Arab-Americans need a box on the US Census Form!
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America's Funniest
(& Smartest) Arab

We’re Not White…
by Amer Zahr
June 28th, 2013 (2 Comments)
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The 2010 United States Census Form sent me on a very interesting journey.

After I told the government my name, birthday, and gender, I encountered question 8: “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”

“Person 1” was me.

Before anything else, the government needed to know if I was Latino. And if I was, I would have gotten to narrow it to Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, or Cuban. And if I were none of those, I would have written in my origin. They even gave me suggestions, like Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, or Spaniard. But none of those were me.  I failed Question 8, and I moved on.

This took me to Question 9: “What is Person 1’s race?”

Here there were all kinds of boxes!

There was one labeled “American Indian or Alaska Native.” They didn’t use “Native American” because it would have confused some people.  Sarah Palin might think she’s a “Native American.” This box was clearly not for me.

Then I saw boxes for Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.  After quickly dreaming about the coolest food court in the world, I realized none of these boxes were for me.

I started to get frustrated. Then I came across “Asian Indian.”  My first thought was “India’s in Asia, right?”  Arabs and Indians might share the world record for bargaining, but this still wasn’t my box.

Then there was a box labeled “Other Asian,” where they even suggested you could write in “Pakistani.”  Now, “Pakistani” kinda sounds like “Palestinian,” but I didn’t take the bait and moved on.

Then I saw the box labeled “Black, African American, or Negro.” Well, some Arabs are Blacks, some are African-American, and I didn’t even know they were still saying “Negro.”  I almost checked it.  Arabs are just like black people. We both get profiled, we both get blamed for stuff we don’t do, and we both love watermelon.  We both have huge extended families that we see often.  In fact, you know you’re one of us if your family is so big that you’re older than one of your uncles.  If you’ve ever taken your uncle to Chuck E Cheese, you might be one of us.

Most importantly, we both scare white people. But while white people are scared of black people because they think they might steal their purse, they’re scared of us because they think we might steal their freedom.  And that’s different, I didn’t check this box either.

That left me just 2 choices: “White” and “other.”  And the “other” box doesn’t even make you feel good. It’s labeled “Some other race.”  It’s like they’re saying, “If you haven’t found a box yet, we don’t really care.”

Well, I checked “Some other race,” wrote in my country of origin (Palestine), and sent off my form.

After receiving no response, I eventually contacted the Census Bureau.  As it turns out, it is not the policy of the Census Bureau to actually respond to every American.  I told them that I checked the “Some other race” box and would like to know how many people there were like me.

I learned two things from that phone call.  First, my country of origin is not actually a country.  And second, I actually already had a box on the form.  According to the United States government, “Arabs” are “white.”  What a wonderful little surprise.  That’s right, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, & Texas… WE ARE WHITE!  We are you!  We belong to the same group of people that include Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates, and 43 ½ presidents.  We are Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton (except for the Lewinsky thing), and George W Bush (except for everything).  We are apple pie, hamburgers, pot roast, meatloaf, and hot dogs.

But how could this happen?

See, when my white founding fathers created this wonderful nation, they had a new legal system, a new constitution, and no mechanisms to determine who it would and would not apply to.  In other words, they had to decide who would get to be that thing that generations from around the world since have been aspiring to become: an American citizen.

They started with something called the Naturalization Act of 1790.  It stated that “free white persons” could become citizens.  No blacks, no natives.  Things stayed this way until after the Civil War when citizenship could also be granted to persons of “African nativity or descent.”  Citizenship at that time also became the automatic right of anyone born on American soil.  That’s why it’s really difficult for pregnant foreign women to enter America.  Seriously, that’s why.

In the mid-1800s, waves of immigration started flowing in from Eastern Asia, namely China.  As a result of this unwelcome development, the American government passed laws severely limiting immigration from these areas, even giving some of them really descriptive and fun names like the “Chinese Exclusion Act.”  But it was too late.  Huge numbers of Chinese people were already here, and I am thankful for that every time I have some sweet & sour chicken.

By the beginning of the 20th century, we lived in a world where the only persons who could become naturalized were “white persons” and “persons of African nativity or descent.”  As travel to America became easier, ports of entry got busier. Immigrants started arriving in large numbers from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, & Italy (remember “Godfather II”?).  They also came from the Middle East, mostly greater Syria, which included present-day Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.  Many of these Arab immigrants were granted entry into the United States (and therefore naturalization), but many were not.

See, the way it worked was that an individual would arrive on American soil, an immigration officer would examine him, and if it seemed that he was a “white person” or of “African nativity or descent,” he would be admitted for citizenship.  The “African nativity or descent” thing wasn’t causing much of an issue.  Africans were not coming to America in any sorts of large numbers.  Maybe they were watching the news.

If an immigration officer denied one’s entry for a lack of “whiteness,” he could either agree to be deported or ask to be heard in court.  Well, Arabs always want to “talk to the manager,” so many of them ended up in front of a judge.  And in order for them to stay in the United States, they had to prove that they were, in fact, “white.”  And some judges were fooled… I mean, convinced.

To keep a very long story short, after many cases, Arabs were finally found to be legally “white.”  There were massive celebrations in the Arab-American community and throughout the Arab world as infiltration, I mean immigration, into the United States now would become our God-given “white” right.

Ah, but if only we really were white.  We’re not, but I wish we were.  It would make my life a lot easier.  Flying might actually be enjoyable, eating might actually be sensible, and dating might actually be possible.

We’re not white.  We deserve our own box.  But right now, without a box, we are the in the worst position imaginable.  We are Arabs on the street, and white on the books.  We are socially noticed, but legally unseen.  We’re invisible, and not in the good way.

As a result, we’re not counted.  And that’s the most important thing.

Rep. Peter King has a made a habit of holding Islamophobic and anti-Arab hearings in Congress.  He represents the 2nd congressional district of New York, which is located in the heart of Long Island.  He has said that Muslim-Americans don’t cooperate with law enforcement, he has decried the amount of mosques in America, and he has even said, “We’ve got to profile these fellas.”  Well, if we had a box, maybe someone could tell Rep. King that tens of thousands of these “fellas” are his constituents.

We need a box, so we can all really know how many Arab-Americans there are, and where we all live.  I’m sure Peter King feels the same way.

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (2)
  1. gotta love the census… it is so cuddly!!!

  2. Solovey Razboynik ... July 5th, 2013 - 01:10

    The “racial boxes” are highly inaccurate. What is “Hispanic?” People who live in Hispanic countries are of many different origins, for instance, in Argentina and Uruguay, there are many Italians, Ukrainians, Germans, Russians, etc. They are definitely not “Hispanic,” which implies that the individual has genes from the Iberian peninsula, specifically from the area known as Spain today. I don’t know where that puts the Catalanes. In Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, there are many persons of African origin. And what about the Jewish people? And what exactly does “white” mean? If one is going to divide the Hispanics into Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, etc., then what about the Europeans, who can be Slavic, Mongol, Finno-Ugric, Tatar, etc.? I would think that Arabs should be categorized as Semites. So would that make all Jews, even converts, Semites? I would think that racial classification should be abolished. It is one huge mess.


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