Written By: Mariam Ibrahim
When my family first moved to Nova Scotia, I was suddenly asked to put myself into neat little boxes by the schools I went to through an annual sort of census. I was already confused about my racial and ethnic identity and being introduced to a limited list did not make things any easier. “African-Nova Scotian/Black, Asian, First Nations, Hispanic/Latin, White/European” but where was my box? Even though I am indigenous to North Africa through my Coptic ancestry, I knew I wasn’t Black , despite the fact that many people in this given rural area seemed to perceive and/or classify me as such, which is how I knew I couldn’t possibly check “White.” My mom often urged me to check “Other” , but in fear that the people reviewing the files wouldn’t understand why I hadn’t checked the “African-Nova Scotian/Black” box, I instead wrote in “North African”. Eventually, we decided on the more common title, “Middle-Eastern”. Even though not a single person in my family would ever identify with this label, because pre-Arab invasion, Copts were not Arabs in any way.
Still, I struggled to understand, how could they not know about us? These countries who they had fought and occasionally fought alongside, and yet they couldn’t name their peoples. I was right there, I existed and took up space the same as everyone else, and yet year after year that census came, and we just kept checking “Other,” writing in “North African.” This became my introduction to MENA erasure.
On the world stage, it became even more clear to see that race within the MENA (Middle Eastern, North African) community had been a hotly debated topic. Over the years, after some education, much media consumption, and personal experience, it has only become even more confusing. The fact I could be considered “White” in some people’s eyes outside of my community gave me whiplash. But eventually, a pattern became more and more clear to me.
On the U.S. census the MENA community has no designated box to check on their own, and are therefore pushed to check the box marked “White.” See Rep. Rashida Tlaib speak about this issue here;
And here again by Abdullah Marei;
It’s not that I am perceived as white by others. In fact, I haven’t ever been called white-passing in my entire life. The fact is, many in the MENA community will always be seen as “others.” But when it’s convenient, those that created the system won’t admit it. All because they want to ignore us out of existence, deny the crimes the Western and Northern lands committed and continue to commit against us, send us rippling out for centuries, trying to grab a foothold in the years of war, conflict, and interference cast on us. If we do not exist, if they can manage to blend us in with the White and still call it “White” then no one has to know we aren’t the terrorism-prone, violent, power-hungry people they painted us to be. Instead, we are just invisible. By erasing our identities, they simultaneously erase or hide their misdeeds against us.
This not only impacts the stories we tell about our homelands but also the stories we tell about our experiences as immigrants. Labeling us “White” impacts the way we can tell our stories because they can no longer be based in color or creed if we are of the same kind. Instead, it must be based on a substantive reason that justifies the actions of the Global North towards MENA countries, such as our politics, our nature that cannot be tied to racism, xenophobia, or prejudice, since they have erased our difference. Many of us do not receive or experience the same social privileges that White people are afforded, so when we are labeled White our struggle and experience as Brown people is invalidated. We are gaslit into thinking that our discrimination is non-existent or is on the basis of something other than race. These white supremacist institutions were not built for our privilege, and yet before we can fight them we must convince others that we are subject to them and their prejudice.
The other side of this coin comes in when we are in fact labelled as “Brown.” This label tends to come into play when conflict with MENA countries is discussed in mainstream media. Suddenly when conflict between western countries and MENA countries is in the mainstream news, we are Brown. We are the other, we are not kin, not of the same kind. We are strangers, enemies, distant from the ideal standard of whiteness established and upheld by white supremacist institutions. This only happens when they get desperate about justifying war, not when it’s hidden, only when it comes to eyes that are perhaps more prying, when the difference needs to be more obvious and sharp and keeping the immigrants of us out of national benefits becomes a priority rather than letting it run as status quo. At this point they cannot keep blending us in with the “White” population, because the difference is clear as day, and they can certainly exploit it.