Opting Out of Whiteness
For decades, immigrants fought to be considered white. Now that trend is reversing.
“Do I look white to you?” an angry Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib asked the U.S. Census Bureau Director last year during a House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee meeting. Tlaib’s rhetorical question was meant to emphasize her concern for the “lack of representation” of Middle Easterners in census surveys. To fix this, she suggested adding a new category of “Middle Eastern/North African.”
Tlaib is correct that there is no distinct census category for people with ancestries from the Greater Middle East. According to the current census definition, “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” is considered “white.” But the origin of this overbroad category that spans three continents is not a mere oversight, as Tlaib’s comments might indicate.
For decades, immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa fought to be considered white. They did so because being white in America came with privileges. In recent years, however, this trend has flipped, and people with origins from the Greater Middle East have been working to disassociate from whiteness. Why the sudden reversal?
First, being white is often equated with being uncultured, boring, and privileged. Mona Chalabi, a British writer of Iraqi descent who works for The Guardian, writes that being white “feels like an absence: an absence of color, an absence of food that is ‘different’ and an absence of a mum who pronounces your name differently from the way your friends do.” There are plenty of examples of such condescension towards white people.
Second, being considered a minority comes with social and professional benefits. When applying for jobs, universities, scholarships, grants, or any number of career opportunities, non-white applicants are often given a leg up in the name of equity and diversity. Some who want their ethnic group to be considered a minority hope it will lead to newfound professional advantages.
It’s unsurprising, given these incentives, that many people don’t want to be counted as white.
When I first arrived in the United States in 2014, I would remind my friends that Persians are white—and not just according to the Census Bureau. I’d tell them that Persian, just like English, is an Indo-European language, and some in the Aryan tribe that migrated from India to Europe settled in Iran (also called Persia), which means the Land of Aryans. Those Persian settlers are my ancestors.
The Donald Trump era increased racial awareness in America. My personal life hadn’t changed much because of his presidency, but I became an audience for apologetic Americans who wanted to assure me that they had no problem with me. A brown asylum seeker from Iran—a country included in Trump’s Muslim ban—had to be apologized to. Soon I realized that, in calling myself white, I had been working against my interests. “As a brown person” started to replace my insistence that “Persians are white.” To my progressive peers, this identity swap gave my arguments more merit. My arguments had not become any stronger, nor I any wiser. But they now saw me as having a form of moral authority and wisdom merely because of my new identity.
A similar transformation happened when I began my job search and had to specify my race, sex, military status, disability, and sometimes even my sexual orientation. According to the Census Bureau, I am white. I am also male, with no military record, and healthy. Wait a second! I’m at the bottom of the hiring pyramid. I don’t get a leg up in the name of diversity or equity?
I had always objected to race-based affirmative action on the principle that it was illiberal and anti-meritocratic. Job hunting during the pandemic changed my objection. Suddenly, despite my principled opposition, a practical part of me wished that there was affirmative action for Middle Easterners. I did the least I could do, returning to my full name, “Khashayar,” instead of Shay, in job applications as a signal to recruiters or hiring managers that I’m not that white.
My experience is an illustration of centuries of migration and assimilation in America. Immigrants who came to America always wanted to be counted as white to receive the benefits of whiteness. Now that the tides are turning, immigrants—and their descendants—want a divorce from whiteness.
Benjamin Franklin infamously wrote that America should prioritize white immigrants. On this principle, he favored restricting the immigration of “swarthy” Germans. But Germans came here, nevertheless, and they eventually became white. The same is true of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, and the Greeks. Just like my Middle Eastern forefathers, each of these groups tried to “become” white, and they eventually did.
That racial categories are so pliable shows how inane the entire concept of race is. My great aunt, with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion, was born in northern Iran, but my “white” friend from Indiana with his olive skin would pass as white before her. The racial categories that we have become so attached to break down with even the slightest rational pushback, and yet we refuse to let them go.
I am a fairly recent immigrant, and a new Middle East/North African Census category would have immediate benefits for me. But I cringe at the idea that I should be defined by, or treated differently because of, an imaginary racial or ethnic label. Rather than doubling down on our fights over racial classification, Americans should do away with the contrived categories of race and ethnicity altogether. Doing so as a matter of official public record would be a good place to start.
Shay Khatiri is a policy associate at the Renew Democracy Initiative. He is also the author of The Russia-Iran File newsletter and a foreign policy writer for The Bulwark.