Defining Middle Eastern identity leaves many questions

I have found it very difficult to be a person of Middle Eastern descent in the United States for many reasons. The United States government considers people of North African and Middle Eastern descent to be white. However, in the post-Sept. 11 United States, Middle Eastern peoples have been largely othered by American society, and do not benefit from what is generally described as white privilege. I say largely because, like many other groups, there are Middle Eastern people who can pass as white and thus can benefit in some ways from this privilege. However, I, as a clearly non-white Middle Easterner, do not benefit from this privilege.

The question of whether there is a pan-Middle Eastern identity at all is interesting to consider. Who makes up “the Middle East?” As it is, this term is culturally loaded and is created from a Western perspective of the globe. Depending on who you ask, the Middle East can include the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Turkey and various other nations in North Africa and West Asia.

The mainstream media also places a heavy focus on conflict in the Middle East, further bringing into question whether there is an overall Middle Eastern identity. Additionally, many different ethnic groups exist within the Middle East. The largest group is Arabs, but Persians, Turks, Armenians and many others live in this region, and the status of some of these groups as Middle Eastern peoples is sometimes brought into question. Kim Kardashian considers herself Middle Eastern due to her Armenian ancestry, but Armenia is not included in many definitions of the Middle East. That said, it is a West Asian country, and thus is sometimes included. These “sometimes” definitions and categories ultimately make a pan-Middle Eastern identity even harder to create or define (BigThink, “What is pan-Middle Eastern identity,” 2007).

In my own personal experience, I’ve definitely encountered evidence of a Middle Eastern identity in the United States. Growing up, I had a friend who was Turkish and considered herself Middle Eastern, a fact which we bonded over. When I was traveling during this past October Break, the desk clerk of the hostel I was staying in asked me my ethnicity, and revealed that he was Lebanese.

When I went to a local amusement park during high school, one of the ride attendants turned out to be, like myself, an Egyptian American. In discussing my Middle Eastern heritage with my therapist, I learned that she was Iranian, and also felt connected to her Middle Eastern identity. These encounters, while few and far between, suggest to me that there is at least some degree of unity in a Middle Eastern American identity.

The history of the whitewashing of Middle Eastern people in the United States is an interesting one. In the early 20th century, Middle Eastern people were considered Asian, as the majority of these countries are located in West Asia. However, immigrants from these countries went to court and fought to be counted as white, largely in response to anti-Asian immigration legislation of the time. They won this battle, and that set the stage for the modern identification scheme.

For the 2010 census, Arab-American activists started a campaign called “Check it right; you ain’t white!” This campaign targeted Arab and Iranian Americans and called for them to mark the “some other race” box on the census, and write in Arab, Iranian or Persian. Activists have pushed for the creation of a Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) designation to be an option on the 2020 census. This, in many ways, is a parallel to the ongoing issue of Latino/a identities being included only as an ethnic category on the census, which has resulted in many activists pushing for a united ethnic/racial background question in future United States census processes (ABC News, “US Mulls Middle East-North Africa Category for 2020 Census,” 01.30.15).

According to the Arab American Institute Foundation, there are somewhere between 3.5 and 4 million Arab Americans in the United States, though the census in 2010 only counted 1.7 million. Using the numbers from the Arab American Institute Foundations, Arabs make up about one percent of the United States population. According to the 2010 census, Native Americans and Alaska Natives made up just under one percent of the population, Asians made up almost five percent of the population and multiracial people made up about three percent of the population. These numbers illustrate the fact that Arabs form a significant minority population in the U.S., and if all Middle Eastern and North African people were counted together as a sole demographic, then this population would appear even larger based on these statistics.

In looking critically at the United States, it is abundantly clear that brown-skinned people from the Middle East do not benefit from white privilege and have been singled out and targeted in many instances. Since Sept. 11, anti-Islamic sentiment has been conflated with anti-Arab and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment, and racial profiling on people who “look” Middle Eastern are singled out in airports and other venues as being potential “terrorists.” While there are many people of Middle Eastern descent who can pass as white, they face all kinds of cultural and social erasure in America as a result of the country’s generalizations about this region of the world.

Though they may benefit from white-passing privilege, they also lose part of their identity. It is important to note, too that Middle Eastern people have been combined with Muslims in the eyes of many Americans. Many Americans see Middle Eastern people as Muslims, despite the region’s diversity. Though there is significant overlap, these identities do not automatically correlate. However, like many other stereotypes, it seems that this one is not going away any time soon.

It is exceedingly important that the United States census adopt a more accurate system of classifying race and ethnicity. The effects of doing so would be profound. When I was applying to college, I did not fill out the questions on race and ethnicity because I felt that checking off the white box would give the impression that I have grown up a certain way or benefitted from white privilege, when I have not. In fact, I have been tormented and bullied and called a “terrorist” in response to my physical appearance and my cultural background. And I know I’m not alone. I’d love to create a space for Vassar students of Middle Eastern descent to come together and discuss these issues. If anyone else out there is interested, I want to hear from you.


—Ramy Abbady ’16 is an education major.

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