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My Name Is Ahmed. Am I White?
O, my greatest enemy and benefactor in the whole world is this dumb-hearted mother, this America, in whose iron loins I have been spiritually conceived… But alas, our spiritual Mother devours, like a cat, her own children.
—Ameen Rihani, 1911
For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be white. I wanted to be white because Luke Skywalker was white, because the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was white, because the president of the United States was white.
But I was not white. My skin was brown, my hair was dark, and my name was Ahmed. I was the American child of Muslim Arab immigrants, coming of age in deep South Texas at the dawn of a new millennium, in a border town where last year children hoping to cross into the “land of the free” were separated from their parents and detained in cages.
A television bereft of heroes who looked like me or shared my name taught me the score: Your men are villains; your women, victims.
I regarded my Arab heritage much like a scar on the body — a regrettable and undeniable part of who I was, but one I could hide with the right layers. When I was 13, my family moved north to a mostly white evangelical suburb of San Antonio. I assumed a white name (Matt) and wore white clothes (ripped cargo shorts and T-shirts from Abercrombie & Fitch). I stopped fasting for Ramadan and looked down on the few Arabs and Muslims at my school who banded together and sat with one another at lunch. I took it as a compliment when I was told I didn’t “look like an Ahmed” on the occasions my heritage came up in conversation. I relished in the privilege that came with passing.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, and a temporary one. On the day the towers fell, during my eighth-grade year, my mother sat me down and told me that from now on, everything would be different.
She was right.
“Matt” no longer carried currency among my classmates, but other names — like “towelhead,” “terrorist,” and “sand nigger” — did. Parents forbade their children from hanging out with me. I was told to go back to where I came from and held responsible for violent acts I did not commit. This bigotry, coming as it did at that awkward time of life when fitting in is the paramount priority, only redoubled my efforts to fight for a seat at the cool kids’ lunch table of white America. Whether or not I would be given one often depended on my willingness to disavow my origins and countenance the racism of my peers — not just toward Arabs but also Latinos, African Americans, and Jews.
My experiences of prejudice in post-9/11 America as an Arab American were neither unique nor exceptional, but they nevertheless solidified the notion I had internalized since early childhood that I was, at best, other than — and, at worst, less than — my white peers.
And so it was with not a small amount of resentment and surprise that I learned, as I filled out the basic information sections of standardized tests and, later, college applications, that according to the U.S. government, I was white all along.
The American myth of whiteness has always needed a foil if it is to hold sway as fact instead of seen as the fiction that it is. If nonwhite others do not exist, whiteness does not exist.
The immigration of various ethnic groups over the 19th and early 20th centuries confounded a distinction that was easier to enforce and uphold when whiteness simply meant that one was not black.
The U.S. Naturalization Act, in place from 1790 until 1952, held that only aliens who were “free White persons” of “good character” could become American citizens. Because the federal government did not take a definitive stance on which racial groups were included in the definition of white, the decision of who was and was not white (and thereby eligible for citizenship) was left to immigrations officers and district judges.
The extension of whiteness to immigrants often depended less on their hue and more on whether their religion and culture was deemed sufficiently capable of assimilation within white America. At times, judges appealed to “scientific” understandings in their rulings — eugenics-based research that categorized races according to arbitrary measures that invariably found the Caucasian race superior to others.
Arabs presented a vexing case when it came to whiteness. During the first wave of Arab immigration (1880–1921), Islam was already seen as a religion inherently at odds with the American project. But the vast majority of early Arab immigrants (some 90 to 95 percent) were Christian. They were accorded the status of marginal whiteness in their daily lives, not unlike Italians, Greeks, and Jews. They experienced discrimination but were provided opportunities for upward economic and social mobility.
Nonetheless, judges ruling on citizenship eligibility conflated Arab and Muslim identity. The first Arab Americans to petition for the right to citizenship had to prove that their cultural and religious background was sufficiently distinct from that of Arab Muslims. After a string of naturalization cases involving Arab Christians, Dow v. United States (1915) set the narrow legal precedent that Arabs were white, so long as they were also Christian.
A de facto “Muslim ban” remained in place until 1944, when Mohamed Mohriez became the first Arab Muslim to successfully petition for citizenship. Arab Americans — Christians and Muslims both — were now legally white by law. They would soon become racialized as nonwhite others by society.
I am American by birth, Arab by heritage, Muslim by religion, and Other by experience. But I am white by law.
I am white by law because the federal government defines the racial category of white as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.”
I am white by law because Arab Muslims were finally granted “honorary whiteness” in 1944 as a result of the United States becoming interested in Saudi Arabian oil.
I am white by law even though Arab Americans have been racialized as inherently violent nonwhite others since the United States became involved in Middle East conflicts in the 1960s.
I am white by law despite a legacy of American pop-culture stereotypes that depict Arabs as “bombers, billionaires, and belly dancers.”
I am white by law even though Arabs span a range of skin colors, from blond-haired, blue-eyed Syrians to black-skinned Egyptians.
I am white by law even though an Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim perpetrator of violence is never called white.
I am white by law even though Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims are collectively held responsible for the actions of a violent few.
I am white by law even though a white voter tried to discredit the legitimacy of a black man running for president by calling him an “Arab.”
I am white by law even though a future president tried to discredit the legitimacy of a black man running for president by claiming he was a “secret Muslim.”
I am white by law even though I am a person of color.
This disconnect carries costs.
“I would always put ‘other,’” says Tarek Abdel-Nabi, a 26-year-old Egyptian American and former classmate of mine, of the diversity questions on the standardized tests he filled out in high school, “until eventually I just wanted to subvert it. So, for a while I would just check ‘African American.’ I mean, Egypt is in Africa, right?”
Abdel-Nabi is one of many Arab and Middle Eastern Americans who, when faced with options to identify race on college and job applications and the U.S. Census, don’t feel that their identity is adequately represented.
When applying for colleges and scholarships, he learned that he was expected to mark “white,” in accordance with the federal classification that defines the racial category of white as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.”
“Seeing that I wasn’t accurately represented was a little heartbreaking, honestly,” Abdel-Nabi says. “Even though you’ve been treated as a minority your whole life, you’re not going to be getting any sort of financial aid that’s going to help you progress and rise out of the systematic ways in which you may have been oppressed. It hurts a lot. And also realizing that you’re not going to have an advantage over any of your peers, even though you’ve been treated as a minority, because you have to check ‘white.’ It really makes you feel shafted. Like you’ve just gotten a bad deal.”
In college, Abdel-Nabi was frequently subject to acts of open racism on campus. Once, a student spray-painted a swastika on his dorm room door. Abdel-Nabi opened a case with the college board, who told him they couldn’t do anything because, technically, he was white.
“That was the worst thing,” Abdel-Nabi recalls, his voice cracking with emotion. “These administrators were expressing sympathy for me, but it was just empty, because they didn’t want to do anything about it just because of how the red tape was lined up.”
Officially categorizing Arab Americans as “white” creates a domino effect of challenges. They are white without white privilege and people of color without protections.
“Arab Americans don’t have access to any of the rights of what we consider subordinated minority groups in this country,” Louise Cainkar, a scholar of Muslim and Arab American studies at Marquette University, tells me. “Like any affirmative action or student loans. It also becomes a problem in all kinds of reporting, like hate crime reporting, like monitoring the status of children in school. Basically anywhere that any data are collected to monitor the experiences of people of color, Arabs are not included, because they’re officially white. And that’s a big problem.”
The absence of an Arab American category on the U.S. Census has led to a significant undercount of the community. The U.S. Census estimates there are 2.3 million Arab Americans in this country. The Arab American Institute believes that number is closer to 3.7 million.
This has broad implications for Arab American participation in policy decision-making. Census results are used for legislative redistricting—which is based, in part, on racial and ethnic statistics—to provide funding and resources to underserved communities and to enforce civil rights legislation.
Even in the ivory tower or in woke San Francisco, I’d still get those “No, where are you really from?” questions.
Thirty years ago, Arab American groups began lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau for the inclusion of a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) category on the census. In 2017, the bureau recommended adding a MENA category to the 2020 census after finding in research that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”
In January of 2018, however, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would not be adding a MENA category after all.
Cainkar, who was part of the group of academics, community members, and experts who advised the U.S. Census Bureau on whether to include a MENA category, believes a lack of funding from the Trump administration was to blame for the decision.
“It was the Trump administration that crushed it,” Cainker tells me. “[The Census Bureau was] totally ready to do this but didn’t get the funding to continue with the final round of testing.”
Rashad al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civil Council, concurs with that assessment, telling Arab Weekly that the “administration does not want us to have an accurate count and have the same benefits other communities get.”
While many in the Arab American community were crushed by the decision, others were relieved. In the post-9/11 era, Arab Americans have been subject to surveillance based on census data. In the current political climate, with Trump’s talk of a Muslim registry, his Muslim ban, and his general posture of animus toward Arab Americans and Muslims, many Arab Americans felt uncomfortable at the prospect of being singled out for their identities. It was census data, after all, that the U.S. government used to round up Japanese Americans and place them in internment camps during World War II.
“I think those concerns hold weight,” Abdel-Nabi tells me. “But the thing that is important to consider is that kind of targeting is happening on a smaller scale on an everyday basis just because there are no protections or identity already in place. I think with having minority protections, you would have more recompense and an ability to move forward.”
I cannot know what role my decision to put “African American” on my college applications ultimately played in my admission to a highly selective liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. I know that my high school grades were poor, my SAT scores below average. I know that the college had struggled with recruiting applicants of color. I know that I found the idea of marking “white” impossibly unfair.
But whether or not it played a role didn’t matter to me. Admission offered a ticket out of conservative Christian Texas and a path toward a privileged life. Once on that path, I pushed questions of identity out of my mind. Race and ethnicity became theoretical concepts to muse about in sociology class. My post-college trajectory, first to the halls of Harvard and later to the amenity-soaked offices of San Francisco startups burning through the bullion of billionaires, let me avoid thinking about the struggles of Arab Americans in this country. Struggles that I once knew but were now of no consequence. Struggles that did not cease when mine did, but in many respects only grew worse.
And yet. Even in the ivory tower or in woke San Francisco, I’d still get those “No, where are you really from?” questions; those “Huh, you don’t look like an Ahmed” responses; those struggles to pronounce one of the most common names in the world; those subtle changes in how I was regarded once I said my name. Et in Arcadia ego. But any surge of anger that rose within me could not pierce the layers that had accreted for years; layers that, save for a momentary tremor, showed no signs of distress; layers that were trained to meet any and all microaggressions with a smile and a laugh.
These days, I find myself thinking often of that boy named Ahmed who wanted to be Matt, that Arab American Muslim who was ashamed of who he was. I wonder about the consequences of that shame for who he would become. I find myself wishing I could go back to tell him that if he did not feel he was white, that was not something to be ashamed of. It was something to embrace, own, and advocate for.
He did not know then that the pursuit of a more perfect union is the dispensation to all Americans of rights historically accorded to white men. He did not know that this dispensation has occurred unevenly and in fleeting starts. He did not know that sometimes it has been given, only to be taken away. He did not know that, more often than not, it has had to be fought for.
But I do.
I have long abdicated my duty to be a foot soldier in this struggle. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then may this be the first strike in my effort to make amends.