There is one reality about race in the United States that has baffled many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
But this racial identity has not matched the discrimination in housing, work and other aspects of daily life that many say they have faced.
Young people of MENA descent have “had a plethora of different experiences that made them feel that some of their experiences were actually closer to communities of color in the United States,” says Neda Maghbouleh, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, which has conducted research on the subject.
The paradox has been difficult to show through the data.
But one recently published study co-authored by Maghbouleh offers suggestive evidence that a majority of people from the MENA region do not consider themselves to be white. Meanwhile, a substantial percentage of white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino also do not perceive MENA people as white, the study also suggests.
The results correspond to the realities experienced by many people of MENA origin
For the article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – who quotes NPR reporting – Maghbouleh, with co-authors Ariela Schachter and René D. Flores, used online surveys to conduct experiments last summer with nearly 1,100 participants.
They included a group of people who identified as white and not MENA or Latino, as well as two cohorts who either identified as Middle Eastern or said they had at least one grandparent born in the Middle East or North Africa. .
Presented with a “Middle Eastern or North African” category, 88% of people of MENA origin in the study (who could select one or more categories) chose this option when identifying their race, ethnicity or origin. The results also show that adding “Middle Eastern or North African” to a list of response options significantly reduced the proportion of people of MENA origin who self-identified with only the “White” category.
Another part of the study asked participants to rank made-up profiles of individuals that included names, ancestors’ countries of origin and other details.
Middle Eastern or North African-related characteristics, the results suggest, would not be classified as white by many people of MENA descent or by white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino.
“I think that’s a very powerful finding, which I think was felt anecdotally by most Arab Americans in their daily lives,” says Kristine Ajrouch, a sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University whose research on white identity and Arab Americans is cited in the article.
It is difficult to research people of MENA descent in the United States
Like the paper’s co-authors, Ajrouch notes that the research is limited by difficulties in finding large numbers of people from the MENA region to participate in the studies.
“It’s a really big problem that haunts a lot of social science research,” said Maghbouleh, who notes that people of North African descent are underrepresented among study participants.
Maghbouleh conducted in-depth interviews with young people of MENA origin for the 2017 book The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and Everyday Racial Politics. The new study attempts to determine hard numbers for some of the insights Maghbouleh gained through the qualitative research in this book.
But there is still a gap.
Researchers are paralyzed by federal standards that compel the Census Bureau to include people with MENA roots in white data. In the absence of a separate “Middle East or North Africa” checkbox on US census forms, there is no direct way to produce a national count of people of MENA descent in the United States.
“It’s very difficult to identify individuals from the Middle East and North Africa or those of Arab descent when there’s been decades of conditioning and socialization to say, ‘When you fill out the form, you’re supposed to tick white,'” says Ajrouch. , who is currently attempting to study the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias among older Arab Americans.
Indeed, many people of MENA descent in the United States are rendered invisible in the official statistics that researchers rely on for health research and other key studies.
The history of whiteness and people of MENA descent is complicated
The complicated relationship that many people of MENA descent have with whiteness is tied to a naturalization system in the United States that, until 1952, imposed racial restrictions on which immigrants could become citizens.
First arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s, early generations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa saw whiteness as the path to claiming full rights in their new land.
According to Sahar Aziz, professor of law at Rutgers University Law School and author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Cancels Religious Freedom.
“They argued they were white in court because the only immigrants who could naturalize to become US citizens had to be recognized as white by law,” she says.
Anti-black racism in the media and in other parts of American society, Aziz adds, has helped push many immigrants around the world to try “to dissociate themselves from blackness and try to associate themselves with the more possible to whiteness”.
In recent decades, however, there has been a growing disconnect between how the federal government officially categorizes people of MENA descent by race and the lived realities of many people — a dissonance that was underscored after the attacks. of September 11.
“Over the past 20 years, people from the Middle East and North Africa have experienced a form of stereotyping that assumes they are inherently prone to violence, prone to sympathize with terrorism, that they are forever strangers,” he added. says Aziz, who served as a senior policy advisor for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties during the Obama administration.
“All of these stereotypes are what people who don’t have the privileges of whiteness experience,” she adds.
A MENA checkbox may appear on the 2030 census
To fully understand the experiences of people of MENA descent in the United States, Aziz and other researchers say that an additional checkbox for “Middle East or North Africa” is needed on head count forms. once per decade.
In preparation for the 2020 count, Census Bureau researchers concluded that including a “Middle East or North Africa” category on questionnaires would be “optimal” partly because he “helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”
Corn under the administration of former President Donald Trumpan effort that began during the Obama years to introduce a MENA checkbox as part of a redesigned census question on race and ethnicity to the point of death. It required approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the lack of a public decision from the OMB forced the office to scrap the plans.
In 2018, bureau officials also announced that the agency should conduct research and testing to respond to comments from “a large segment of the population in the Middle East and North Africa” who believe that the MENA region should be considered a category for an ethnicity, not a race.
Trump’s travel bans targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa have also raised concerns among some longtime supporters of a new census tick box as to how which the public might have perceived its deployment under the previous administration.
Last year, however, the The Biden administration confirms to NPR that it has reinitiated consideration of the proposal this would allow the bureau to review the way the census asks questions about race and ethnicity. If the OMB gives the go-ahead, a “Middle East or North Africa” checkbox could be on track to appear on updated forms for the country’s largest survey, the American Community Survey. office, as well as the 2030 census.
“There is still so much work to do,” notes Aziz. “I don’t think this empirical work can be done until the US Census adds a category, either under race or under ethnicity.”