I’m a bit brown. But in America I’m white. Not for much longer
The US Census Bureau plans to redefine ‘white’ to exclude people with Middle Eastern and North African origins. It’s a reminder that the identity has always been fluid
By Arwa Mahdawi
Mar 21 2017
We live in a weird time for whiteness. But, before I get into that, a small disclaimer. You may look at my name and worry that I am unqualified to speak about whiteness; I would like to set these doubts to rest and assure you that I myself am a white person. It’s true that, technically speaking, I’m a bit brown but, when it comes to my legal standing, I’m all white. Well, I’m white in America anyway. The US Census Bureau, you see, defines “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”. Being half-Palestinian and half-English I fall squarely into that box.
But I may not be able to hang out in that box much longer. There are plans afoot to add a new “Middle East/North Africa” category to the US census. After 70-plus years of having to tick “white” or “other” on administrative documents, people originating from the Middle East and North Africa may soon have their own category.
Whether our very own check box is a privilege or petrifying is still to be decided. Middle Easterners aren’t exactly persona particularly grata in the US right now. Identifying ourselves more explicitly to the government might not be the smartest move – particularly considering that, during the second world war, the US government used census data to send more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.
All of this is a little odd. Why are people from the Middle East counted as white by the US government but considered definitely-not-white by many Americans? How can you count somebody as white one year and then decide they’re not white the next year? Indeed it raises the question, what actually is “whiteness” and who qualifies as white?
Once upon a time this wasn’t a question that was asked very much in western countries. White people were the majority and white was simply the default. Demographics have changed, however, and, over the past decade, census data on either side of the Atlantic has been warning white Brits and Americans that they may soon become a minority. This has thrown whiteness into crisis and has had a not-insignificant part to play in Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of a new wave of white nationalism. The so-called alt-right, for example, was born out of the idea that white identity is under attack. As Dan Cassino, a political scientist, told the Guardian: “The founding myth of the alt-right is that the disadvantaged groups in American politics are actually running things … [and] oppressing white men.”
The idea that white identity is under attack assumes that whiteness is something fixed, something immutable. But whiteness has always been a fluid category. Whiteness isn’t a biological fact, rather it is a sort of members-only club that has rewritten its entry requirements over the years.