Invisible Oppression: The Whitewashed Middle Eastern Identity

Photo credit: Imrul Islam

It was during the college application process that I discovered that I was White.

Or, at least, that’s how the United States government classifies me. According to the US Office of Management and Budget, the “White” category includes any “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”. If you’ve ever looked at me, you’ve probably noticed that my brown skin and thick, curly black hair mark me as–well, something other than White. So when I was filling out my Common Application for college, I simply left the the question about my race blank. There’s no “Other” box to check on the Common App, and nothing else fit how I saw myself.

Things are slightly more complicated, because I actually am half White. My mom is entirely European, and she is very light-skinned. My dad, on the other hand, is an immigrant from Egypt, and has dark skin. Because of my racial mixture, my appearance is slightly more ambiguous than that of my father–but clearly, I am not White. Even if he didn’t have dark skin, being a native speaker of Arabic means that his accent clearly marks him as “other.” I don’t know how things were for him in the many years he lived here before 9/11, but ever since he has been marked as a foreigner, an Arab, and a potential threat.

Over the last 14 years, Islamophobic sentiments have become very common in the U.S. Concurrently, Islam and the Middle East have become conflated. While there is significant overlap, these two identities are not at all the same. This confusion works in both directions; when Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev bombed the Boston Marathon, the media jumped on the oft-repeated concept of “Islamic terrorism”, and further made many implications over the race of the bombers. In fact, the Tsarnaev brothers came from the Caucasus region, and could not possibly be any more White, if one goes by the outdated term “Caucasian”. The idea that bombers could be something other than brown was glossed over in media coverage. In the other direction, it is blatantly obvious to anyone with access to the internet that there are significant non-Muslim populations in the Middle East. Israel is the most obvious example, with the majority of the population being Jewish. There are also Christian minorities in many parts of the Middle East, especially Egypt and Lebanon.

One incredible challenge in zeroing in on the Middle Eastern identity is that so many different groups can fall under this umbrella. Many people think of “Middle Eastern” as synonymous with Arab, but that is not at all the case. In addition to Arabs, there are Persians, Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Bedouins, and many other groups that live in the Middle East. Trying to unite these groups into one helps to highlight just how absurd race is when it is used as a social construct. Every other racial group already knows this, as there are many different ethnicities all lumped together as Black, Asian, Indigenous, and even White. Clearly, this system is broken.

There have been times when I’ve wondered why I should even bother trying to work within a system that is so broken, so biased, and so utterly unnecessary. But I’ve come to realize something very important: I am invisible. As a Middle Eastern-American, I am completely invisible. I am classified as the majority, without receiving any of the privileges that go along with it. Simultaneously, I am excluded from programs designed to help minority populations, such as affirmative action. Even at this institution that supposedly focuses on critical thought, I am excluded on the basis of my identity. This became especially apparent when the Campus Climate Survey that came out a few days ago had only 5 categories for race. It lacked an option for “Middle Eastern,” “Multiracial/Biracial,” and even “Other”. Though I had suggested to the makers of the survey that they make this question more inclusive, my suggestion was turned down because they wanted to keep with the national categories imposed by federal law. Keeping in mind the frequent victimization of Middle Eastern bodies, it is significant to refrain from lumping them into the “White” or “I prefer not to answer” category. Same applies to multiracial and biracial students. Vassar College does not seem to agree.

Even in the curriculum, you would be hard-pressed to get a coherent education on the Middle East, unless you solely wanted to focus on the Arab language and culture (courses offered through Africana Studies) the Israel-Palestine conflict (Jewish Studies), or various religion courses which, inevitably, will cover at least some aspects Middle Eastern cultures. Your best bet for learning about the Middle East as a Vassar student is probably to study abroad in one its countries.

Not only does this institution silence the Middle Eastern identity, it also fails at providing support for Middle Eastern students to build their own community. Arriving on campus, I felt like I did not belong in any particular space. I could not connect with other students of color, who found communities in one of the many organizations affiliated with the ALANA Center. I felt like I was the only Middle Eastern student here.

Though I had heard tales of friends inviting all Vassar students of a particular race over to their TH after receiving the list from Admissions, this was not possible for me, since my race isn’t even on record. Some Vassar students got an email over the summer asking them to join affinity orgs such as BSU, ASA or SASA; my inbox was filled almost entirely with messages from the Sorting Hat and the Financial Aid Office. While my hometown was incredibly homogeneous and overwhelmingly White, there were not many visible groups based on race, ethnicity, or culture. Here, seeing so many students connecting with others over shared identity was very disheartening because I could not find my own people.

Vassar College’s ALANA Center – or, the African-American/Black, Latino/a, Asian/Asian American, Native American Center is the most helpful affinity space for students of color looking to connect with other students of color. However, is the center, with its non-inclusive name, truly welcoming of all students of color? What’s in a name? To me, a lot. I suppose that the name is not specifically exclusive of me. Considering my Egyptian roots, I am, geographically, North African-American, and other Middle Eastern students are technically covered under “Asian/Asian American”. Through discussions with other Middle Eastern students, as well as through my own personal struggle, however, I know that these technicalities are not enough to make us feel included. Different affinity groups within students of color experience different struggles both within this campus and beyond.

I am not trying to criticize the ALANA Center as a space, as it is incredibly vital to our campus and I go there regularly. But its name clearly excludes people–my people. To the credit of whomever maintains the ALANA Center webpage, there are no specific references to the expanded acronym there; it only references students of color as a broad group, whereas the Facebook page, the Admissions website, and Campus Life and Diversity website (websites that prospective students visit frequently) all reference the expanded acronym. As an incoming student, I did not feel welcomed by the ALANA Center.

The ALANA Center, for all intents and purposes, is an institution. It was named at a time during which four groups were the only major communities of color at Vassar and in the United States. That is not to say that there has been a recent influx of Middle Easterners to Vassar. However, for a long time, the Middle Eastern population in the U.S., particularly Arabs, fought to be considered as White. During the imposition of anti-Asian immigration quotas in the early 1900s, it was highly prudent for Middle Easterners to be included in the majority group, and distanced from the groups being prohibited from entering the country. The Middle Eastern-American identity has rapidly changed over time and is still in flux. The ALANA Center, by virtue of being an institution, needs a lot more effort directed at this cause.Though I have not yet petitioned the ALANA Center or other administrators to change the name to something more inclusive, I would like to, in the future. I believe that it should be a space for all students of color, and though changing the name will not automatically make that happen, it would be a step in the right direction.

It is only very recently that I’ve been able to form a strong Middle Eastern identity. It comes with many complications. Who are my people? What exactly counts as “the Middle East”? The phrase itself is incredibly Eurocentric, but I haven’t found a more satisfactory term. Even though I wasn’t completely sold on the name, I applied to start a preliminary organization for Middle Eastern students at Vassar. On March 1st, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Council approved the Middle Eastern Students Collective (MESC) as a new pre-org. At our first meeting, we tried to dissect what exactly the Middle East is–and who counts as Middle Eastern. In the absence of a more inclusive group name, we decided to include North Africa and West Asia as part of our definition, but we also agreed that anyone who wanted to join would be welcome. After all, it was unlikely that someone would join unless they felt some sort of connection to this region.

It was crucial that this group exist at Vassar, which became more clear with each meeting. Many of us have had similar experiences of feeling erased, invisible, and otherwise excluded. MESC exists for the same reason that other ALANA orgs exist: we need an affinity space. Our struggles are unique in many ways, and it is time that we have an outlet to connect over these struggles. Until now, there has not even been a platform under which Middle Eastern students at Vassar could come together. The fact that it took until 2015 for a Middle Eastern student organization to exist at Vassar speaks very loudly to this issue.

In the coming years, MESC would benefit from becoming an ALANA org, and being a part of the ALANA Leadership Circle. I believe that this network of student leaders of color is a vital part of the campus, and having MESC involved in it would make the entire organization stronger, as we would be able to communicate better with other students of color on campus, strengthen our publicity, and sustain our activist programming.

It is for these reasons that MESC is so essential. Vassar students of Middle Eastern descent are excluded from the moment we begin our applications. Throughout my first two and a half years here, I felt invisible as a person of color. Vassar students talk about feeling isolated all the time. Imagine the isolation that comes with not even being able to find other people that are like you. For all I knew, I was completely alone as a Middle Eastern student, and it was incredibly painful. I am so thankful to finally be part of a community, even if it’s small–for now.

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