Group, the organization in charge of the #WeExist campaign, provoked conversations with Rackham, which eventually led to an inclusion of Middle Eastern and North African identities.

“We made the change in large part in response to input from groups, such as the Islamophobia Working Group and student organizations including CSG, that sought better reflection of MENA identities in University statistics,” Ishop wrote in an email interview with The Daily.

LSA junior Silan Fadlallah, who is currently the group coordinator for the IWG, believes the inclusion of a ME/NA identity helps Arab students feel they belong.

“(Inclusion of ME/NA identity) is important because it gives an extremely large community a sense of belonging on campus,” Fadlallah wrote. “You constantly see the “You belong here” signs on campus and, honestly, not even having a box that represents your racial group doesn’t give me that sense. How can you belong in a place that doesn’t even recognize your existence? And forget the feelings aspect, giving us a ME/NA checkbox opens the doors to opportunities with communities of color on campus, scholarships, etc.”

Jad Elharake, program lead at the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion, said that the lack of data on the ME/NA community creates problems with identifying trends.

“The inability to collectively identify ME/NA students, faculty and staff is problematic for several reasons that we’ve stated in the past when it comes to retention rates, academic disparities, bias incidents, or really any assessment, especially DEI focused assessments,” Elharake said.

While the University has started to account for Middle Eastern and North African identities, the U.S. Census does not. According to several people involved with adjusting University data, this has posed a logistical challenge to including ME/NA identities on University documents. In order to adhere to federal reporting requirements, ME/NA identities fall underneath the white racial category in some official documents. Internal University documents, such as surveys and admissions applications, are the exception.

“We concluded that the application for admission is the most reasonable and efficient mechanism to collect extended race and ethnicity information,” Ishop wrote. “It is important to understand that we remain subject to reporting requirements of the federal government, the state of Michigan, etc. that require our use of and alignment to the U.S. Census race and ethnicity categories for reports to them.”

However, many Arab students feel including the Middle Eastern and North African identities under the white racial category is simply inaccurate to their lived experiences.

“The answer is extremely simple: Middle Eastern/North Africans are not white,” Fadlallah said. “We are a beautifully diverse racial group with several different cultures and customs from the ME/NA region. If you go by the Census, yes it says we are white, but try turning on the news and listening to them talk about any Arab and/or ME/NA country because they exoticize and villainize the hell out of us. So why are we only considered white when it’s easier and more beneficial, but considered to be the enemy or an “other” when society says so? We are ME/NA, not white, not other.”

Ethriam Brammer, assistant dean and DEI implementation lead of Rackham Graduate School, identifies as an indigenous Latinx person and sees similarities between the Latinx and Arab communities.

“The Latinx and Hispanic category is very similar in that you have racially Black identifying Latinx individuals, or racially white identifying, or my own identity which is an indigenous or native Latinx person,” Brammer said. “The same kinds of combinations obviously exist with under ME/NA individuals as well. Ideally (ME/NA) would be its own separate ethnic identifier.”

Brammer empathized with Middle Eastern and North African students who feel their identities are not accurately represented under a white racial category.

“Where the complications come from and where the similarities end is now the Census Bureau has a Hispanic box,” Brammer said. “Since 2010 census, there’s basically a question of whether or not you’re Latinx or Hispanic, and then you move to racial identifiers. You can identify yourself as Latinequis and African American and white, or like myself, Latinequis and native. However, that’s not possible with ME/NA right now. To consistently report our data, it has to be embedded with white unfortunately, because that’s the kind of federal standard for data reporting.”

Brammer believes the University’s divergence from federal racial categories displays leadership.

“I think the positive thing is that we’re showing leadership,” Brammer said. “This is important that Middle Eastern and North African individuals, be it staff, faculty or students, all have the opportunity to more accurately identify their own identity. But it’s not the standard way of doing it. It means that it’s a little bit more complicated, and right now it’s still embedded within the white racial category, and we know that there’s a lot of complications that come with that.”

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