A couple weeks ago, my friend sent me a TikTok of someone ranting about whether they should be considered a person of color as a Middle Easterner. Her text read something along the lines of, “I feel like this is you in a nutshell.”
I laughed, knowing full well that I’ve shared the same gripes with her countless times. I also instinctively looked over at the U.S. census postcard collecting dust and cat hair on the floor of my foyer and cringed.
Completing the census is one of the easiest things the government asks us to do — or at least, it’s marketed that way. But I just can’t seem to muster up the energy to complete it, because the census has brought up a lot of emotions that I’ve been grappling with for as long as I can remember.
Which racial box should I check? Do I consider myself a person of color? Did that salesperson give us a dirty look because we were speaking in Farsi loudly in the Macy’s makeup department?
I’ve been asking myself some of these questions since I was about 6 or 7 years old, but I still don’t have the answers. By that age, I’d developed a thick unibrow, a peach fuzz mustache and coarse, unruly black hair that made me look like I had stuck my finger into an electrical socket. As one of the only Iranian Americans in my Catholic elementary school, I felt like a sea creature compared to my straight-haired, porcelain-skinned classmates.
Curious friends would pepper me with questions about my lunch, so I would beg my maman for Lunchables instead of the fragrant, saffron-infused rice and stew she packed with love every single day (she never caved, and I thank her for it). My classmates were often just excited that someone had brought something different to lunchtime, but as a third-grader, I desperately wanted to blend in and feel like I was one of the cool kids with a pre-packaged pizza kit and a Capri Sun.
The census has brought up a lot of emotions that I’ve been grappling with for as long as I can remember. Which racial box should I check? Do I consider myself a person of color?
My second-grade class’ First Communion still remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. My classmates got all dolled up for the big day in beautiful, white, frilly dresses and crisp button-ups and giggled nervously at the front of the church, while I sat in the back pews wearing an itchy navy blue dress.
My mom did her best to explain why I wasn’t up there with my friends, which was difficult for her since we weren’t particularly religious but come from a predominately Muslim culture. But despite her soothing words during Mass, I felt like a freak for being left out of something special that my classmates were so excited about. The entire experience made it clear that no matter how many friends I made or how welcomed I was at school, I would always look, feel and act differently than those around me.
Feeling like you’re the “other” and trapped between two worlds is something countless Iranian Americans and Middle Easterners have experienced. We’ve long been put into the “Caucasian” category without having the privileges that come with whiteness. The lack of differentiation between Arabs, Iranians and other groups from the Middle East, a region with tremendous cultural, social and religious diversity, has also propagated countless stereotypes and tropes that have had lethal consequences in the past.
As Middle Easterners, we keep getting put into a rigid box that doesn’t reflect our lived experiences or how others perceive us — and I can’t help but wonder if it’s time for a change with the latest census push.
After staring at the sad, dingy census 2020 postcard for a few minutes, I peeled myself up from the couch to do a quick search of why “Middle East and North Africa,” or MENA, wasn’t included as a category this year. Many have criticized the Trump administration from withholding it, which isn’t surprising considering the anti-Muslim travel ban.
The big question for me is why — why the hesitancy to add MENA as a category? I answered this question by revisiting some of the points made by Professor Neda Maghloubeh in ”The Limits of Whiteness.” She describes how harassment toward Iranian Americans isn’t always legally classified as a hate crime because it can technically be considered white-on-white violence.
Maghloubeh cites the case of an Iranian American man, Ahmmad Pourghoraishi, who was barred from entering a restroom at an Indianapolis gas station, subjected to racial slurs (the quintessential, “Go back to your country!” mantra) and unjustly arrested by an off-duty police officer. The courts found that the “prerequisites” for discrimination weren’t met, especially after the victim reaffirmed his whiteness during the trial.
I was dumbstruck after learning about this incident because it’s such a blatant attack on someone who “appears” to be a different race. I also can’t help but think, “What would happen to me if I was in a similar situation? Are we intentionally being left out so certain hate crimes go unnoticed?”
In an era when people who look even remotely Middle Eastern are demonized and attacked, the legal vagueness about hate crimes against people who look like me can lead to devastating consequences and put our safety at risk.
Beyond not looking white enough to avoid going through the airport security line multiple times, our own communities can be guilty of putting whiteness on a pedestal, which hurts our chances of ever being recognized as a category in the census. I’ve heard countless Iranians, especially those from older generations, boast about being “just like Europeans” because we’re technically Caucasian — but no matter how many times we repeat that sentiment, we’ll never be able to catfish our way into the privileged echelons of white America.
Being counted is more than just getting my own 'box' — it’s about recognition. It’s about being heard. It’s about being valued.
The victim of the Indianapolis incident, for example, never admitted that he looked different from other white Americans, which was a huge blow to his case. I won’t go as far as saying that he suffered from internalized racism, but this scenario showed that he would rather hold on to a vague, arbitrary racial distinction than bring his attackers to justice.
I don’t blame others who cling to whiteness or being Caucasian because it helps them feel less like the “other” in a new country. But for children of immigrants like myself, putting a checkmark next to the white box always felt wrong to me — like I was pretending to be something the world doesn’t see me as. Without representation in the census, I’ll always be put into a category that has never represented who I am or how others perceive me.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable about sharing my identity, my language, my food and my culture with others, but it took years to get there. A lot of the fear and insecurities I experienced when I was younger came from not seeing people like me represented in my day-to-day life and being told that I was just the same as everyone else. Being counted is more than just getting my own “box” — it’s about recognition. It’s about being heard. It’s about being valued.
Eventually, I got around to picking up the census postcard and even went as far as sticking it on to my refrigerator. I’ll fill it out soon, too, because there’s obviously value in completing it. But before I do, I’m going to think long and hard about how I’m going to answer the race question.
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