A Compulsory Identity: What are Middle-Easterners?

“I didn’t choose Colgate University because it’s white-dominated,” I told a friend. I said this because I, an Egyptian, an Arab, a Middle-Easterner, would not have been comfortable in a space with lack of representation and an implied obligation to answer an endless stream of questions about my region. She laughed awkwardly, asked if I was afraid of white people and said that I look white. I was instantly confused and wondered why she said what she did. She knows where I’m from. Yes, I am white-passing, which is a privilege I must recognize, and so are many other Middle-Easterners, who should recognize that too. I cannot claim to know what it is like to be immediately cast as the “other.” However, when I say my name to the mirror, I am instantly reminded that I am not white. When I get dirty looks for speaking my mother tongue, Arabic, in the streets, I am reminded that I am not white.

Interestingly, I discovered that what she said was true according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It defines a white person as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” I was perplexed when I learned this because I have never thought of myself as a white person — and neither would any other Egyptian. People in my country are of various shades, and my family has members of different skin tones — I would never call my family “white,” especially because I don’t have any ancestry in Europe. I read more and came to learn that in the early 20th century, Middle-Easterners fought in court to be labeled as white instead of Asian in order to escape discriminatory immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Some other minorities tried to do the same. To be white was to be better and labeled as healthier.

Now, let me be explicit: that was over 100 years ago! Times change, and similar to how the American government set up a new category in 1997 to recognize Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, I would like to suggest that it would be beneficial to revisit the definition of white and the U.S. stance on Middle-Easterners. Thankfully, other ethnic minorities have witnessed improvements in their treatment by the government as well as by the white American population — that does not mean that these minorities do not suffer from discrimination or racist comments. However, Middle-Easterners are a hidden minority in the U.S. (and on this campus) because, classified as white, on paper, we appear no different than the blue-eyed, blonde-haired individuals of Scandinavian descent. “As a consequence, [we] are ineligible for affirmative action policies and other remedial benefit systems,” says Mr. Tehranian from the University of Utah. He importantly adds, “On the street, individuals of Middle-Eastern descent suffer from the types of discrimination and racial animus endured by recognized minority groups. And, unlike most minority groups, we have endured increasing levels of vilification and demonization in recent years, especially in the wake of the war on terrorism and the 9/11 attacks.

This form of discrimination manifests itself in different ways. I was once asked by a white American acquaintance where I was from. “Cairo, Egypt,” I responded with a smile. He started applauding me, and I was astonished — why was he clapping for me? “Well, there aren’t a lot of Egyptians around here.” Excuse me. Let me break this down: in his eyes, I was one of the “good ones.” Why aren’t there a lot of Egyptians here? Why aren’t there a lo t of Middle-Easterners here? Are we not smart enough? Are most of us jihadists and don’t have time to volunteer in New York? Or is it just that you’re afraid of our mother tongue? Or is it that opportunities are not given to us because we might be sly and are inherently dangerous? I don’t think I’m reading too much into this — my reading feels moderate at most. Most recently, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a white man killed his neighbor, a Lebanese, because he was a “dirty-Arab.” When I was volunteering at Bellevue Hospital Center over the summer, a Polish patient shooed me off when he learned I was Egyptian. “No, no, Arab, Sand N—. Leave me,” he mumbled as he made a hand gesture.

It is not just discrimination on the streets or in the workplace. The media is horrible to us. Many minority ethnic groups and races have seen greater representation in media — and hopefully will continue to see this trend — and yet, I recently heard about and watched the trailer of “The Gods of Egypt” (2016) featuring nearly an all-white cast. When Hollywood chooses to cast a Middle-Easterner or Arab, it usually chooses to present men as sexually frustrated jihadists and women as oppressed and veiled. If Americans think that my region only has people like that, then I pity you. Even worse, “American Sniper” (2014) offered me a premiere screening of my fellow Arabs being shot and killed. (I really can’t think of an Egyptian movie portraying the slaughter of Americans, Europeans or anyone during a war. I may be completely wrong.) The movie amused many of my American friends and was hailed by one of them as a patriotic movie. I guess there is no other way to resolve conflict except by invading countries and often killing civilians. Look at Iraq now. The U.S. solved everything.

People do not care about the Middle-East. They only care about its politics and “exotic” cuisine. They only care about lumping in millions of people in this country with a group that swallows them up whole. The ignorance in this country is sometimes unfathomable. Barack Obama just hailed Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister and president, and compared him to Nelson Mandela. People did not say much — in fact, some people didn’t even know it happened. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and so I will speak only of facts: Peres oversaw the 1996 Qana Massacre, called Palestinians “self-victimizing” and displaced them, and established the first illegal Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank. I will add that, as a defense minister in the 1970s, Peres urged “settlement everywhere,” which became his slogan. To top that off, secret South African documents reveal that Israel under his guidance offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime. I’m sure people still respect him for certain reasons. But let me put this bluntly: You have a libertarian presidential candidate who does not know what or where Aleppo is. He jokingly said that he was having an “Aleppo moment” when he couldn’t name his most influential foreign leader. These people represent the U.S. to the outside world. This is what I hear from the U.S. government and some U.S. citizens: Middle-Eastern lives don’t matter unless they’re going to benefit you.

I have thought long and hard about why I chose to write this article. I do not mean to shame anyone. I do not mean to hijack current social justice movements about black lives or gender equality. I am writing it because I do not want to identify with my colonizer. I do not want to identify with people who screwed my region and then blame me for it. I do not want to identify with cultures I am unfamiliar and unattached to. More importantly, I chose to write this to give us visibility, to expunge pervasive narratives, and to declare that I refuse to have my culture whitewashed. Also, I hope this provides incentive for our admission office, or any office for that matter, to stop making me select “Other” every single time I have to fill out certain documents.