I am not white.
Yet, according to the US Census, a “white” person is: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” This is the widely accepted definition; trickling down into even the most insignificant scientific studies.
Now, imagine you’re me, a Palestinian-American who was raised in the Bay Area his entire life. What would you identify as?
So, this little Palestinian-American is white, right?
For the longest time, this distinction has not been a problem for me. My skin is white and so is the culture that I’ve grown up in so much so that few people guess that I am Middle-Eastern. Yet, as I’ve aged and become more confident in my cultural, ethnic, and racial identity this distinction has began to trouble me. Though I might pass as white, my darker North African and Middle-Eastern racial brethren often cannot. I’ve grown angry and frustrated, not only for myself but those who are forced identify as “white” because they hail from North Africa and the Middle-East, yet clearly lack anything that is culturally associated with “white”. Where I might fall under a “white” classification in a colloquial sense, immigrants from Yemen who speak very little english certainly don’t. While I am different from these Yemeni immigrants, we share a common cultural and racial identity–do we not deserve to identify as something other than white, black, asian or other? We do and the answer is SWANA.
For those who don’t know, SWANA stands for Southwest Asian and North African; otherwise known as the region encompassing the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa. For quite a while, categorizing people from these regions has been difficult. They may, for instance, share the same culture or religion, yet they vary immensely in language and race. It is this reason why the term “Arab” doesn’t quite work, as “Arab” refers mainly to the Arabian Peninsula, thus excluding culturally similar societies bordering the Mediterranean. The next logical word phrasing is “Middle-Eastern” as it encompases the entire geographic region, more or less. However, this term is eurocentric; the “Middle-East” was the “middle” option between Europe and the Far East. Using this term cedes authority and places subordinate peoples from the region trying to be represented. Thus, the mostly politically correct and accurate term is one derived from strict geography–Southwest Asia and North Africa, better known as SWANA.
Beyond just being more politically correct, creating a SWANA category in the census allows us to collect and gather data to better address our own problems. Since SWANA peoples lack our own identifier, we aren’t treated as distinct from white people. Not only is this problematic for sustaining a cultural identity, it masks our problems under the white umbrella. Census data is stratified along racial lines, and “this data is used by community and campus organizations, to evaluate acceptance, admittance, retention, and graduation rates.” And though many SWANA individuals face systemic discrimination and are often seen as a minority, we aren’t able to receive treatment as an official minority group. We lack the data and subsequently institutional strength that would empower us as a minority group.
Though numbering around 4 million rather than 50 million, the SWANA plight for representation in the U.S. Census is not unsimilar to that of the Hispanic population in America. For many decades, Hispanic individuals lacked a category to mark themselves as distinct from “white”. Despite facing noticeable and considerable disadvantages, their problems were masked because of incorporation into the larger white population. Now, Hispanics have the information and institutional backing as a minority. While they are still the subjects of intense racism, they have the data and institutional framework to make their voices heard within Congress.
Especially in this Islamophobic era, we need to support the creation of a Census group to represent individuals from the North African and Southwestern Asia, upholding this group classification, not as Middle-Eastern, but SWANA. Thankfully, there are already talks of the US Census establishing some sort of representative categories for SWANA people, so this conception is not far from becoming a reality. Even so, in an era of significant political correctness, the revision of these archaic classification should not only be expected, but demanded for fear of institutional racism.