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WHITE MINUS PRIVILEGE: 2020 CENSUS ERASES MIDDLE EASTERNERS/NORTH AFRICANS

POLITICS | by SARAH ESSA | 09 JULY 2020

There's a video I remember from earlier this decade, one that turned Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American comedian from Los Angeles - or Tehrangeles - into a well-known name in my household. His hilarious, painfully accurate skits resonated with my Egyptian family. And his call to fellow Iranian-Americans became an effort to encourage them in lobbying the US government to register their unique existence. Iranian-Americans, like others hailing from several Middle Eastern or North African communities, are formally placed by the US into a questionable category - "Caucasian", or “White".

 

That's right. If you're Iranian, Iraqi, Kurdish, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni, Syrian, Lebanese, Afghan, Palestinian, even Moroccan or Algerian, to name just a few, you can officially tick 'Caucasian' or 'White' on any form requesting your race - including the mother of all forms: the US census.

For years now, minorities and advocacy groups in the US have been pushing for a box that better represents them. Ironically, for the first time ever, the 2020 census form will be available in Arabic; though native speakers will still be limited in how they choose to identify, as the Middle East and North Africa or 'MENA' category remains notably absent.

 

These complications go beyond the census. College applications, medical forms, applying to your dream job can all become a minefield in which a simple piece of paper disregards your reality. 

 

"I'm literally brown." "Yeah, I may be white-passing, but my name/hijab/ features etc. never granted me that full privilege." "I'm sure as hell not white if I have a 101 percent chance of getting 'randomly' selected at every major American airport." These are all comments I've heard from people from MENA communities. 

 

“It implies the US Census Bureau's laziness and discrimination in acknowledging our centuries-long presence in this country”

 

I don't think I'll ever forget my Rutgers undergraduate application, which read, "White (including Middle Eastern, such as Egyptian)." As an Egyptian, allow me to briefly explain how bizarre that is. Egyptians are a pretty diverse looking bunch, so to label all of us 'White?' That ain't it. Imagine hailing from the south of Egypt with Nubian roots, or having olive skin with darker features. Perhaps you are able to get by and blend in with White America (as many from the region would be able to), but with a surname like Youssef, or Shenouda, or Abdelrahman - do you still reap the same institutional benefits as a white person, a Caucasian?

 

Back to the college applications mess. As an Egyptian-American, I identify as a person of Egyptian, North African, Arab, and/or Middle Eastern descent. Sounds like I'd eventually find a box to tick, right? But my options were pretty much narrowed down to everything I didn't consider myself: "Caucasian", "African-American", "two or more races", and the infamous, "Other" - sometimes, with no space to elaborate. 

 

A couple of my Afro-Arab friends felt like African-American resonated. I recall Lebanese and Afghan friends who chose "Asian". To them, it was more fitting than Caucasian. I definitely came across a few Arabs who didn't mind marking Caucasian, and to each their own.

 

But a sensible choice should've been available. The MENA-identifying people, myself included, were uncomfortable by the erasure of who we were, and our experiences in the US. 

 

Most of all, it made us wonder what the bigger picture was. "Other" implies a lot. It implies the US Census Bureau's laziness and discrimination in acknowledging our centuries-long presence in this country. It implies that we are not in need of programmes and resources. Also, it quite literally implies the otherisation of MENA people. This insinuates that, although a fraction of the nation's population, we're insignificant and irrelevant in day-to-day America.

 

For the amount of times Middle Eastern and North African people are dragged up on the national stage, usually in political or presidential debates - and infuriatingly, only in the context of national security - how are we still assessed as... "White?" It's laughable, to say the least.

 

Hate crimes have rapidly increased since Trump emerged as a presidential candidate, a trend which continues to this day. In 2017, hate crimes against Arabs, or those perceived as Arab increased 100 percent. Those with Middle Eastern and North African origins continue to encounter an alarming rate of physical and planned harm, echoing a post-9/11 atmosphere. Knowing that your place of worship is being surveilled, has suffered an arson attack, or served as a meeting point for alt-Right protesters is a pretty good indication of "not being White".

 

An influx of Christian Arabs, many fleeing persecution, arrived in America during the late 19th century, convincing the US they were White, or Caucasian. Decades later, Trump's deportation of Iraqi Christians served as a slap in the face to those he personally vowed to protect.

 

“When the US Census Bureau blatantly rejects our calls to provide an appropriate category, they heighten the difficulties we face”

 

Syrians, known in the region for being light-skinned, became the epitome of every bigot's nightmare amid the tragic refugee crisis. Are they still deemed favourable? When the US Census Bureau blatantly rejects our calls to provide an appropriate category, they heighten the difficulties we face, especially when reporting aggression. The FBI has been watching the MENA and Muslim community since as early as the 80s

 

So it came as no surprise when, at the beginning of the decade, the NYPD, under now-presidential candidate and then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ordered an entire surveillance operation of New Jersey and New York Muslims.

Fundamentally, there are many pros to accurate representation on the census that we cannot afford to ignore. 

 

To be seen, officially, by the US Census Bureau, we would finally gain minority status. Maintaining a count of MENA-Americans in every state would enable us to track the growth, or any trend, of our larger community in the US. The fight to simply recognise us on any sort of scale has been happening for decades, and the Bureau's decision to pursue a 2020 rejection raises the question: How many more decades will it take? The Arab American Institute (AAI) estimates 3.7 million Americans trace their roots to the Middle East and North Africa. The US government calculated 2 million. To be off by a million and some, is embarrassing on the government's behalf, and only proves the urgency of our call for change. 

 

The 'Yalla Count Me In!' initiative, created by the AAI, has been holding it down for years. I remain hopeful that our community will continue to show up for this cause. Neighbourhood organisers looking for data on their MENA constituents, hopeful academics seeking scholarships, those seeking medical treatment, social services accommodating dialect and language barriers: these are just some of the numerous reasons to be counted. We deserve part of the whopping $800 billion in funding that the government allocates, as per census results.

 

Sarah Essa is a freelance writer based out of NJ/NYC covering MENA-related issues and American culture. Courtesy of The New Arab.

 

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