Posted on February 25, 2022

The U.S. Census Sees Middle Eastern and North African People as White. Many Don’t

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR, February 17, 2022

There’s a reality about race in the U.S. that has confounded many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

The federal government officially categorizes people with origins in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the MENA region as white.

But that racial identity has not matched the discrimination in housing, at work and through other parts of daily life that many say they have faced.

Younger people of MENA descent have “had a plethora of different experiences that made them feel that some of their experiences were actually closer to communities of color in the U.S.,” says Neda Maghbouleh, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, who has conducted research on the topic.

The paradox has been hard to show through data.

But a newly released study co-authored by Maghbouleh offers suggestive evidence that a majority of people with MENA origins do not see themselves as white. Meanwhile, a substantial percentage of white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino do not perceive MENA people as white either, the study also suggests.


Presented with a “Middle Eastern or North African” category, 88% of people of MENA descent in the study (who could select one or more categories) chose that option when identifying their race, ethnicity or origin. The results also show that adding “Middle Eastern or North African” to a list of response options dramatically lowered the share of people with MENA origins self-identifying with only the “White” category.

Another part of the study asked participants to classify made-up profiles of individuals that included names, ancestors’ countries of origins and other details.

Characteristics related to the Middle East or North Africa, the findings suggest, would not be categorized as white by many people of MENA descent or by white people who do not identify as MENA or Latino.


Maghbouleh conducted extensive interviews with younger people of MENA descent for the 2017 book The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race. The new study tries to ascertain concrete numbers for some of the insights Maghbouleh gained through that book’s qualitative research.


The complicated relationship many people with MENA origins have with whiteness is entangled with a naturalization system in the U.S. that, until 1952, imposed racial restrictions on which immigrants could become citizens.

First arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s, the earliest generations of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa saw whiteness as the path towards claiming full rights in their new country.

There were several court cases where Syrian immigrants emphasized their Christianity because it was considered a European religion and, therefore, a marker of whiteness, says Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University Law School and author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.

“They argued they were white in court because the only immigrants that could naturalize to become U.S. citizens had to be found white by law,” she says.


To fully understand the experiences of people of MENA descent in the U.S., Aziz and other researchers say an additional checkbox for “Middle Eastern or North African” is needed on forms for the once-a-decade head count.

To prepare for the 2020 count, Census Bureau researchers concluded that including a “Middle Eastern or North African” category on questionnaires would be “optimal” in part because it “helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”

But during former President Donald Trump’s administration, an effort that began during the Obama years to introduce a MENA checkbox as part of a revamped census question about race and ethnicity stalled. {snip}


Last year, however, the Biden administration confirmed to NPR that it has revived the review of the proposal that would allow the bureau to overhaul how the census asks about race and ethnicity. {snip}