On more than one occasion, I have had people stop me in the grocery store or at the airport to ask me for help in Spanish.
I politely answer in my broken Spanish, “Lo siento, no hablo español.”
My family is from Egypt, and I grew up in Cleveland. But some may confuse me for Hispanic or another ethnic minority group. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a person having origins in the Middle East and North Africa as white. In fact, white is the only available box I can tick on most government documents. In most cases, I don’t check any box, unless there is an “other” category on the form.
A checkbox on a demographic form may seem like a trivial issue. However, Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent are often asked, “Where are you from?” This and similar experiences of “othering” demonstrate that most Americans don’t see us as white.
The absence of a racial or ethnic category that accurately identifies people of MENA descent symbolizes their marginalization and lack of recognition in the United States. Arab Americans and other ethnic groups from the Middle East and North Africa are strangely both hypervisible and invisible at the same time.
But there may be change on the horizon. The Census Bureau is testing a MENA category for possible inclusion on the 2020 decennial census. It is not yet clear if MENA will be an ethnic category similar to the Hispanic classification or a racial category such as black, Asian and white.
The Arab American Institute estimates there are 3.5 million Arab Americans, and that estimate does not include non-Arab ethnic groups from MENA. Yet the census lumps all of them together with white Europeans. Allowing people to choose a MENA racial or ethnic category would lead to a more accurate census. The data can help in gaining a better understanding of the community’s experiences and in allocating government resources and priorities.
Regardless of how the question might be worded, we need national statistics on groups from MENA to assess existing economic, educational and health disparities and provide solutions.
Americans of Middle Eastern and North African origin increasingly face profiling, discrimination and stereotyping, as evidenced by the spike in hate crimes against them. In the weeks after 9/11, the civil rights organization American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received more than 700 reports of violence and found dramatic increases in housing and employment discrimination, racial profiling and violations of civil liberties. More than a decade after 9/11, Arab Americans are still being removed from planes for appearing suspicious.
Discrimination often leads to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety among MENA groups — similar to the experiences of other nonwhite minority groups in the United States. In one 2011 study, mental health researchers Mona Amer and Joseph Hovey found that 50 percent of Arab Americans in their sample met the criteria for depression. They found that the level of depression and anxiety was higher for Arab Americans than for whites and other ethnic minority groups.
Yet because of their invisibility, Americans of Arab and Middle Eastern origins are not accounted for when it comes to social services and the protections of civil liberties. They are often left out in analyses assessing the educational, health and economic needs of minority groups. The inclusion of Arab- and Middle Eastern–Americans in the white racial category may have muddied the data on reported decreases in health disparities between ethnic minorities and white Americans.
Ultimately, including people from MENA in the white category obscures their experiences and masks social and economic disparities, particularly in metropolitan areas where a large proportion of these individuals reside.
There is nothing wrong with identifying as white if it is an accurate reflection of your racial identification. However, many Americans from the MENA region do not identify as white and are not treated as such by most people. It was never only about a checkbox. The current category is not an accurate representation of their experiences.