Posted on November 4, 2021

Are Arab Americans People of Color? Mayor Vote Raises Issue

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, November 1, 2021

Are Arab Americans people of color?

The question has been bubbling beneath the surface of Boston’s historic mayor’s race, where one of the two candidates, Annissa Essaibi George, has found herself challenged on the campaign trail about her decision to identify as one.

On Tuesday, Essaibi George faces off against fellow Boston City Councilor and Democrat Michelle Wu, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Whoever wins will be the first woman and first person of color elected to the city’s top political office.

Essaibi George, who describes herself as Polish-Arab American, acknowledges she hasn’t always identified as a person of color — in part because Arab Americans don’t fit neatly into the boxes Americans are typically asked to check off on official forms, including on the U.S. Census.

“We have found ourselves in this weird position where there isn’t a place for us to identify as Arab,” Essaibi George said in a recent interview on GBH News. “It’s unfortunate that Arabs don’t have that proverbial box to check and it is important for the Arab community to be counted, to be seen, to be heard and to be recognized.”

She has identified as a person of color during her years in elected office, Essaibi George said.

Essaibi George has frequently talked about the obstacles faced by her father, a Muslim immigrant from Tunisia, and the challenges he believed she would also face as his daughter. Her mother, a Catholic, immigrated from Poland.

In a city like Boston with its long history of electing white men, particularly of Irish and Italian descent, a girl with an Arab name could never be successful in politics, her father warned, with no chance of becoming mayor.


Although she identifies as a person of color, Essaibi George acknowledges her physical presence — including a heavy Boston accent — allows her a certain amount of privilege as “a woman who can maneuver in different rooms in different spaces.”

She has also said that while her father’s family came from North Africa, she doesn’t consider herself African American, a term meant to refer to Black people.

The question of whether Arab Americans should identify as people of color extends to the Arab American community itself.

Nuha E. Muntasser, who describes herself as an Muslim Arab American or Muslim Libyan American, said she cringes whenever she has to check the box for “white” instead of being given the option of identifying as North African or Middle Eastern.

“I do not identify as white and it’s frustrating when I have to identify as that,” she said.

The choice is all the more discouraging because many Arab Americans don’t share the same experience as white Americans, she said. That sense of otherness can be even more pronounced among Arab or Muslim American women who wear the hijab, she said.


[Editor’s note: Ms. Essaibi George lost the mayoral race.]