‘We’re Not White – Our Identities Have Been Erased’

‘We’re Not White – Our Identities Have Been Erased’

More than 3.5 million people with roots from 23 countries in the Middle East and North Africa are currently misidentified as White in US Census data, and in almost all states and school districts.

AB 2673, introduced in the California state Legislature this week by Assemblymember Bill Essayli, will add the MENA classification to all state intake forms. Essayli, who is Lebanese-American, also authored House Resolution 30 in 2023, in an attempt to collect MENA data at the federal level.

Approximately 740,000 people from the Middle East and North African countries reside in California, which has the largest MENA population in the nation. “Current demographic data collection in California is entirely inadequate in capturing the unique experiences that MENA communities face, from health issues to socioeconomic outcomes,” said Essayli, as he introduced the bill Feb. 26.

No Check Box

“AB 2763 will ensure that state agencies and legislators will have the necessary data to make informed decisions about policy priorities and resource allocation,” he said.

Black and Brown people hailing from MENA countries currently must check “White” on official forms, as there is no other designation for them. The resulting lack in data about the community leads to a lack of funding for critical health and community resources, and an inability to access many financial aid and scholarship programs for college, among other issues. Critically, there is no health data for the community. And many young people suffer from mental health issues because of the inability to correctly identify themselves, say MENA community activists.

Students ‘Erased’

Students’ identities are “immediately erased” as soon as they’re enroll in the school district. They are classified as White, Rachel Evans, youth programs manager at San Diego-based Somali Family Services, told Ethnic Media Services. She noted that — of the more than 5 million children enrolled in schools throughout California — not one is identified as Middle Eastern or North African.

“It’s very challenging when the budgets are determined. There’s no data about their quantity, where they are, where they’re located, and what their needs are,” said Evans. Moreover, a lack of identity often induces multi-generational trauma, leading to depression and self-harming behaviors, she said.

“I was born in san Diego. My father came as an immigrant from Somalia. My mother came as a refugee. I’m as American as they come. I bleed red, white, and blue,” Mustafa Sahid, director of operations at Somali Family Services, told EMS.

‘Who Am I?’

“But I still have that confusion of: ‘What am I considered?’ It’s something I’m still figuring out,” he said.

Amin Nash, policy and research coordinator at the Arab American Civic Council, told EMS he was 11 years old when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, killing an estimated 2,977 people, and injuring thousands of others. “I was the only Iraqi American in my school and the only Muslim. So you can only imagine how weird it was and how strange it was for me to grow up in the school system. Everybody’s conversations were about the Iraq war. And here I am, an actual Iraqi in America, and I didn’t have a way to identify myself.”

“Honestly, the thought that came into my head when I was a kid, and I still have that thought now, is they just don’t want me to exist. It feels very purposeful that they don’t include us. And in many ways, it is a form of discrimination. It is not giving us equal protections under many different laws,” said Nash.

Federal Bill

At the federal level, The National Network of Arab American Communities, a coalition of 30 organizations, is spearheading the Health Equity and MENA Inclusion Act, which prioritizes health and data equity, and voting rights. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Robin Kelly (D-IL) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA).

“We really want to make sure that the MENA community’s voice is being recognized and heard, and that we are being advocated for,” said Sahid.

Source: Published without changes from Ethnic Media Services

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