When I first moved to the United States as an adult, I had to start filling out forms that asked about my race. But I didn’t really know what my race was in the American context. All I knew, having grown up in Jerusalem, was that I’m Palestinian and Arab, and that didn’t seem to fall under any of America’s five official racial categories: American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, white, Black, and Asian American.
“White,” to me, meant European, and I had only ever seen or heard of Arabs referred to as “brown people,” be it on American TV or in conversation. So it was to my surprise to learn that the US Census Bureau expects Arabs to check “white,” which it defines as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
That’s an absurd definition of whiteness, especially considering the fact that there is no world in which some Arabs are actually considered white in social settings. But it turns out that the reason the census considers Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent to be white dates back to the early 20th century, when a wave of non-European immigrants came to American shores. At the time, the United States required people to be either Black or white in order to apply for citizenship, so many non-European and non-Black immigrants — including people from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Asia — sought naturalization by identifying as white.
For a while, there was a degree of inconsistency and confusion: Some Arabs were considered white by immigration courts and were therefore able to obtain citizenship — often after hard-fought legal battles — while other Arabs were not. That uncertainty ended in 1943, when the federal government officially declared people from the Middle East and North Africa to be white, which made Arab immigrants indisputably eligible for citizenship. Since then, the census has effectively hidden Arabs in the “white” category, making them an invisible minority.
The problem is that while some Arabs may indeed identify as white, many of them do not. That’s in part because people from the Middle East and North Africa are diverse and span many complexions, and in part because Arab Americans have been distinctly targeted, surveilled, and othered, especially after 9/11. For many Arab Americans — particularly those who are Muslim — being labeled white by law simply doesn’t reflect the reality of how they’ve experienced America.
Not counting Arabs as a separate category, be it ethnic or racial, ultimately harms Arab Americans throughout the country. “The costs are tremendous to our community,” said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute. “The implications in terms of services, in terms of jobs, in terms of political representation are extraordinary.” The decennial census, for example, which helps determine how legislative districts are drawn, does not include data on Arab Americans, potentially limiting their power as a voting bloc in areas where there are large Arab American populations.
Failing to count Arab Americans as their own distinct group also means that Arab Americans have fewer resources to fight civil rights abuses than other targeted minority groups. And from employment to housing, Arabs are likely to face discrimination. One study, for example, showed that employers are twice as likely to respond to resumes with white-sounding names than they are to identical resumes with Arab names. Another study showed that Arab American women applying for housing are significantly less likely to hear back than white women.
Though Arab Americans are excluded in the census, the reality is that the government is hyper-aware of them as a distinct group. “We are once again having to be addressed as a community that is invisible in some ways when it comes to certain data” — for services like language assistance in voting centers or schools — “but then highly visible and targeted when it comes to other government policies,” like discriminatory counterterrorism programs, Berry said.
After decades of work and organizing from Arab Americans — including from organizations like Berry’s — the Obama administration had finally put in place plans to include an ethnic category in the census for people from the Middle East and North Africa, only to have the Trump administration scrap the proposal in 2018. For his part, President Biden has called for including counts of invisible minorities in the census. If he wants Arabs to be included in the next decennial count in 2030, it’s not too early to start making those changes now. Until then, the closest ethnic or racial identifier people like me will see on forms will be “other” — and that’s not an America we see ourselves in.