Posted on February 27, 2019

‘Are We White?’: SoCal’s Arab-Americans Debate Which Box to Check on the Census

Leslie Berestein,, February 25, 2019

Until about a year ago, plans were moving forward to include a category in the 2020 census referred to as MENA, for “Middle Eastern or North African.”

It would have allowed a more accurate count of Americans of Arabic, Persian and other Middle Eastern or North African descent. In previous censuses, many identified as “white.”

But last year the Trump administration nixed that idea, announcing that the MENA category will not be included.

Now, with a year to go before the decennial count, community advocates are gearing up to do outreach in the hope that people self-identify as Middle Eastern and North African on census forms so there’s a more accurate count of a population that, in terms of data at least, is pretty much invisible.


Census data determines everything from political representation in Congress to translators at polling stations. It’s used to determine federal dollars for public schools, housing and health care. It guides health research and business investment decisions, among other things.

“When it comes to specific communities, like Arab-Americans, it is vital that we understand where our community are, and what our numbers are, too, to safely secure the resources the community needs,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C. and a longtime MENA advocate.


Plans to add a Middle Eastern-North African census category have been in the works for years. Berry’s organization was among those that lobbied for it starting in the 1980s, and it worked with the Census Bureau over the years to develop the concept.

During the Obama administration, the bureau agreed to float the MENA question in a sample test. In a Feb. 2017 report, Census Bureau researchers concluded that “the results of this research indicate that it is optimal to use a dedicated ‘Middle Eastern or North African response category.'”

According to the report, when no MENA category was available, people of Middle Eastern and North African descent predominantly identified themselves as white. But when given the choice, they identified as MENA. And this “significantly decreased the overall percentage of respondents reporting as White,” according to the report.

But when the bureau announced in a January 2018 memo that the MENA category would not be used, it did not give a reason. {snip}


The Sbaitas identify as Americans of Palestinian and Lebanese descent. That’s one thing they agree on. But how they identify racially is a different story.

In the 2010 census, Marwan, who is in his early 50s, said he checked the “white” box. He said it’s what he’s always been advised to do, for school and work, since he arrived in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Besides, he said, he kind of likes it.

“It gave me some sense of pride to belong and be part of mainstream America,” Marwan said. “It catered to my desire to blend in, to fit into this society, to be the law abiding citizen, the taxpayer, the patriotic American.”

Aurora generally agreed with this perspective. But not Rania. At 19, she considers herself a “post-9/11 baby.”

“I’ve never felt white … My name is in a different language. I speak a different language. The food I eat is different,” Rania said.



It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1900s, Arab immigrants from the region that now encompasses modern-day Syria and Lebanon struggled for inclusion into the white mainstream, said Sarah Gualtieri, a USC historian who has written about Arab-American identity.

“Whiteness in particular was a category that allowed access to all sorts of privileges,” she said. Arab-Americans “wanted to travel more easily. They wanted to buy land. They wanted to vote.”

Some Arab-Americans were denied U.S. citizenship after immigration officials classified them as Asian. At the time, Asian immigrants were not allowed to naturalize as citizens. These cases made it to the courts, Gualtieri said, and eventually officialdom stopped questioning Arab-Americans’ “whiteness.”

The shift in racial identity started in the late 1960s, Gualtieri said. But it’s become more pronounced among the younger generation in the last 20 years — in the era of no-fly lists, travel bans and other strict policies aimed at Middle Eastern immigrants.


Aurora Sbaita said decades ago, the worst she might hear from people who encountered her was that she had “a cute accent.” Now, things are different. And that makes her perfectly happy just to check the “white” box and move on.

“It’s better to be blending in with the rest of the population rather than being cornered, if you want, or subjected to specific climates that [are] going on,” she said.