Identity, Life

Arabs in America have a messy history. It’s why filling out that ethnicity bubble still confuses everyone.

Before 1952, picking your race in America meant being either black or white.

My story begins with me filling out my information on the Iowa exam, one of those end-of-year national tests for elementary school kids. I figured I’d breeze through it: name, address, school ID…a long pause…ethnicity?

Although Syria is in Asia, filling in that bubble didn’t seem fitting. So I would mark “white” when “other” wasn’t an option. I was confused about which category I fit in.

I was confused about which category I fit in. Click To Tweet

So were American judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Back then, American race meant either black or white. Before 1952, in order to be granted citizenship at the national level and the accompanying rights, you had to be white. There was nothing specifying “in-between” groups, so courts had to reconsider what “white” meant.

For example, East Asians petitioning for citizenship were deemed “yellow” and not “white,” meaning they were not allowed naturalization.

This simplistic view of race was challenged when, during this time, there was a large influx of Arabs, primarily from Ottoman Syria (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan), into the United States.

The majority of these “Syrians” were Christians fleeing the Ottoman Empire. So when it came to the aggressive investigation of their whiteness, they appealed to the court with their Christianity (often equated with whiteness) and their homeland’s Biblical significance. This religious heritage separated them from initial Asian labeling, allowing them citizenship.

Thus began the history of white-ifying Arabs.

Citizenship and the legal classification of whiteness did not entirely shield Arabs from discrimination, however. The most significant instance of this was the lynching of Nola Romey, a Syrian-Floridian man, in 1929.

Citizenship did not entirely shield Arabs from discrimination. Click To Tweet

The instinctive response to such discrimination was to blend in and hide their “otherness.”

Though there were Arabs who chose to stand by other people of color, the majority went with that instinct. Assimilation for a group that already looked white wasn’t difficult. Strategies included “white-ifying” names (for example, changing “Ali” to “Al”), men shaving beards, women dying hair.

Some even insisted that they weren’t acting white, but were in fact white.

Fast-forward a little bit to the mid-1950s when America was using oil from a collective Arab region that did not yet have a name.

What was once seen as desert wasteland, became a place for the United States to exploit. In order to rationalize this exploitation, they racialized the whole region. Thus, the phrase “Middle East” was first used to apply to this vague and diverse array of land, coupled with stereotypes that gave the U.S. the upper hand.

Later, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was signed, which allowed all non-Europeans to immigrate to the U.S. and gave nonwhite immigrants the right to pursue citizenship. This new law gave rise to an influx of Arabs from countries with generally less white-passing populations, such as Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan. The more “foreign” you looked, the less capable people thought you were of assimilating.

This meant racializing any Arabs who didn’t fit white American norms while also labeling those who did fit those norms as white.

Selective racialization coupled with the assimilation strategies of Arabs created a dangerous cycle of otherizing Arabs who held onto their culture while promoting conformed whiteness. This makes it harder to fix the problem of having these stereotypes in the first place, and it also makes it more difficult for Arabs to unify and organize together.

Selective racialization created a dangerous cycle. Click To Tweet

While the stereotypes of Arabs as violent aggressors existed throughout this time, it wasn’t until 9/11 that they were fully developed into America’s enemy.

9/11 also enforced religious stereotypes.

Presently (as well as at the time), the majority of Arab Americans are Christian. However, Muslims are the fastest growing subset of Arab Americans, with 60 percent of the Arab immigrants since 1965 identifying as Muslim.

As mentioned before, Christian Arabs are seen as more capable of assimilating, and the common assumption of a Muslim-majority Arab American population is a frightening one to those who regard Muslims as enemies of the West.

The words Arab and Muslim became interchangeable in their minds. Islamic terrorists were the same as Arab ones, and if Islam was at odds with the West, so were all Arabs.

These new stereotypes create two reactions: assimilate, as had been previously done, or combat the idea of whiteness and stand in solidarity with other minorities. Younger generations are more likely to do the latter than older generations.

Which leads to a big conversation today: should the next U.S. census (2020) include a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) option for race/ethnicity?

Currently, MENA citizens are expected to check the “white” category. There have been efforts pushing for the creation of a MENA option since the 1980s, and it could be a huge step forward to recognizing the separate struggles of Arab Americans and allowing for groups to support this demographic.

On the other hand, the efforts in supporting this motion have been going on for 40 years. The timing of its potential approval has caused skepticism among MENA Americans largely because it coincides with a time of increased U.S. surveillance of them. They are afraid this data could help make this surveillance easier.

So even if there is a MENA option, don’t expect all who fall into that category to check it.

As for myself?

My religious identity complicates this issue.

If I took off my hijab, I could likely pass for being white, or at least ethnically ambiguous.

This is the privilege of not being automatically stereotyped that several Arabs (particularly Levantine Arabs) have. I do wear hijab, though, so I am immediately labeled as “other,” and that other usually means both Muslim and Arab. I have clearly Desi hijab-wearing friends who’ve been labeled as Arab because of the assumption that all Muslims are Arab.

Vice versa, I have Arab friends who have been labeled as Muslim.

I recognize the privileges Arabs possess that other minorities do not, but a lot of that privilege is taken away when you are also visibly Muslim.

Taking this history of forced assimilation, a history of colonization in the MENA region, and my own personal battles with stereotypes and hatred, I don’t consider myself white.

I don't consider myself white. Click To Tweet

Whether I would that on something like the U.S. census is a different question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer to. My impulse is to say yes for that little 3rd grader confused on how to classify herself and internalizing this classification, but I realize this might lead to greater harm.

I’d like to think that if a greater harm were to result, we could directly fight this misuse of information and stereotyping.

Yet, I know that is not always how the world works.