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Despite issuing a letter signed by over 715 faculty and staff members, the #WeExist campaign — consisting of students from all three University of Michigan campuses — faced conflicting opinions in response to their request to implement a Middle Eastern/North African identity category to University documents at the Regents meeting Thursday afternoon.
Last February, a resolution in favor of creating a ME/NA identity category was passed by Central Student Government unanimously, while a similar resolution was passed by LSA Student Government earlier this fall.
Initially spearheaded by #WeExist in November, the letter describes the problematic nature of failing to include the ME/NA identification category on official documents, especially pertaining to bias incident reporting and identifying trends in hiring faculty, staff and the administration. The letter also addressed how ME/NA students are often forced to identify as white while filling out documents — a classification that fails to encompass their unique lived experiences in a post-9/11 America.
“ME/NA students, constrained by Census categories, are expected to check the white identity box,” it reads. “However, many people of Middle Eastern and North African descent do not identify with or have the lived experiences of being white in the U.S., especially in a post-9/11 environment of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. In addition, the lack of an identity box for U-M’s ME/NA students perpetuates the erasure that many marginalized communities experience. Given that we live in a state with the largest concentration of ME/NA individuals outside of the Middle East/North Africa, we have a unique regional responsibility to implement the ME/NA identity category.”
During the meeting, several students representing the #WeExist campaign shared their thoughts regarding why they believe the University should implement the ME/NA identity category. LSA senior Jad Elharake, one of the main organizers of #WeExist, emphasized the amount of work students and organizers have put into the campaign to draw attention to this lack of representation.
“For over a decade, ME/NA students have raised the same issue, but our concerns were not prioritized or acted upon. However, in the past nine months, organizers have been working towards building unprecedented support on campus,” he said. “We unanimously passed resolutions and support statements in over 15 student governments.”
He further described the unique responsibility the University has to recognize ME/NA students, as the state of Michigan possesses the largest concentration of individuals that identify with this category outside of the Middle East and North Africa. A case study conducted by the Arab American Institute reported the number of Michigan residents who claim an Arab ancestry has almost tripled since 1980.
“Given that we live in the state with the largest concentration of ME/NA individuals outside of the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “U of M has a unique regional responsibility to implement the ME/NA identity category.”
Engineering junior Bassel Salka, co-president of the Arab Student Association, echoed Elharake’s enthusiasm regarding working with University faculty and administration to make the ME/NA identity category a reality.
“I was really happy to see the Middle Eastern and North African community unite over all three campuses on this project with overwhelming support from other groups and allies, this is something very special,” he said. “It will be great as an Arab myself to finally feel represented on this campus. Lastly, as for the concerns from the regents, the ME/NA community is excited to address those concerns and work together on achieving our goal.”
Despite multiple student speakers at the meeting, as well as University Regent Mark Bernstein (D), expressing enthusiasm regarding working with the campaign toward implementing the category, University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R) said she possesses concerns about making the change and would like further discussion before reaching a final decision.
“Just so we’re clear, and with all due respect to my colleague, I do have some concerns, and would like to have this discussion before coming to a conclusion,” she said. “I just want to make that clear, that there is a difference of opinion, potentially.”