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Worried that I would not be able to afford college, I spent the better part of my senior year of high school applying to dozens of scholarships. I grew frustrated as I read through the eligibility criteria of multiple scholarships that deemed me ineligible. I sent emails hoping that perhaps they would understand: I am Middle Eastern, not white. But it was to no avail.
The United States Census Bureau considers people descended from the Middle East and North Africa (known as the MENA region) to be white. Scholarship programs that are targeted towards minority students often use the Census’s race and ethnicity definitions. Despite how uncomfortable I felt checking the “white” box on every form, it was not until that moment last year that I fully understood the consequences of the conflation of Arab and white identity on the U.S. Census.
Arab communities have spent decades lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau to create a separate category for themselves. Toward the end of President Barack Obama’s term, the Bureau considered doing so. However, in 2018, the Bureau decided to ask respondents to write in which country they are from after selecting their race, with Egyptian, for example, as an option under white for the 2020 census, which is already underway in Alaska.
This option is not enough. Categorizing Arabs as white or black is inaccurate because much like Latinx communities, Middle Easterners and North Africans are racially diverse even within the Arab countries they hail from. By indiscriminately characterizing Arabs as white, the Census and the many organizations that use their race and ethnicity definitions erase the different racial identities that Arab Americans hold. Instead, we are left in limbo, neither seen as white in American society nor considered minorities by the government.
Beyond these identity issues, the lack of representation of Arabs on the U.S. Census has had other significant consequences for our communities. Population data is used for many purposes including political redistricting, the allocation of resources to communities, and the assessment of racial disparities in healthcare. The exclusion of North African and Middle Eastern communities from the Census has resulted in a lack of political power, health data, and social services. Diversity recruitment programs and scholarships for minority students often rely on Census definitions of race and thus exclude Middle Eastern and North African applicants. The end result is that our communities are neglected by both the federal government and private institutions.
Despite the overwhelming consequences of our lack of inclusion, some Arab Americans have legitimate concerns about a separate MENA box. The Arab American existence has been inextricably tied to government surveillance due to media and government branding of us as terrorists, radicals, and extremists. Attacking Muslim communities has been a timeless government pursuit from George W. Bush’s NSEERS (an Arab and Muslim registry), to Obama’s counter-radicalization policing program, to Trump’s Muslim ban. Some Arab American Muslims have concerns that given the government’s track record, providing them with the exact locations of Arab Americans is risky at best.
This concern is justified. In my hometown of New York City, the New York Police Department spent a decade spying on my Arab-Muslim community, designating mosques as “potential terrorist organizations.” Plainclothes officers spied on Muslims in cafes and stores where they considered the presence of a Quran a potential sign of radicalization. When I travel, I am almost always pulled to the side for an extra pat-down and somehow my family’s bags are always selected for TSA’s random checking. If only my whiteness could help me in those circumstances. The U.S. government denies us resources by calling us white, all while subjecting us to the discrimination that our “white counterparts” are excluded from.
Last fall, the inaugural Harvard University Pulse Survey on Inclusion and Belonging found that Middle Eastern respondents felt the least belonging of all other races and ethnicity, with only 68 percent of Middle Eastern respondents indicating that they at least “somewhat agree” that they belong at Harvard. In contrast, 81 percent of white respondents indicated that they felt that they belong, the highest of all racial or ethnic subgroups. Despite these disheartening results, it was validating that the University acknowledged our very existence and that we may have unique struggles as a separate ethnic group by including a Middle Eastern category. Rather than rely on the Census’ false racial and ethnic definitions, college surveys, diversity initiatives, and scholarship programs should recognize Middle Eastern and North Africans as a separate ethnic group, and bring us one step towards being counted in American society. Perhaps the 2030 Census will give Arab Americans minority status through a distinct Census classification without fear of surveillance, but instead with pride in their heritage.
Salma Elsayed ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Stoughton Hall.
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