When people ask me: “Where are you from?” I have to ask them to clarify what they mean by that. As in where I used to live before this? Or are you referring to the way I look? Usually, they are referring to my race or ethnicity. When I first began to receive this question, I felt a little offended. I used to think: Do I not look like I belong? Is there something about me that makes me un-American? Is it just because I do not look white? Today, I am excited to answer that question.
I am an American, born and raised in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, are immigrants. My father was born and raised in Lebanon. On the other hand, my mother was born and raised in Mexico, but she is ethnically Lebanese. I feel privileged to have come from a diverse background. I grew up speaking Arabic, Spanish and English. I am also a practicing Muslim.
Like many other Arab Americans, my family is proud to have become American citizens. We, however, hold on to our cultural traditions and beliefs. No matter how hard we try to assimilate, we continue to be treated differently. My mother has faced discrimination because of her accent. My father experienced discrimination at his workplace because he is Muslim. Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand the implications of the issues that Middle Eastern people and Muslims face. Data gathered to understand the issues ethnic and racial groups face are usually gathered from the U.S. census. Middle Easterners and North Africans, or MENA, are not included as a category on the census. Instead, they are categorized as white.
The U.S census has five racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and White. At least the U.S. census allows a “some other race” option. The UC system only includes the same racial categories in its undergraduate application, omitting the “some other race” option and, instead, replacing it with a “two or more races” option.
We see the problem of not accurately counting Arab Americans on a national level. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 1.8 million Arab Americans living in the U.S. The Arab American Institute, however, estimates that there are 3.7 million Arab Americans living in the U.S. coming from more than 22 countries and many different religious backgrounds. There are consequences of not counting Middle Eastern and North African citizens. Knowing the races and ethnicities of community members helps governments enforce anti-discrimination laws and policies.
Today, Middle Eastern and Arab Americans are targets of discrimination, hate crimes and government surveillance. Without a mechanism to count this population accurately and without data on health, income and education, it will prove difficult to track the repercussions of racial discrimination and oppression in the U.S. For example, after 9/11, pregnant women with Arab names showed a significant spike in low birth weight babies likely caused by the discrimination and distress they faced. According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, more than 700 violent hate crimes were directed at people who were perceived to be Arab in the nine weeks after 9/11. PolicyLink, a national research institute dedicated to advancing equity, says, “Racial and ethnic health disparities and inequities can only be eliminated if high-quality information is available.” Unfortunately, this kind of information on Middle Easterners and Arabs is not entirely available to accurately address these kinds of issues.
The lack of recognition from the U.S. census and especially the university affects the way Arab Americans see themselves. It also has a lot of important implications. For example, because the university does not have a MENA category, it does not have data on MENA students in studies that the university conducts for admissions purposes. UC Berkeley only recently established the Middle Eastern Recruitment and Retention Center in 2007 “to abridge the social and academic needs that Arab students lacked on the UC Berkeley campus.” It is difficult, however, to efficiently address the needs of Arab students without aggregated data. In addition, California has the largest population of Arab inhabitants in the U.S., which makes the need for a MENA category in the UC system even more pressing.
One of California’s most prominent features is its diversity. Stemming from that diversity came innovative ideas that have contributed to the flourishment California has and continues to experience today. UC Berkeley prides itself on “working for equity and inclusion for all.” Therefore, shouldn’t all MENA students receive recognition? Like the U.S. census, UC Berkeley collects information on the races/ethnicities of campus students to assess and improve its policies and practices. Unfortunately, not every student is being counted to enjoy UC Berkeley’s efforts toward inclusion and equity.
I personally feel disempowered, as if my issues and those experienced by my family are insignificant. I do not feel as though I am represented on campus. Many students are unaware of or de-prioritize the issues Middle Easterners and Arabs face because there are not enough data to show the salience of these issues.
Middle Easterners, North Africans and Muslims need more representation. Fortunately, the recent midterm elections have resulted in the election of two Muslim women. Although it seems small, I find it incredibly significant and empowering. We now have two very important people who understand what my community faces and will represent our interests in decision making.
Middle Easterners and Arabs need to advocate for a category on the UC application, the U.S. census and every other statistical system because we are a diverse group. Not only racially and ethnically, but in our experiences.
Zena Amran studies political science at UC Berkeley.