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Why Arab American Heritage Month Matters – Understanding the Impact of the White Designation on Arab Americans

Why Arab American Heritage Month Matters: Understanding the Impact of the White Designation on Arab Americans.

Arab American Heritage Month was established in 1995 by the Arab American Institute. It is celebrated annually in April to recognize the contributions of Arab Americans to the United States.The month-long celebration is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the rich cultural heritage of Arab Americans, and their significant contributions to the history and society of the United States.

Arab Americans have just wrapped up Arab American Heritage month with educational events and proclamations from local, state and federal entities.  These are milestones we should be proud of however, as a community we remain invisible under the white designation in the US Census, which has afforded us zero white privilege.

Despite the important contributions made by Arab Americans to the United States, we have been subject to various forms of discrimination and marginalization, including the impact of the white designation in the US census.

History of White Designation

The history of the white designation in the US census dates back to the first census in 1790, which included only three racial categories: Free white males, free white females, and slaves. This classification was used in subsequent censuses until 1860.

After the Civil War, the census categories expanded to include “mulatto” (a term for people of mixed African and European ancestry), “black” (which included people of African descent who were not considered “mulatto”), and “white.” These categories were used in the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

The term “colored” was introduced in 1890 to include people of African, Native American, and Asian descent. The ‘’White’’ category remained unchanged. While the census added more detailed racial and ethnic categories in the 20th century, the white category remained the default for people of European descent. The white designation has been controversial throughout its history, as it has been used to exclude people of color from opportunities and resources. For instance, during the Jim Crow era, many southern states employed the “one-drop rule,” which labeled anyone with even a trace amount of African ancestry as black, preventing them from enrolling in or obtaining housing or other services that were available only to white people.

In the context of Arab Americans, the white designation has excluded them from minority opportunities and resources, despite the discrimination and challenges they face due to their national origin and perceived association with terrorism.

Arab Americans were initially classified as non-white upon their arrival in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, some Arab American leaders sought to align themselves with whiteness to gain acceptance and protection. Arab Americans were classified as white as a result of legal disputes, such as the Dow v. United States lawsuit before the Supreme Court in 1915. Their designation as white people for naturalization was further cemented by the 1944 Nationality Act. The label of “white” does not, however, accurately represent the prejudice and discrimination they still experience. The struggles Arab Americans face, such as Islamophobia and stereotypes, demonstrate the inadequacies of a racial classification system that overlooks their diverse backgrounds.

The Impact of the White Designation on Arab Americans

The white designation in the US census has had a significant impact on the Arab American community. The designation has resulted in the erasure of the distinct cultural identity of Arab Americans and has prevented them from accessing minority opportunities in the US.

The white designation in the US census has had a significant impact on the Arab American community. The designation has resulted in the erasure of the distinct cultural identity of Arab Americans and has prevented them from accessing minority opportunities in the US.

Arab Americans are one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the United States. However, due to the white designation, they are frequently overlooked as a distinct minority group. This has resulted in a lack of resources and opportunities for the Arab American community, including access to funding for community development and education.

Furthermore, the white designation has led to a lack of representation for Arab Americans in public and government institutions. This has resulted in a lack of political power and a lack of influence in shaping policies that affect the Arab American community.

Following are some examples of the impact of Islamophobia and the specific challenges faced by Arab Americans while acknowledging the role of the white designation.

Discrimination & Marginalization: Arab Americans face heightened discrimination and marginalization due to Islamophobia and the negative stereotypes associated with their cultural identity. This treatment is perpetuated by the lack of recognition and understanding of their distinct heritage within society.

Racial Profiling and Workplace Discrimination: Arab Americans frequently encounter racial profiling and discrimination, stemming from assumptions linking them to terrorism or the Middle East. This bias can manifest in the workplace through obstacles in job applications, promotions, and instances of harassment or discrimination from colleagues or superiors.

Housing discrimination: Arab Americans often experience housing discrimination based on their national origin or unfounded associations with terrorism due to the white designation. This prejudice makes it arduous for them to find affordable and secure housing, impeding their ability to establish stable lives and communities.

Minority Opportunities: Arab Americans, categorized as white, may be excluded from various minority opportunities, such as grants, scholarships, and support programs, despite facing similar challenges as other minority groups. The white designation hinders their access to these resources, further exacerbating disparities within society.

These issues highlight the importance of accurately representing Arab Americans in the census and other kinds of data collection. It is essential to recognize the difficulties faced by Arab Americans and to ensure that they have access to the same opportunities and resources as other minority groups.

Challenges faced by Arab Americans in MBE Programs due to White Designation

Arab Americans face barriers when it comes to being recognized and included in Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) programs.
The reason for exclusion is the categorization of Arab Americans as “white” in certain classifications or demographic data. The U.S. Census Bureau traditionally includes individuals of Middle Eastern and North African descent within the “white” racial category. This classification can result in Arab Americans being overlooked or not adequately represented within MBE programs, which are intended to support businesses owned by historically marginalized minority groups.

Arab Americans have advocated for the creation of a separate category, such as “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA), within official forms and surveys, including those used for MBE certification. The inclusion of a MENA category would provide better representation and enable Arab American business owners to be more accurately identified and considered for MBE opportunities.

It’s worth noting that discussions and efforts to address the inclusion of Arab Americans and other underrepresented groups in MBE programs are ongoing. The goal is to ensure that these programs evolve to be more inclusive and reflective of the diversity within minority communities.

United States Citizens who are minority business owners with ethnic heritage from The Middle East and North Africa are not recognized as Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) by The National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), The largest accredited and recognized MBE certifier.

Currently, UNITED STATES CITIZENS whose heritage is Middle Eastern or North African and are business owners are not recognized as minorities according to the NMSDC, the primary and nationally recognized certifier of Minority Owned Enterprise (MBE). MBE certification is essential to gain access to economic opportunities and resources administered by private, federal, and government agencies.

Excluded are US Citizens and business owners from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Syria, and others.

The NMSDC follows the guidelines of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), a Government agency under the command of the U.S. Department of Commerce. These guidelines have not been updated in decades and especially not in a post 9/11 world where Muslim-Americans have endured social and economic discrimination in addition to discrimination in culture and media.


The origin of this discrimination lies in the exclusion of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) from the US Census and defaults Middle Eastern and North African nationals to identify as “White”.

Immigrants from MENA countries have come to America to pursue the American Dream and contribute to the prosperity of this great nation. They continue to be proud Americans and intrepid entrepreneurs even in the discriminatory climate of a post 9/11 world and the socioeconomic challenges faced by their communities in America.

Like other deserving minority groups that are MBE eligible, these communities have been discriminated against for the color of their skin, heritage, and religious beliefs and have been socioeconomically marginalized at disproportionate rates in the United States. As entrepreneurs, their ability to have MBE status is vital for positive economic outcomes.
MBE certification has aided in providing essential access and opportunity for African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, and South and West-Asian American owned businesses. The spirit of MBE certification is patriotic and wonderful.It is time for the NMSDC to do the right thing and extend MBE certification to US Citizens and Business Owners from Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

Efforts to Change the Census Designation

Currently, the Census Bureau conducts sample surveys about ancestry in the U.S., but advocates say they undercount minority groups like Arab Americans. The bureau estimates there are 2.1 million, but the Arab American Institute gives what it describes as a conservative estimate of 3.7 million.

Without accurate data, the institute does not have a complete picture of how many Arab Americans live in the U.S. or where they are concentrated, even as it advocates for them in politics, voting and civil rights.

“Our voter engagement project is about political empowerment of our community,” Berry said. “I wish I could run our Yalla Vote campaign based on where we are concentrated and our largest numbers. Without census data, it makes our job very difficult.”

In Paterson, these concerns are shared by the city’s mayor. Sayegh would like to tally police officers of MENA ancestry, which would show that the force is more diverse than reflected in reports. At least two dozen people in the Police Department have Middle Eastern or North African roots, Sayegh said. He gave the example of Officer Serein Tamimi, a Palestinian American, hijab-wearing police officer who began in 2019.

“She shouldn’t be counted as white,” he said.
Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, believes numbers of people from MENA countries are much higher than census estimates. She hopes that with an accurate count, marginalized communities will gain a greater voice and political power.

Efforts to change the census designation and more accurately represent the diversity of the US population continue to be a topic of discussion and advocacy. Arab American organizations and activists have been standing up for a separate category for Arab Americans in the census to recognize the distinct cultural identity of the community.

In 2020, the US Census Bureau announced that it would include a separate category for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Americans in the 2020 census. This was a significant milestone for Arab Americans, who have long been advocating for a separate category in the census.

However, the separate category for MENA Americans has been controversial, too, with some arguing that it is insufficient to acknowledge the diverse cultural identities of Arab Americans. The MENA category also includes other groups, such as Iranian and Turkish Americans, which has led to concerns about the dilution of the distinct cultural identity of Arab Americans.

Despite these challenges, the addition of the MENA category to the 2020 census was a significant step towards recognizing the distinct cultural identity of Arab Americans and addressing the negative consequences of the white designation, but more work remains to be done to ensure that they are not marginalized or excluded from opportunities and resources.

In conclusion, Arab American Heritage Month matters because it provides an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the contributions of Arab Americans to the United States. It is also an opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges and struggles faced by Arab Americans, including the impact of the white designation on their community. Due to their being classified as white, Arab Americans have lost their own cultural identity and are unable to participate in minority chances.

While progress has been made in recognizing the distinct cultural identity of Arab Americans, more work needs to be done to ensure that they are not excluded from opportunities due to their designation as white.
It is important for individuals and institutions to take steps to recognize and celebrate the cultural heritage of Arab Americans. This can include promoting diversity and inclusion, supporting Arab American businesses and organizations, and standing up for policies that address the barriers faced by the Arab American community.

Sign the Petition to make the NMSDC acknowledge Middle East & North African owned business as Minority Owned and stop economic discrimination against minority business owners.

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