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Almost every form I fill out has a race question. Usually the options are: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. While for many this is a mindless act of simply checking one’s box, for me, this question provokes an identity crisis. For as long as I can remember, I have been forced to check the white box because people of Middle Eastern/North African origin are considered part of the white race.
I have always felt comfortable identifying with many different groups. I am Syrian, Lebanese, American, Middle Eastern, and Muslim. While admittedly I appear white, I have never felt white. Growing up in a post-9/11 era, I was always aware that I was different. I was called a terrorist in middle school, watched my mother experience Islamophobia for wearing the hijab, and always worried about family members being stopped for “random security checks” in airports. U.S. intervention in our countries othered us and painted us as the enemy all the while we worried about the impact of war on our families abroad. My experience is in no way rare and there is no doubt that my pale complexion allows me to experience less hardships than Arabs who have darker skin tones or wear the hijab. However, they too are classified as white. Labeling us as white actively erases our experiences as Arab Americans. From 2015 to 2018, the yearly number of anti-Arab hate crimes more than doubled from 37 to 82. Despite the discrimination we faced and continue to face, we are not entitled access to remedies for our mistreatment because we are not recognized as our own group under federal law. We are white by law, but do not enjoy the social privileges of whiteness.
It is important to acknowledge that Arabs were not always considered white in this country. We “became” white. Early Syrian immigrants to the United States mobilized and demanded to be recognized as white because it made them eligible for citizenship. In 1914, a Syrian, George Dow, was rejected by South Carolina’s District Court on the ground that Syrians were “asiatics” and not white, thus not eligible for citizenship. One of Dow’s appeals relied on the claim that he came from the land of Jesus Christ. Thus, a court ruling against Dow would have implied that Jesus Christ was not white. Examining the context and complexities of Dow’s successful appeal leaves us with conclusions about how America’s racist fear of a non-white Jesus helped grant Arabs the status of whiteness.
The race box that one checks matters, and has always mattered. Dow cared that he be white because he wanted the benefits of citizenship. Today, our recognition as a minority in this country is essential to our access to resources. For decades, people have been advocating for the addition of a Middle East and North Africa category to the U.S. Census. While there is an option to select white and then fill in “Egyptian” or “Lebanese,” for example, this leads to undercounting which impacts access to collectivized data on Arabs in the U.S. This ultimately affects information on what kinds of resources our communities need such as federal funding, language assistance, and health research. Despite the fact that researchers at the Bureau released a report concluding that "it is optimal to use a dedicated ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ response category" on the 2020 Census questionnaires, the category was still actively excluded. The lack of MENA’s recognition also has implications that go beyond federal resources. Many scholarships with the mission of supporting minority students, such as the Gates Scholarship, are not open to MENA students because we are considered white.
The Obama administration was open to a MENA category, but the Trump administration was not. According to Samer Khalaf, the national president of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Trump Administration’s exclusion of MENA was a politicized act driven by fear that taking Arabs out of the white category would result in a white minority in this country. It is time our identity is no longer used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and racism. In his campaign, Joe Biden voiced his support for a MENA category, but the question remains if he will follow through.
Despite the exclusion of MENA on the 2020 Census, the conversation and activism surrounding its importance have resulted in more inclusion in other forms I’ve taken. Last year at Harvard, I would check “other” on my Color form for Covid-19 testing, but this year there are Middle Eastern and North African options. While this is a step in the right direction, Harvard has yet to include MENA on its own applications which results in a lack of access to demographic data collection on Harvard’s MENA students.
Speaking up has helped us become seen. We must continue to push for the recognition of our unique culture and experiences in this school and in this country. The addition of a MENA category is essential to my community and is only the beginning of a long road to meeting our needs and shaping a better future where we are no longer labeled in a way that disserves us. MENA students are minority students and our experience in this country can no longer be ignored. We refuse to be whitewashed.
Dina M. Kobeissi ’24 is a Crimson Editorial Comper in Quincy House.
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