I’m a brown Arab-American, and the US census refuses to recognize me.

I was fortunate to contribute to The Guardian’s terrific series on Antiracism and America. This is what I wrote.

I am a brown person.

How do I know? Every time I look in a mirror, a brown person stares back at me. If I were to compare the color of my arms to that of a brown paper bag, I wouldn’t find much difference. But also, when it’s dark outside and I’m walking by myself, white people sometimes cross the street to avoid passing me. Then there are the repeated occasions when I’ve been mistaken for a taxi driver or a drugstore clerk, just because I’m standing beside a parked car or buying deodorant. And while it’s true that I’m not so dark that automated soap dispensers can’t see me, I’m also invisible in a more fundamental way in the United States.

Why? Because the US census refuses to recognize me.

There is a lot of talk about “black and brown people” these days, but did you know that “brown” is not one of the five official races listed on the census? Those five are: white; black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific islander. These categories are, to be frank, incoherent when considered together, a mishmash of skin color, indigeneity, and geography.

America’s racial categories have changed over time, mostly because our notion of what constitutes racial difference changes over time. Back in 1890, the census wanted to know if you were “quadroon” (a quarter black ancestry) or “octoroon” (an eighth black ancestry). For the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses, “Hindu” was a racial category. There have also been forward-thinking developments. Starting with the 2000 census, anyone can now check more than one race, which is progress. And yet brown is still absent.

As a brown-skinned Arab American, I feel slighted by this omission. But the Latinx community is arguably the biggest loser in this case. By law, the census (and all federal statistical agencies) must follow the standards on race and ethnicity established by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and since 1997, the OMB has hewn to this list of five. In 2000, the census began to use a two-question format. The first question asked everyone about possible Hispanic heritage (the wording has slightly changed over the years), and the second asked about race.

While it’s certainly true, as the Census Bureau notes, that “people of Hispanic origin may be of any race(s),” the question on race still forced Hispanics and Latinos to fit themselves into the five official categories, even though data show that at least two-thirds of Hispanics consider their Hispanic background to be a part of their racial background. On the 2010 census, an astonishing 37% percent of Latinxs (19 million people) elected “some other race,” according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, 97% of those who checked that category and no other were Hispanic.

“Some other race” is now the third-largest racial category in the United States.

No doubt some people will find this fact comforting, as if it might herald the imminent arrival of an anti-racist America. (Incidentally, the research shows that the more “color blind” you believe you are, the more racist you tend to be.) But the census doesn’t make America racist. America’s history and its present do that work – and until we’ve arrived at a point where racism doesn’t exist, it makes sense to collect the most reliable statistics on race in the country to understand how racism works and what its effects really are. Since “some other race” is not one of the five official categories, its utility is severely limited. Each “some other race” selection is typically converted by the Census Bureau into one or more of the five recognized categories, making the census far less accurate and responsive than it could – or should – be.

And an accurate census matters. A lot. The census is a powerful instrument used to reapportion congressional seats and electoral college votes. Political districts are drawn on the basis of the census. Everything from healthcare to highway construction uses its data. Accuracy in the census is necessary to the partitioning of over $800bn of annual federal funding, including to school lunch programs, section 8 housing, and Medicaid. Census data are key to designing community-level programs and enforcing civil-rights protections.

So finding yourself in the census is important. And, although our situations are similar (and both groups are undercounted by the census), my problem is different than the one the Latinx community faces. Many Latinxs don’t see their worlds reflected in the census as it now stands. I, on other hand, am forced to choose a reality that isn’t my own.

According to the OMB’s classifications, “white” refers to “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or north Africa.” My origins are from Egypt. Every day, I live my life in America as a brown person. Defining me as white and likening me to a European, as the census does, is absurd.

As with the Latinx community, people from the Middle East and north Africa can often fit within multiple racial categories. But to compel everyone from the Middle East and north Africa to select “white” on the census is to force us to participate in our own official erasure.

Read the rest here.

Leave a Reply