Race Me: Adventures in Off-White

Sometimes, when I fill out racial demographics forms, I have this strange urge to check around me as if there might be someone looking to catch me for lying. Of course there never is. Not literally anyway.


I first encountered those racial checkboxes when I was 7 and starting to take North Carolina state standardized tests (Side note: do 7-year-olds really need to be taking standardized tests?).

I remember thinking it was sort of funny that some of the categories were colors and some were continents, but mostly I just wanted to know the right answer (this was a multiple choice question after all).

I knew that Lebanon was in Asia, so I picked “Asian” a few times, until I got the sense that wasn’t really what it meant. I picked “White” sometimes, since it seemed close enough skin-wise. Once I asked a teacher. The reply: “Um . . . why don’t you just pick ‘Other.’ That’s probably what it’s for.”

Much later on–when the answer to “Which one am I?” became “Google it”–I would learn that the racial categorization of Arabs (like many other “borderline White” groups) in America had been in dispute since the first major immigration wave in the late 19th and early 20th century. Through lobbying and several lawsuits, Arab immigrants asserted their whiteness and the citizenship rights that came with it, escaping the alternative “Chinese-Mongolian” categorization.

The approach was “if you can’t beat [White supremacy], join it”–not fighting racial discrimination as a whole, but just trying to get on the “winning” side.

Did it work? Eh, sometimes.

“Race is a social construct.” That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but it seems particularly true when you look at the borderlines, the categorical edges which keep getting shifted, redrawn, reconstructed to fit the time and place.

Near the edges, your grip on socially accepted whiteness is tenuous and conditional, so you better hold on tight–the wrong accent, religion, name, or even weird lunch food could send you over the edge. And even if you play it right, sometimes politics defines the racial Other. Even as a six-year-old, I could feel that Arabs had gotten a lot less “White” after 9-11, even if I didn’t really understand. This year was another one of those times.

But despite any baggage that could come with being identified as Arab or otherwise Middle Eastern, I was at least as likely to be identified as a whole lot of other things: Latina, Greek, Russian (by people who knew my first name), half-Asian.

And of course, like most people in the “ethnically ambiguous” zone, my most frequent classification was “umm . . . so what are you?”

Fun recurring conversations from my childhood:

Where are you from?

Well, I was born in Delaware.

But like where are you from originally? [That line’s a classic.]

My parents are from Lebanon if that’s what you mean.

Where’s that?

Um, It’s in the Middle East.

Is that where they have a bunch of terrorists and stuff?

Uh, sometimes?

So like, what…are you? 

Um, I’m Lebanese.

What’s that? Does that mean you’re a lesbian?

*Gulp* *Nervous laugh* [Was I? Sort of?]

i feel that

There’s something validating about being identifiable. Even in an arbitrary or messed-up system, there’s comfort in knowing you have a place in it, with a word that everyone can agree on.

When I moved to California in high school I started getting identified as Persian (there’s a significant Persian population in the area). I found the relative geographical accuracy refreshingly close enough.  And hey, I definitely wasn’t the only racially ambiguous intruder into the “White” category on demographics forms.

When I arrived at college in New York, “Arab” was suddenly a recognized and relevant mainstream ethnic category (not to mention a highly politicized one). And just when I thought I had those checkboxes figured out, I also realized that lots of Arabs don’t identify as White.

Race is a social construct, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. Social constructs are very real. They can determine who gets the job, who gets the citizenship, who faces charges, who lives and dies. So if we’re fighting about categories that have no inherent or universal meaning, it’s because they mean something here, now, and to us.

In recent years, many Arab-American activists have pushed for separate census classification, arguing that the current system statistically erases a group with distinct social issues and discrimination. Currently, the Census Bureau is testing out a separate Middle Eastern and North African category for 2020 (though defining and subdividing that category is a whole other messy issue).

I guess what no one told me about multiple choice questions is that sometimes you can change the answer choices.

“How do you self-identify?” That’s a common response now to “Which one am I?” It initially struck me as funny, because identifying me always seemed like a job for the school system, the government, classmates, activists, random strangers, and just about everyone else besides me.

Yes, it’s important to give people agency in defining themselves, but “agency” isn’t as always as free as it sounds: sometimes it just means deciding out how turn a history of judgments and politics and shifting boundaries into the least-wrong multiple choice answer.


3 thoughts on “Race Me: Adventures in Off-White

  1. Pingback: A Brief Demographics Survey | Nadia In Her Own World

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