Arabs in Proximity to Whiteness

Growing up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants, I often went through different variations of identity crisis. As a Moroccan-American, I’m considered to be a part of the SWANA community (south west Asian through North African). Like most immigrant offspring, you tend to struggle with grappling who you are exactly and how you hope to assimilate into a society very different than the culture you are raised with at home. Sometimes you even hope to achieve whiteness because it’s a lot easier by social standards. For a while I only had white friends and only chose white partners, it was both a conscious and subconscious thing throughout my childhood and early 20s, and continues to be. This reflects in society as well in how Arabs would want to label themselves when whiteness is associated with “better” and privilege”. Although the Arab community in the United States is considered white by law (yes, we check the Caucasian box because we are a labeled within that category), we do not receive the same privileges that come with whiteness. This has always been the case but especially now in a post 9–11 America.

Since 1944 Arabs have been considered white by law. Many Arabs choose to embrace and defend this label. The US Census Bureau, however, has proposed to add a MENA (Middle East/North Africa) option for the 2020 Census and every census following. The identification of MENA individuals seems like an opportunity for racial progression in our country, but it comes at a time of a spike in hate crimes against the MENA community, the support of a Muslim ban by our “president”, the current Syrian refugee crisis, the emergence of ISIS, and an accumulation of Islamophobia over the past, almost, 16 years. Because the law required whiteness as a prerequisite to immigration up until 1952, it was heavily pursued by Arabs. Judicial decisions in 1915 and then later revisited in 1944 designated the label of whiteness to Arabs. Whiteness is both a form of social and political currency. To be white in the United States means that you are free from the status of inferiority. Although some Arabs proudly wear whiteness, they do not receive the same privileges associated with the term. They are still associated with “terrorism”, “radical”, and “alien”.

Breakdown of European Controlled Territories in the 20th Century

According to Sara Ahmed’s article titled A Phenomenology of Whiteness, whiteness is a background experience. Something that is there without much acknowledgement. And while it has a placeholder in the background it is also the desired object of people of color. It’s in the back, it’s in the forefront, and it’s a part of our experience in how we try to take up space in a society that values whiteness. Ahmed states that “Colonialism makes the world ‘white’, which of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories even when we forget them.” The biggest take away from this portion of Ahmed’s argument in reference to the proposed MENA classification is that Arabs and other Middle Eastern identities associate whiteness with power in a historical context. This is reflective of hundreds of years worth of colonization by American, British, French, Spanish, Italian, and Israeli forces. Whiteness then becomes a symbol of strength and power. And although new generations may not be directly born into white occupation, they are still within a society and/or culture that resonates the implications of it. For example, Moroccans and Algerians who choose to live French lifestyles and raise their children to only speak French.

Linda Sarsour

There are two sides to the declassification. A portion of the Arab population desperately holds onto the label to dissociate from the negative labels thrown at them. The other portion is looking forward to stripping off whiteness for existential, political, economic, and legal reasons. There is a disconnect between striving for social validity and not being given that validation. We have been trying to effectively assimilate and white wash ourselves for years that we have forgotten that we are still being labeled as the “other”. It’s time to abandon these efforts and embrace ourselves for who we really are and ultimately claim our place in the patriarchal and racial hierarchy that this country insists on imposing on us. In reclaiming the discrimination, we receive, we can reject the stereotypes we are given. We can hold society accountable for the way it depicts us, as Latinx and Black communities have been doing. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can work towards racial equality and address social issues for Americans who are in the Arab community. Reshaping societal knowledge of the Arab identity is ultimately more important than the racial labels associated with it.