I glare at myself in the mirror. Maybe if I stare at my reflection long enough, critically enough, I’ll finally see myself the way the U.S. government sees me: white. After all, when has the U.S. government ever been wrong?
I’m Arab-American. My family is from Syria, but I was born in the United States. The Census Bureau categorizes Arabs as white. By refusing to acknowledge us as a distinct ethnic minority and failing to provide us with a separate MENA (Middle Eastern or North African) box on Census forms, it renders us invisible and discards the history of our pain.
Decades ago, the U.S. government did not consider Arabs white. In court, we won the right to be white—a victory at the time because it allowed us to become citizens of the United States. But Arab- Americans continued to be treated as foreign Others, subject to belligerent racism and nativist discrimination from white America. In the early 1900s, Senator F.M. Simmons delicately pronounced Syrian-Americans the “degenerate progeny of the Asiatic horde…a spawn of the Phoenician curse.” In 1923, the KKK dynamited the house of a Syrian family in Georgia.
I don’t feel white. Is whiteness even a feeling? Is it a warm sensation that courses through your entire body, dowsing you in the comfort and knowledge that you will always be included? Is whiteness the confidence that filling out an application won’t trigger an identity crisis? The security in embodying the racial and sociopolitical default? I wouldn’t know. I don’t feel white.
I don’t feel white when I’m going through airport security with my hijab-wearing mom. Eyes probe and bodies tense around us. The man at the desk scowls, fixing us with a harsh, incredulous stare—as if he can’t believe we exist in the same dimension as him. As if our Arab roots should have prohibited us from breathing his good American air. “What were you doing in…Syria?” He says “Syria” cautiously, as if by even uttering those two small syllables, he risks breaching the Western moral code that constructs a divide between us and them.
I don’t feel white as I watch the Syrian refugee diaspora unfold, leaving millions of Syrians stranded at the mercy of immigration officials. I don’t feel white when I’m compelled to correct the painfully false stereotypes casually circulated as evidence of a regressive Arab belief system. I don’t feel white when Arabic words—“mysterious” words from the same language that #edgy hipsters tattoo on their bodies—murmured by Arab tongues elicit pangs of xenophobic fear in the hearts of racists.
I don’t feel white when a boy informs me that he thinks Arab girls are “hot,” as if I’m somehow supposed to be flattered by his proud fetishization of Arab female bodies. I don’t feel white when I see American companies capitalize off “trendy” Arab foods like falafel and hummus, especially when the Arabs responsible for these culinary innovations are demonized on the nightly news as terrorists devoid of morality or as oppressed women in need of Western liberation, white feminism style.
No, when I tell someone I’m Arab-American, I feel guilty. As if by confessing who I am, I expose myself, masochistically revealing my foreignness (which I could have kept hidden, because I am “luckily” fair-skinned and white-passing). I know exactly which generalized blur of stereotypes is racing through their minds at 180mph once I admit my origins. I’m vulnerable for simply existing.
I’m slowly growing out of this social conditioning—a tiny daisy defiantly sprouting in the stifling dirt—I’m learning to be empowered by instead of ashamed of my origins—but that box demanding my race still taunts me. It chokes me into submission. The bureaucratic hand around my neck only tightens as I protest. Even if I attempt to defy this tyrannical box and write in Middle-Eastern, I will still register as white. The system will bend you to its pseudoscientific tagging procedure, even if you resist, kicking and screaming.
It’s not enough for Arab-Americans to be classified as Other in the public arena—no, the government must assert its hegemonic supremacy over my very existence, outlining exactly where I belong. This is identity theft at the most unbothered bureaucratic level. I think I know who I am, but this box insists that I do not, that I’m wrong for thinking I could possibly know where I stand on the racial plane. It denies my lived experience, quarantining me somewhere I know I don’t belong. This is racially-contoured, administrative gaslighting. In one instant, my life is condensed, and I am imprisoned in that box marked “White.” I feel trapped in a cage that will never be unlocked, because the key never existed. I feel policed, forgotten, and unspeakably insignificant.
I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t deserve to feel this way. I want a box of my own.