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One of the most confusing SAT questions I had to answer came before the test proctor even started the clock. After bubbling in my entire home address letter for letter on the Scantron, I was already annoyed. But then, I reached the demographic question about race. There it was, next to an innocent looking bubble, the line of text that irks me and most Middle Eastern-Americans alike: “White (including Middle Eastern origin).”
As someone who is half European and half Syrian, I can assure you that white and Middle Eastern are two very distinct races, holding different levels of esteem within American society, and should thus be listed as two separate options on all demographic surveys, including Harvard’s options for racial identification.
Americans hailing from the Middle East and North Africa are forced to identify as white in demographic surveys far beyond standardized testing. The United States Census makes no distinction between those of white and Middle Eastern or North African descent. The 2020 Census will be no different, as the U.S. Census Bureau considered adding an option to separate the Middle East and North African region, also referred to as the MENA region, but decided against it. The Common Application has recently added a new option allowing those of Native American descent to select their tribal affiliation, which is commendable, yet it continues to grossly generalize all students from the MENA region as white. Finally, Harvard itself falls into the trap of categorizing Middle Eastern students as white, as this categorization even appears on student’s my.harvard.
Beyond a cry to be recognized as a people, the case for including a MENA category on demographic surveys includes the very tangible effects it would have on the Middle Eastern and North African-American populations in the United States. It is impossible to discern if there are achievement gaps, wage gaps, or even gaps in voter turnout between Middle Eastern and North African-Americans and other racial groups in the United States because data cannot be stratified to isolate this significant portion of the population. In fact, I cannot even relay with certainty what percent of the United States population is descended from the MENA region, due to the incomplete structure of the census question. Without a nationwide standard that separates “white” from “Middle Eastern and North African,” it is nearly impossible to determine how this racial group is faring in America, much less remedy any inequity that might be revealed through adequate data. And on the hot topic of race-conscious admissions to universities such as Harvard, a diverse body of students cannot be guaranteed to include individuals from the MENA region if admissions counselors cannot even determine who identifies as of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
In post-Patriot Act America, the Middle Eastern population in this country is far from invisible. At a time when many Middle Eastern Americans may be trying to conceal their roots as to avoid any semblance of ties to radical Islam, there is perhaps a greater need to collect data that makes sure that this group is not being discriminated against in other ways. The Middle Eastern-American population is a target of discrimination in the post-9/11 era, and we need data that ensures that this population is voting, graduating high school, and securing jobs at a rate that is on par with the actual “white” America. The White House administration that is quick to point out the “otherness” of the MENA region with a proposed travel ban seems to only identify Middle Eastern populations as white for survey purposes, when proper identification would work to this population’s advantage.
While we will have to wait until the 2030 Census or later to see a separate category for the MENA region, Harvard can enact changes as soon as next year. Harvard should allow enrolled students to identify specifically as of “Middle Eastern or North African descent” on my.harvard and should add a more accurate racial demographics question to its application so that prospective students can correctly identify their race despite the Common Application’s failure to distinguish white and Middle Eastern. In addition to providing greater accuracy to Harvard’s admissions and student body statistics, this change would hopefully encourage other organizations, and ultimately the U.S. Government, to grant those of Middle Eastern and North African descent their own racial category on demographic surveys.
Chloe A. Shawah ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
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