Being Arab American : A Short Story

Middle school is the most awkward of times. In the 8th grade I had to fill in a standardized test form for the first time. It asked for me to bubble in my “race/ethnicity” from a pre-determined list of the so-called races and ethnicities. Naturally, I resorted to ask my friend who sat by me what I should do.“Aren’t your parents Egyptians?”, she asked to confirm, I said yes. She said, “Egypt is in Africa right?”, I said yes. She then confidently declared, “You’re African American!” Phew. Thinking this “problem” was promptly solved, I bubbled in African American and proceeded to take the test. When I went home and told my parents of the incident I thought I had emerged triumphantly from, I was met with disapproving frowns. “Jessica, look at your skin- it’s tan not brown, you’re white, don’t do that again.” At this time, I was simply confused and refused this explanation due to teen angst. Only later on in life did I truly come to wrap my head around the complexity of this story and why it matters so much what bubble we fill in. There indeed a disconnect between what Arab American categorize themselves on paper for official institutions and what they are at home, a break in the public  and private spheres.

What many find hard to believe, that even before 9/11 being Arab in America, rather, Arab American, has always been complex identity construction; some have come initially as refugees, some in the early 1900s through Staten Island, some in the past few decades in pursuit of employment and/or educational opportunities.The question of whether Arabs are white has been a controversial one. The two times in history when this dilemma reached its peak was the the late 1800s to early 1900s and today.

In the early 19th century, the first wave of Arab immigration came to the US from Greater Syria (present-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) were consequently termed “Syrians” by immigration officials. A problem that faced the early immigrants was finding a way to identify themselves that corresponded with the categories that US society recognized. Early immigrants originally identified themselves according to things like family, kinship, village and/or religion. These immigrants were referred to using many derogatory terms, including the N word and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan.

When The Naturalization Act of 1970 was passed, the right of American citizenship was granted to “free white persons.” However, the definition of who those white persons remained was still being debated. Following the act, Arab American categorizations fluctuated. In 1988, Syrians and Palestinians were classified racially as Caucasian to distinguish them from Turkish immigrants. After 1910, Syrians and Palestinians, along with Turks and Armenians were classifies as “Asiatic” by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1915 a Syrian immigrant from South Carolina petitioned the court to be eligible for naturalization after being denied citizenship twice on the grounds of not meeting the U.S. law’s racial requirements for citizenship. Dow was not the only who had been denied and the community of Syrian immigrants (around 150,000) were angered and mobilized to end this discrimination. Their efforts were not in vain and the court ruled that Syrians be classified as “white persons” and thus, granted naturalization. Thus, Syrians became white (not only legally) after law and custom had constructed it.

On the census today, next to the choice of caucasian is in brackets, “North African or Middle Eastern.” The campaign , which so far has been successful, works to try to create a separate category which would then allow the number of Arab Americans in the United States to be counted more accurately. (The Census estimates 1,967,219, the American Institute adjusts this number using their own research to 3,664,789.)

In January of 2012, Abed Ayoud, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), filed a petition with the United States Department of Commerce in order for Arab Americans to qualify for the “disadvantaged minority” status allowing businessmen and women access to government resources. This went beyond challenging the Arab American “white status” by stirring debate within Arab American communities as they started to see a fork in the road- “integration into whiteness, or pursuing de jure minority status.”

Although to many (white passing) Arab Americans, especially older generations, believe that they benefit from the classification of white believing that they (at least on paper) will have more access to jobs and opportunities. Furthermore, they believe that this legal classification can transmit to better treatment and inclusion socially. White without the benefits. Thus, not only do people at the census need convincing that someone with origins from the Middle East or North Africa should get their own category, but so do Arabs themselves.

Many, however, recognize the irony here, that the same people who worked hard to be recognized as white legally for citizenship are now trying to reverse this; they see the implications and benefits from being granted a minority status. The federal government uses the information gathered from the census in order to determine what neighborhoods should get more/less funding, government representation, etc.

Whether Arabs are in fact white or not ancestrally or geographically, I believe, should not be a concern; Arabs come from various places in many different skin tones. Rather, it is the social category which society has created for them upon their arrival in the United States (and even abroad) which was been one that resulted in targeted discrimination and hate crimes. However, just because we know that “race is a social construction,” that it is not important that the census not acknowledge the Arab population in the United States as it has important implications both legally and socially. (p.s. I’ve been filling in the category “other” ever since.)


2 thoughts on “Being Arab American : A Short Story

  1. Powerful and cogent statement and rumination, Jessica.

    It is totally strange yet completely understandable that Arab Americans would be seeking protection as a minority after working so hard to become white. So what do we make of this? How can we think through it? My sense is that it shows the ‘hollowness’ of the categories of legal equality and citizenship when confronted with the social structures that limit those categories’ universality. That is, Arab Americans – like all racial minorities – are supposed to have the same rights and privileges. But it could be that this effort shows that some not-quite-whites can never actually get to fully white. And as you point out, it doesn’t appear to be skin color that is the barrier, but rather culture? Or (perceived) religion? Or the reliance on ‘cultural difference’ as a way to say religion without having to say religion? Some have argued (I think Leti Volpp?) that Arab Americans have been racialized as a category after September 11: that a new racial category has sprung up that links terrorist/Arab/Muslim into a hypercategory of threat to American order. It might be that this effort is a way to – almost perversely? certainly strategically – capitalize on that hypercategory as a formal status of exclusion that can then be mobilized to justify state protection of rights.

    Totally fascinating. I’m going to ponder this more.


    1. I agree that perceived religion and/or culture play a big role in creating a sense of “otherness” in American society, regardless of whether Arab Americans are considered white or not. Sometimes I underestimate how much of a factor religion plays in shaping race then I remember that strong historical divides of just Christianity (i.e. Catholics and Protestants) have caused deep rifts and violence. We see this happening with Christian Arab Americans being constantly thought they are Muslim and Sikhs, who are neither Arab nor Muslim, killed for thinking they are Muslim. In some Muslim communities there is also an interesting push to using religion as the primary marker of identity before nationality, race or ethnicity. I find this very interesting as it tries to heal rifts (within Muslims) created by these other, mostly racial, markers by focusing on the uniting factor. Here, people become one’s Muslim brother or sister and thus discrimination becomes entirely forbidden. I haven’t necessarily articulated an opinion about this approach yet but I find it interesting in the light of being discriminated against based on perceived religion versus (visible) Arab race.


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