My existence is a life-long treasure hunt.

I have always been fascinated by multicultural studies and racial/ethnic classification. One under-studied facet of race has been the racial/ethnic identity of Middle-Easterners and Arabs. The United States officially classifies people from these regions as white. However, I have never thought of them as what we consider white (although some do “look” white), and I am willing to bet many of you haven’t either.

Discussions on race/ethnicity are of course always based on the foundation that race is a social construction. We know this, accept this, and move on. But operating within and under this social construction, there are still many valid points and feelings because self-identity is a crucial component of individual and societal development.

I recently read an article about Middle-Eastern and Arab students applying to UCLA and not having an option to check the racial/ethnic classification they were looking for. Most did not identify with being “white” so some checked other options. Here are some quotes from the article, in italics:

For years the federal government has classified Arab Americans and Middle Easterners as white. But confusion and disagreement have led some students to check “Asian” or “African,” depending on what part of the Middle East they came from. Some, like Salame, simply marked “Other.”

This is interesting to me because if you think of countries and regions usually associated with the Middle East (including but not limited to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen), you rarely hear them in the context of the continent they are situated in; they are usually mentioned as a totally separate entity from Africa or Asia.

The UCLA students said having their own ethnic designation goes beyond self-identity and has real implications for the larger Arab and Middle Eastern communities.

The “white” label can hurt them with universities and companies that use the information to promote diversity, they say, and can result in the gathering of little or no statistical data on important issues, such as health trends in the community.

The Arab American Institute estimates that including Middle Easterners in the white category on the census has led to a population undercount of more than a million, said Helen Samhan, who works at the institute. There are more than 3 million Arabs in the United States, the institute says.

I also feel it’s important to make a distinction between Middle Eastern and Arab people because not every Middle-Easterner is Arab and not every Arab is a Middle-Easterner (North Africans, etc.). Also, people further assume Middle Eastern and/or Arab equals Muslim and that is not always the case either.

I feel that we, especially in the United States, have a lot to learn about the nuances and distinctions between people of Middle Eastern or Arab descent and issues of racial and/or ethnic classification and self-identification. What comes to your mind when you think of Middle Eastern people or Arab people? Do you agree with their classification in the United States as white people? Why or why not? I also welcome any discussion/enlightenment from people more knowledgeable than me on this subject.

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Comments on: "Arab, Middle-Eastern…White?" (15)

  1. Wow, I am really glad you posted this. I was talking to a friend about the people groups that the USA has started to label as "white". This is a wide spread practice now with Latinos. Some embrace it, some do not. On many forms, you will now see the option "white, Hispanic" or "White, not Hispanic". Now, I am seeing that this is happening with many other people groups. As I see it, it's a way to add to the group of people that are "white" without actually creating more "white" people for the sake of adding to the traditional white power structure.

  2. thelady said:

    I always assumed Middle Eastern people are classified as white so that white people can claim Jesus and all the other religious leaders and great things that originated in the area.

  3. Sheena: Yes, the Hispanic classification is a whole 'nother blog, lol. Many of them desire a racial classification separate from the ethnic "Hispanic" they get now. I plan to blog about this soon as well.

    thelady: Hmmm…interesting point. Politically, it was a citizenship move and it was around this time that you could clearly see what a social construction race is/was. Once biological differences were ruled out, they went to "common knowledge" on who was white and who was not to deny citizenship to those who they didn't want in. The religious angle hadn't even occurred to me, thank you for that!

  4. "If both your parents are black and you are born in japan and you speak japanese. What are you?"

    That is the question that sparked many a debate in my navy days… Because you cant just classify somebody like that can you?

  5. The Notorious Z.A.G. said:

    Historically speaking, white people have the tendency to want to conquer all. My reasoning follows Dr. Francis Cress-Welsing's but that's a whole 'nother topic, lol. So while its crazy that these tan and brown skinned people are classified as white o_o I'm not surprised at all. Very interesting read!

  6. The Notorious Z.A.G. said:

    Oh, and I work at a wonderfully diverse, professional facility… And a lot of my Middle Eastern/Arab co-workers identify themselves as either African or Asian (like you said, depending on the region). We've allowed the way history is written, and their system of things to fulfill our quest for knowledge instead of looking at the facts for ourselves and learning the right thing (like the history of the origin of what is now the US, cavemen, etc.) I am guilty of it myself.

  7. ChocolateOrchid said:

    Wow! Interesting and great comments. I've always seen Middle Eastern people or Arab people as just that. Never as "white". I think it is unfortunate and typical that the U.S. would classify them as "white" for reasons previously mentioned in the above comments. And yes, I've noticed the same thing occuring with latino/hispanic people.

    Call me a dreamer but I will be happy when all people will be recognized and appreciated for their specific ethnicity/race.

    Great post topic, Gem!

  8. thelady said:

    I think the most important thing is that Middle Eastern people are allowed to classify themselves as they see fit and that this isn't something forced on them by white people or other Americans or the government.
    A lot of Persians are referred to as Arabs when they are their own ethnic group.

  9. Andre: I actually think that one would be a little easier. Racially, you are black. Your nationality is Japan if that's where you grew up. Interesting point, though.

    ZAG: Thank you for your post! I need to do some reading on Dr. Francis Cress-Welsing.

    CO: I agree; I actually like knowing people's ethnicities (if known) and nationalities over race. It gives you a bit more context of their experiences.

    thelady: I knew that about Persians being referred to as Arab which is why I stated in the post that not every Middle-Easterner is Arab and vice versa. Especially right after September 11, Persians got a lot of the profiling that was intended toward Arabs. Thank you for your post!

  10. larepublicadeblackbottom said:

    i love this entry! you are right on the money with the ambiguity that racial construction leads to. I feel like race is definitely becoming an increasingly difficult thing to put into a box, i wonder will we evolve into using another concept? thanks for the enlightening post…bye!!

  11. I actually consider Middle-Easterners to be people of color. Just like I consider Asians or Mediterraneans, or anyone that doesn't have that European Anglo racial identity, to be people of color. One of my best friends is Afghan and her racial characteristics are definitely more "brown people" than "white." Then again, some of my Persian friends appear to have "white" characteristics, but still consider themselves a minority.

  12. Qucifer said:

    What comes to your mind when you think of Middle Eastern people or Arab people? Do you agree with their classification in the United States as white people? Why or why not? I also welcome any discussion/enlightenment from people more knowledgeable than me on this subject

    Nuh uh is the same shit I say about Hispanic people being logged as white in the clerk of the courts here, is stupid and overly simplistic, I would say id anything Asian or African obviously, Hispanic people is dicey cause some of them would love nothing More than being white and shit but is SO NOT the case, at least now they have things like Black not African American and both things like race and ethnicity which accomodates my afro caribbean Latin ass much better

  13. Anonymous said:

    I think their systemic classification as white can be problematic, especially for statistics and other methods of gathering data about people. In my local court system, the following are categorized together – "white, arab, asian." "Black" is just that. I also think how they self-identify should be explored. A middle-eastern colleague of mine said that her friends of the same ethnicity define themselves as white. As an example, she talked about how they entered a room of non-whites and one remarked, "Wow, we are the only white people here." It appears that her group of friends has chosen to identify with and assimilate with whites. No problem, it is their choice. I do not think that this is something that has been thrust upon them. There are huge benefits of being "white" and, in this current political climate, at the least not associated with middle-eastern, asian, arab, etc. cultures.

  14. Chris McDonald said:

    Classifying Middle Easterner’s as White is also done so that Whites can claim that their race had great civilizations before even Eygpt. This is also why Whites also even try to say that asians are more related to them as well. It’ is a necessary foundation to the White supremacy that is woven into the underlying fabric of western culture that Whites be the earliest or at least one of the earliest creators of great civilization. If they were not first then the foundation of their supremacy crumbles. The truth is they are just the latest meaning the last ones to do so of those that have. Furthermore without the foundations laid by other great societies in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Asia, White societies would still be tribal societies with little technology. Each great society is gifted with the knowledge given to it by the great societies that preceed it.The truth is Middle Easterner’s by and large are brown peoples, not White, and certainly were not White 7,000 to 10,000 years ago before European invasions.

  15. Chris: Thank you so much for your comment! I definitely have read similar things and see some truth in what you posted. There is a book I’ve been meaning to read about how Whiteness was decided, and who was considered white and why in the earlier years of this country. It is amazing.

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