Arab and Persian Groups Protest Being Categorized as ‘White’ Ahead of 2020 Census

“For them it doesn’t matter. Until you apply for college … then it’s like, there’s no money for Arabs?”

Some ethnic groups are opposing their classification as “white” ahead of the 2020 census because they say diversity quotas at universities and corporations will hinder their future opportunities.

Arab and Persian residents who spoke to the Los Angeles Times for an article published last week say they plan to participate in the census, but have concerns about being lumped in the same category as “white” Americans.

According to the Times, “advocates” say the “white” label could be damaging for universities and companies that use the demographic data to promote diversity.

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The categories listed by the census include black, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian. But about three million southwest Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern residents call the U.S. home, and many of them say none of the current options represent their backgrounds.

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“It erases the community,” said Samira Damavandi, whose family is of Iranian heritage.

Some Arab-Americans say they identify as people of color.

“It was such a weird thing to grow up and be told, ‘You should be proud to be Jordanian. You should be proud of where you come from,” Sarah Shabbar told the Times. “None of these forms are allowing me to feel proud of it, because I’m just white according to them.”

Shabbar said her parents never saw an issue with classifying themselves as white, but a lack of benefits typically reserved for people of color may have opened their eyes to the issue.

“For them it doesn’t matter. Until you apply for college … then it’s like, there’s no money for Arabs?” the 25-year-old joked.

David Shams, a 36-year-old Iranian-American, says his experience as an undergraduate at Murray State University in Kentucky convinced him of the need for change.

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Recalling a conversation with a school administrator about the lack of diversity scholarships for Middle Easterners, Shams said he was told they weren’t considered for the scholarships because they’re white and didn’t the need same assistance as underprivileged minorities.

“It makes me feel unheard,” he said. “Like I’m shouting into this void saying that we’re not white and no one is listening.”

Meanwhile, Marwan Sbaita, a Palestinian-American in his early 50’s, told LAist he checks the “white” box because that was what he was advised to do since he arrived in the U.S. 30 years ago. Sbaita said he sees a positive side to identifying as white.

“It gave me some sense of pride to belong and be part of mainstream America,” Sbaita said. “It catered to my desire to blend in, to fit into this society, to be the law abiding citizen, the taxpayer, the patriotic American.”

But Rania, his 19-year-old daughter, disagrees.

“I’ve never felt white. My name is in a different language. I speak a different language. The food I eat is different,” Rania said.

Rania said she feels alienated from white America.

“I can’t make myself blend in to something that has never really welcomed me, that has never made me feel like I’m a part of it,” she said.

“I call myself brown,” she continued. “Sometimes I call myself ‘café con leche.'”

Marwan said if there was a different box to check, he’d consider it because of the potential benefits of being considered a minority.

“Maybe I’ll do it for unselfish reasons, for the rest of the community to benefit, for your generation to gain the benefit,” he told Rania.

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