I have a recurring memory of my childhood in the American South. Before final exams in seventh grade, my school in North Carolina asked students to complete a set of demographic questions, including on race. As a Palestinian-American with big brown eyes and olive skin, I had been regularly subject to colorist remarks in my community, constant reminders that I wasn’t bayda, a term that meant “White” or “fair-skinned.” I regularly encountered this, given my Bedouin features and status as a samra person, which could mean anything from olive to Black.
As I sat there at my school desk, I was confused. I didn’t know what box to check. I knew that I neither identified with Whiteness in the U.S., nor supported its ideology or benefited from its privilege. I concluded that Palestine was in Asia, so I must be Asian, and ticked the box to begin the test. When I went home that day, I asked my parents if I had made the right choice. They explained to me that people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were listed as White or Caucasian, and I should check White. I had always seen this as a technicality and term that did not fit. I didn’t feel White then, and I still don’t see myself as White now.
The History of Arab Americans Being ‘White’
Many Arabs have used White, Black, and to a lesser extent, Other, for most of their lives, however this fails to speak to the regional, linguistic, or cultural intricacies that have long defined the tri-continental contact zone between Asia, Africa, and Europe. But it does help understand how people from MENA have today found themselves in a racial quagmire, without one clear identity to call their own.
The history of how Americans and immigrants from MENA were subsumed into Whiteness dates back to the 1880s, when the earliest immigrants from the region established cultural hubs in Boston, Detroit, and New York. Hailing from present-day Syria and Lebanon in West Asia, these immigrants entered the country during a time of heightened challenges for Asian immigrants under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese immigrants from acquiring citizenship and halted their entry to the U.S.
Early Arab immigrants actively wanted to be recognized as White to obtain citizenship and legal and economic benefits. Despite hailing from West Asia, these early Syrian and Lebanese immigrants felt a cultural proximity with other Mediterranean immigrants like Italians or Greeks, who were designated White upon entry. Using this as precedent, Arab immigrants fought several court cases to find a path to citizenship, which remained a largely White privilege until the 1950s. They eventually won in 1943, and as more people from the region established lives in the U.S., Arabs confronted a new binary of White versus Black, with many Mediterranean Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Iranians, and others drifting towards Whiteness while others – mostly Afro-Arabs or Arabic-speaking minorities in Africa – feeling a pull towards Blackness.
Despite their legal success claiming Whiteness, other groups like South Asian immigrants did not see the same results. In a 1923 Supreme Court case, a Punjabi Sikh named Bhagat Thind tried to gain citizenship by arguing that Indians were Caucasian, and shared common descent with Europeans. The court rejected the argument: “[W]e must not fail to keep in mind that [the law] does not employ the word ‘Caucasian,’ but the words ‘White persons.’” In other words, if you’re Indian, you’re Caucasian, but not White. If you’re East Asian, you might have White skin, but you’re not Caucasian. Either way, you lose the game. Thind lost his case and today South Asians tick the Asian box.
Towards A New Identity
The benefits of a U.S. Census category for Arabs are numerous: expanded funding, health research, and political representation in Congress. It also translates into greater community resources and access to social services, a fact that was absent during the Covid-19 pandemic, when discrimination and medical negligence led to Arabs facing higher mortality rates and poorer health outcomes than other groups.
Although there are undoubtedly some in our community opposed to being pulled out of the blanket of whiteness, many more continue to desire a culturally accurate and nuanced representation of Arabs.
To understand if a new MENA identity was sought by people in my community, I spoke with North Africans, Levantine Arabs, Gulf Arabs, and others. Although many spoke about a MENA category from an identity perspective, others examined it through colorism, language, and perhaps most urgently, the need to distance themselves from an American brand of Whiteness.
Among Moroccans and Tunisians, the consensus was that North Africans probably feel a stronger affinity toward Africa than the Middle East, but perhaps a MENA category would “still be better than White.” Despite sharing a language with Arabs, many Nubian and Sudanese individuals expressed concerns about colorism in Arab communities. For them, there was a clear distinction between White Arabs and Black Arabs, and many only felt comfortable with a future MENA category if it was used as an ethnicity, not a race, the way Hispanic is used today. Similarly, for a woman from Ethiopia with Yemeni roots, the family divide was stark; she checked Black while her siblings picked White or Middle Eastern. There were also generational distinctions influencing preferences. Grandparents or parents might feel differently about the MENA label than their children, as many survived colonial trauma and internalized Whiteness as a survival strategy.
Among Syrian friends and my own family, which has now become a Palestinian-Egyptian-Lebanese kaleidoscope, opinions on colorism vary, but almost everyone agrees on the need for a MENA category. On the one hand, all of us – even those with one White parent – have suffered from anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism throughout our lives. It’s beneficial for us to have accurate representation to enjoy political and economic benefits. But on another, more basic level, none of us have enjoyed the privileges of cultural Whiteness, even if we could pass as White. Although there are undoubtedly some in our community opposed to being pulled out of the blanket of Whiteness, many more continue to desire a culturally accurate and nuanced representation of Arabs – perhaps an ethnic designation rather than a racial one. As it stands, the U.S. Census counts Middle Easterners and North Africans as White, but many of us simply don’t identify with this, particularly the post-9/11 generation. However, while many see the value and utility of a new MENA identity, for those who grew up in the aftermath of post-9/11 surveillance of Arab communities, there is a lingering fear that a government category might subject a vulnerable group to heightened scrutiny or surveillance.
At the same time, the option of an ethnic category means that Arab Americans would no longer have to navigate a restrictive White versus Black binary and could check MENA/Black, MENA/White, or simply MENA. Either way, a concrete category would be more beneficial than continued invisibility. It would allow Arabs to state their identity in their own terms. Remembering my confusion about whether I was Asian or not, I turned to my four-year-old Egyptian-Palestinian-American nephew and asked: “Are you White, brown, or Black?” to which he responded, “I don’t know, I think I am just a peach.”
Suja Sawafta is Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Miami. She is currently working on her first book on the Jordanian-born Saudi-Iraqi writer Abdulrahman Munif, a petroleum economist turned novelist most famously known for his epic novel Cities of Salt. Her public writing has appeared in Grazia Middle East, Middle East Monitor, and ArabLit Quarterly among other venues.