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'White' Without The Privilege: An Arab American's Quest To Be Counted

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The first time I filled out a college application, I checked the "Asian" box to indicate my racial background.

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  • From June 2020 to July 2021, we published your stories each week to continue important conversations about race/ethnicity, identity and how both affect our lived experiences.

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In 1998, I was a high school student living in Saudi Arabia, filling out college applications and planning to move to Southern California to pursue a higher education.
A year later, I ended up at Pasadena City College, where I learned that I'm not actually "Asian," according to America.

The way Americans identified themselves as far as race and ethnic categories sounded really bizarre to me at the time.

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I am a Saudi-born American of Palestinian and Armenian origin. I didn't find a box I could identify with, so the next thing that made sense was "Asian" since Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Armenia are all geographically located on the Asian continent.

But people like me are told to identify as "white."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those who are "Middle Eastern" -- a problematic colonial term, but that's another topic -- are categorized under the "white" race.

Perhaps this classification may have benefited earlier generations of Arab immigrants, who desperately sought whiteness yearning to belong to the dominant culture in order to fit in, and avoid discrimination.

Businesses along Brookhurst Street in the heart of Anaheim's Little Arabia. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

However, our lived experience as immigrants -- as well as second or third generation Arab Americans -- is quite distinct from that of the white American experience. Especially when you take in the past two decades.

Less than a year after moving to the U.S., I had to fill out my first ever census form.

I checked the "other" box and filled in "Arab," following the advice of Arab American advocacy groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and others.

Then came the horrific 9/11 attacks, and the backlash against Arabs, Muslims, and anyone confused to be Arab or Muslim assured my belief that I cannot -- should not -- identify as white.


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Those who perpetrated the attacks did not represent me, my culture, or my religion, nor did they in any way define me.

Yet the day of the attacks, I went to my Psychology of Religion class and was greeted with a "joke" by the professor.

"Did your PLO contacts page you before the attacks? HAHA," the professor cracked.

He was a popular instructor whose classes always filled up quickly because he was an engaging man, and often sympathetic to other communities and their struggles. Yet, he felt that it was okay for him to tell such a joke at such a bad time.

I smiled and moved on. I also noticed that Nisreen, a Palestinian American student who wore a headscarf, was absent that day.

A few weeks later, the community mourned the loss of Adel Karas, a Coptic Egyptian owner of a convenience store that I used to visit weekly in San Gabriel. Although it was never classified as one, the murder sounded like a hate crime and was investigated as such. Many Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs were violently attacked and discriminated against simply because of their physical appearance.


Most of the friends I made during my second year in college were nationals of Arab countries, living in America on an international student visa. Which made them subject to discrimination at the government level, too.

In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush enacted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program that targeted men from a list of 25 countries, all of them Muslim-majority with the exception of North Korea.

The program known as the "Muslim Registry" required men over 16 years of age to submit annual in-person check-ins for intensive questioning about their activities, and to inform immigration officials every time they had a change of address. Failure to comply with these rules could result in their deportation.

This discriminatory policy that racially profiled Arab and Muslim visa holders was eventually terminated -- nearly a decade later. I saw it as a complete waste of resources that didn't produce any benefits, and only gave Americans a false sense of security that our government is doing something, when it was something useless.

While I didn't have to register like my friends did, because I was a legal permanent resident, I did not dare to fly out of the country for three years.

I usually spent my summer vacation or the winter break with my family in Saudi Arabia where I grew up. However, stories of harassment of Muslims and Arabs at airports across the country made me postpone any travel plans for those three years, until the year I became a U.S. citizen and felt somewhat safe enough to travel abroad.

The word "Jesus" spray painted on the fence at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Baitus-Salaam Mosque in Hawthorne in 2015; the vandalism was investigated as a hate crime. (Courtesy Ahmadiyya Muslim Community)

The feeling of being targeted because of one's physical appearance or religious beliefs is not something most white people in America experience in their daily lives.

White Americans have generally not faced government programs that targeted them for who they are, or hate incidents simply because they share an ethnic background or religious beliefs, even when white terrorists have been guilty of mass shootings around the country.


While taking general education classes at Pasadena City College, where my major was still undeclared, the 2000 Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada against the Israeli occupation began. The uprising that started peacefully against decades of what Palestinians have experienced as occupation, violence, and land theft was met with a brutal response by Israeli authorities and turned violent, ultimately leading to the loss of thousands of lives over the next few years.

I was glued to the TV watching mostly CNN commentary and talking heads justifying Israeli aggression against Palestinian demonstrators. I found the derogatory portrayal of Arabs and Palestinians on American television and mainstream media infuriating.

Commentators were justifying Israel's state-sponsored violence on Palestinians seeking freedom and sovereignty in their own land. Even when occasionally a Palestinian was invited to speak on CNN or other news channels, the pro-Israel guest always seemed the "reasonable" one while the Palestinian guest sounded foreign, and couldn't connect with an American audience.

In 2002 I watched then House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) speaking on Chris Matthews' Hardball suggesting that Palestinians should find a new home in neighboring Arab countries -- what came across as a shameless call for ethnic cleansing in Israel. That's the kind of news Americans were hearing that was shaping their opinions of Arabs and Palestinians -- people like me.

The media narrative around the uprising of Palestinians against Israeli state violence and occupation -- known in Arabic as 'intifada' -- was the reason I chose the path of social justice advocacy work.

Rashad on the California State Senate floor in 2018, right before the Senate recognized April as Arab American Heritage Month with a resolution. (Courtesy of Rashad Al-Dabagh)

I thought, if only members of Congress could hear the truth, unlike Chris Matthews' guest who called for transferring Palestine elsewhere, perhaps they'd gain a deeper understanding of my people, and things would change for the better.

That is when I searched for groups that engage in advocacy work, and eventually founded one, to get this message across. I signed petitions, sent letters to Congress, and met with my own local representative.

My representative in the U.S. House, and others I met with, seemed to try to tell my fellow community activists and me what we wanted to hear, but their votes indicated otherwise.

Some lawmakers asked us about the number of Arab American voters in the district, and asked us why they weren't more involved. Instead of championing a social justice issue, they'd tell us to go back and organize people to put pressure on them -- as if admitting a lack of a backbone to speak up for us.

It was around then I learned that no accurate and reliable statistics on Arab Americans in each congressional or State Assembly district exists, which hinders our ability to organize more effectively.

As an Orange County resident and advocate for Arab Americans, I am often asked how many Arabs live in Anaheim, and more specifically, in the city's well-known Little Arabia district.

One can provide estimates based on census surveys, but the truth is there is no reliable and accurate data available on our community.

In 2016, we thought we were getting close to our own long-sought census designation: MENA, for Middle Eastern and North African, a new racial category that the Census Bureau had tested. Then came the Trump administration, and all of that went down the drain.


One of Trump's first executive orders was targeting people from seven Muslim-majority nations, effectively banning them from entering the U.S.

Protesters gather at LAX on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 in opposition to President Trump's executive order barring travelers from a list of Muslim-majority countries. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

Not only did Trump ban Arabs like myself from entering the country, he turned communities against each other, and empowered white supremacists -- who we share a census category with -- to become openly racist.

In my two decades in America, other than airport incidents and microaggressions, I had not directly experienced hate incidents like I did in the aftermath of Trump's election.

"Go back to Mexico," shouted a young white guy passing by me on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim's Little Arabia. It took me a moment to realize that in a Trump era, many closet racists felt empowered enough to shout racist comments towards Brown folks, even though it was the wrong ethnicity.

A few weeks later, as I was registering voters in front of Altayebat Market, an Arab grocery store in Anaheim, a shopper who looked white but had a European accent yelled "Is this a terrorist organization?" and kept walking to his car.

Rashad, second from right, at a February 2017 rally for immigrant rights and racial justice in Huntingon Beach. (Courtesy of Rashad Al-Dabbagh)

I believe incidents like this one and many others reported were fueled by Trump's hateful rhetoric against Arabs and Muslims who continue to be categorized as white -- but without the privilege.


In 2018, the Trump administration announced that the 2020 Census would not include a new Middle Eastern or North African category, rescinding the Census Bureau's previous commitment to add it to its race and ethnicity data collection for the 2020 count, in spite of a 2015 "test run" of the MENA category.

A Census 2020 form, which did not include a MENA category. (Screenshot)

It was disappointing. Years earlier, leading up to the 2010 Census Day, I was involved in a community-led ad hoc committee known as the Arab Complete Count Committee: As part of its outreach effort to hard-to-count communities, the Census Bureau had partnered with local community groups and encouraged the creation of these outreach committees.

Besides encouraging census participation, we launched a campaign to urge Arab Americans to check the "other" box instead of "white," and write in "Arab" when filling out the form. The slogan, "Check It Right, You Ain't White," brought a lot of national media attention to the campaign and created more awareness within the community about the importance of identifying oneself correctly on the census form.

I still believe the creation of a MENA category is critical to improving the data collected about our communities in order to monitor discrimination and civil right violations against us more effectively, to help Arab American-owned businesses get federal grants and loans, and address health issues specific to our communities.

Arab Americans are proud of their identity. We have deep roots in the U.S. that go back more than a century.

And we, especially the younger generation, understand the need for a separate census category, and will continue our fight to be counted as who we are.


Rashad Al-Dabbagh is a community organizer and founder/executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, a grassroots community organization based in Anaheim's Little Arabia. He was born in Saudi Arabia to a Palestinian father and an Armenian mother and moved to California in 1999. He earned his MA in political science from Cal State Fullerton.