I’m Middle Eastern And White, And Those Are Not The Same Thing

It’s time to stop the confusion and give Middle Eastern and North African people our own racial classification.
Publish date:
June 8, 2015
racism, race, middle east, Census, MENA

I recently moved to New York City, and in between my two favorite hobbies (climbing up to my fifth floor apartment and sobbing over the state of my post-broker-fee bank account), I’ve been filling out a lot of job applications.

Agonizing over my resume and writing endless cover letters is time-consuming, but the most annoying part of the application process for me has nothing to do with trying to fit why I’m useful into a few short paragraphs.

I’m most aggravated by one of the simplest parts of the application: the “Please Select Your Race” portion.

My father is Iranian, and my mother is a mix of Western European. According to the Census definitions, I’m white. And that’s true; I am. But I’m only half white, because Middle Eastern and white are not the same thing.

The United States Census Bureau’s definition of white is “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

The first time I remember filling in a bubble for this question, I was in elementary school. I had to ask my teacher which races I counted as, and when she told me, all I could think about was how much darker I was than the kids around me. I’m visibly Middle Eastern, and while I’m not particularly dark-skinned, I’m not really white either.

The Middle East and North African (MENA) regions are made up of people from 22 different countries, ranging from Sudan and Tunisia to Afghanistan and Lebanon. In terms of skin tone, people from these countries can range from extremely pale to very dark.

I understand a bit of confusion about where to place people from so many different backgrounds—it isn’t practical to expect the United States to have an option for every country on their Census form.

But it’s equally ridiculous to keep lumping in millions of people in this country with a group that swallows us up whole.

Census data is—on the surface—pretty irrelevant to my daily comings and goings. But the thing is, that data is extremely important behind the scenes. Those numbers and classifications impact everything from funding educational programs to tracking hate crimes and employment discrimination.

And the thing is, MENA people are rarely treated like we are white. The vast majority of people I have met in my life have been nothing but kind to me. But that doesn’t eliminate the racism I have experienced from ignorant people in the years since 9/11, or the aggravation and humiliation of having my father or myself pulled out of line in an airport for a second screening.

I was very nearly stranded in an airport on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing when I was pulled into a private room so security could ask me why I was flying to Boston that day. They called in my passport information right in front of me to verify each line. I was in the room answering bizarre questions for over an hour before they decided that the 22-year-old in the college zip-up with a handbag full of overpriced make-up wasn’t a threat to national security.

And frankly, I don’t even have that bad, because I am not Muslim.

I know that’s a controversial statement, but it’s one that I’ve found to be true over and over again. My friends who are Muslim and who wear a hijab are inevitably subjected to the kind of treatment that I loathe on a much higher average than I am.

Don’t misunderstand me—I know how important national security is, and in the grand scheme of things, I would rather have to sit through an additional screening than chance someone with bad intentions slipping through the cracks.

But the fact is, MENA people are treated like minorities. We just don’t have any legal recognition for those difficulties.

Keeping these backgrounds under the general umbrella of “white” means that hate crimes are almost impossible for communities to track. It means that government agencies don’t know how many translators they should staff or what languages they have a need for. It means that things like racially-based airport screenings are able to slip through the cracks because I’m not Middle Eastern in the government’s eyes—I’m white.

And, most importantly, this is all being done for a really outdated reason.

MENA people actually fought to be included in the white category more than a century ago. In 1909, they argued in front of a court for the right to be excluded from the Asian classification, primarily due to anti-Asian immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

But that was over 100 years ago, and now it’s time for the government to set up a new category, the way that they did in 1997 for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

I’ve seen in a few places that the Census Bureau is considering altering the format of their racial classification question before the 2020 Census takes place. “We’re trying to develop a [race and ethnicity] question that satisfies everyone,” said Roberto Ramirez, a Census official, during a visit to the Pew Research Center. “It’s a very political endeavor. It always has been.”

I hope they manage to come up with something by 2020. Otherwise, I’m going to be stuck sighing once more as I check off “Two or More Races” with a rebellious sigh.