This is the week that Americans are supposed to have turned in their Census questionnaire. The form takes just a few minutes to fill out, but for many Arab-Americans, one Census question has given them pause: “What is (your) race?”
“White” is the answer’s first option, and in years past, that might have been the choice to check. But this year is different for Arab-Americans. This year, there’s an orchestrated campaign to check the box that says “Some other race,” and to then print “Arab” in the accompanying space. As Arab-American actor and comedian Ahmed Ahmed says in a video meant to spread the word, “Check it right, because we ain’t ‘white.’ ”
“White” is how the U.S. government labels Arab-Americans. Washington has used the label for almost 100 years. Here’s the exact wording from the Federal Register: “White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
This “white” designation has a curious history. Before 1914, Arab Americans weren’t considered white at all. But that year, a Syrian immigrant, George Dow, was denied U.S. citizenship because of a 1790 U.S. statute that defined citizens – and those who could be naturalized citizens – as “free white persons.” Dow was deemed a “Syrian of Asiatic birth,” but he sued the federal government, arguing, in essence, that he had white roots. Other Syrian immigrants joined Dow’s legal cause. As Kansas State professor Michael W. Suleiman notes in his book, “Arabs in America,” “The George Dow appeal was granted solely on the basis of the argument that Syrians were of mixed Syrian, Arabian, and even Jewish blood, belonging to the Semitic branch of the Caucasian race and were to be considered white persons.”
The designation of who is “white” has always been in flux. Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review looked at a new work by historian Nell Irvin Painter, “The History of White People,” which should be required reading in high schools and colleges. For centuries, people around the world have used whiteness as a way to distinguish those they deem better or worse. In the United States, white was an ideal appellation for Dow’s generation, but a new generation of Arab-Americans doesn’t want to be tagged that way. While Arab-Americans aren’t united on this issue, a number of high-profile figures are waging public campaigns. Writer Ray Hanania has taken a defiant tone, writing, “Here’s the bottom line, U.S. government. You don’t put “Arab” on the form, I don’t fill it out.”
But even Arab-Americans who fill in “Arab” won’t be completely satisfied: The Census Bureau says it will still tabulate those who write “Arab” as “white.” For this bureau of official Washington, whites and Arabs are one and the same, whether people like it or not.