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The 2020 census continues the whitewashing of Middle Eastern Americans

Marking myself down as only white leaves me feeling like half of my identity is missing. And I’m not the only Middle Eastern American who feels this way.
Image: People walk past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census in Seattle
People walk past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 census in Seattle on April 1.Ted S. Warren / AP

Growing up, whenever I told people about my Middle Eastern heritage, they almost always accused me of lying. I’d tell them my mother was white and my father was Jordanian, but they’d take one look at my pale skin and shake their heads in disbelief.

For decades, millions of Middle Eastern Americans like my family have had no choice but to self-identify as white.

Once, while waiting for my ninth grade English class to start, I was telling a classmate that I was half-Middle Eastern when a boy interrupted us. “No, you’re not,” he said. When I insisted, he mockingly asked, “Well, what would you write on the census?”

I still remember the rush of frustration and humiliation I felt when I was forced to reply “white” and nothing else. “Middle Eastern” is not an option on the U.S. census. Instead, it is defined as white, along with European and North African identities.

For decades, millions of Middle Eastern Americans like my family have had no choice but to self-identify as white. Mixed-race Americans can theoretically mark multiple boxes — but because both sides of my family are considered white, I can only check off one.

Yet marking myself down as only white leaves me feeling like half of my identity is missing. And I’m not the only Middle Eastern American who would prefer to identify as something other than white. A 2015 Census Bureau study found that, when given a survey with a “Middle Eastern and North African” (MENA) option, individuals from those regions who identified as white dropped from 85.5 percent to 20 percent. The study also concluded that including the MENA category in the census would be “optimal” and would improve the accuracy of the national head count for the community.

But in 2018, the Census Bureau said it would not include the category in the 2020 undertaking because further testing was needed to determine whether the MENA category should go under ethnicity instead of race. Which category is best is a valid question because racial identity may vary among Middle Eastern Americans, and defining it as an ethnicity may be more accurate. Perhaps ideally it could operate like the “Hispanic/Latino” ethnic category, which also allows individuals to choose any race.

Image: Measher family
Laura Measher's father, Ibrahim, holding her and her older brother Noah c. 2004.Mollie Measher

But it is essential to include a MENA option as soon as possible; the category can always be refined in the future. Excluding a Middle East designation from the 2020 survey means we now must wait at least 10 years until a Middle Eastern designation is an option, and every decade without the MENA category has real consequences for the millions of Middle Eastern Americans in the United States. Arab Americans alone represent an estimated 3.7 million individuals, a figure that excludes other Middle Eastern groups such as Persians and Kurds.

Beyond providing population data, census results inform the annual distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds. Population breakdowns by sex, age, ethnicity and race influence how these funds are divided among programs for health care, education, employment and more. Race and ethnicity data collected by the census also plays a pivotal role in research for policies across the country, particularly on civil rights.

“Years of undercounting have deprived our community of access to basic services and rights, from language assistance at polling places, to the allocation of educational grants for cultural competency training and language assistance, to greater access to health information and research," Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institution, wrote in response to the exclusion of the Middle Eastern or North African category from the 2020 Census.

This year’s census will quite literally whitewash my experience, and the experience of millions of Middle Eastern Americans. But being Middle Eastern in the United States is not like being white — especially considering the focus on Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans after 9/11. Almost two decades later, anti-Arab hate continues to grow. From 2015 to 2018, according to FBI figures, the yearly number of anti-Arab hate crimes more than doubled from 37 to 82.

“Right now we have that ‘white’ designation on paper but we don’t benefit from it,” activist and organizer Naia Al-Anbar, 24, told The Associated Press last year. “The truth is we aren’t ever going to be white in their eyes and we will still be discriminated against.”

I realize that because I “look” white, I am not targeted by the same level of hate as Middle Eastern Americans who wear a hijab or have darker complexions. Still, I know what it’s like to be the butt of terrorist and suicide-bomber jokes, to have family members frequently be “randomly selected” by TSA and to have an aunt who was, according to family lore, deported for violating her visa after security agents read her diary entries about earning cash for babysitting my brother.

By omitting the MENA category, the census not only deprives Middle Eastern Americans of potential funding for programs supporting our communities, but also prevents us from understanding the strength of our numbers and others from understanding the value of our unique experiences.

The 2030 census may be a decade away, but it’s not too early for our community to start raising our voices to demand recognition in the country we call home. Middle Eastern Americans need and deserve a MENA category. The census may not count us, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t count.