People of Middle Eastern, Northern African descent say census categories erase their experience

The last time OMB updated race and ethnicity options on forms was 25 years ago

By: - August 4, 2022 5:05 am

Leena Aggad, a graduate student studying mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico, sits on a railing in front of the Farris Engineering Center on campus on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

When Leena Aggad was applying to graduate schools, she was pleasantly surprised when she saw that one of the universities she was considering included Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) among the race and ethnicity categories on the application.

“Seeing that made me feel more included,“ Aggad said. “And I actually took a picture of it, and posted it saying, ‘This is super cool! This is awesome!’” 

Aggad is Palestinian American and has lived in Albuquerque her entire life. She recently finished two terms as Muslim Student Association president at the University of New Mexico, where she’s a graduate student in mechanical engineering. 

The Census Bureau collects race and ethnicity data following the U.S. Office of Management and Budget guidelines. OMB’s categories set the standard for all federal data collection, and can also influence other entities — like universities— that apply for federal funding. The last time the OMB updated those categories was 25 years ago

MENA roots

Middle Eastern and North African people usually trace their heritage to these regions: Algeria, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Circassia, Djibouti, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Omani, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and any of the other pre-Arab regions of North Africa, according to the 2013 UCLA resolution

Dr. Karin Orvis was appointed the chief statistician of the U.S. in May, and in June, the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Reform sent Orvis a letter calling on the federal government to add a MENA category to the 2030 census forms.

“OMB standards determine how political institutions distribute material resources, political representation and research funding,” the U.S. representatives wrote. 

Despite similar recommendations before the 2020 census, Islamophobia was a key tenet of the Trump administration, and the MENA category was blocked from being included, according to Matthew Jaber Stiffler, founder of the Center for Arab Narratives, a national research group out of Michigan. 

Federal standards for the classification of data on race and ethnicity impact more than population totals in the once-a-decade census count, Jaber Stiffler said. 

“We’re providing services or writing grants to provide health services to our community,” he said, “and we just don’t even know sometimes where to begin.”

This is especially problematic because MENA populations face unique genetic health issues. Since MENA is not a federally recognized minority community, researchers interested in studying these illnesses cannot apply for and receive grants from the Federal Office of Minority Health. 

And then there’s the catch-all “other” category. 

“When people get lumped into the ‘some other race’ category, the data is essentially useless,” Jaber Stiffler said.“It’s like the junk drawer at your house. Like, it’s just a miscellaneous box. You never know what’s in there.”

A highly politicized identity

The MENA category is not only about someone’s “street race” (the perception of someone’s race when that person is just walking down the street). 

Jaber Stiffler said even though he passes as white and rarely experiences day-to-day discrimination, he becomes a target when he “does something Arab, like speaking out on behalf of Palestinians or speaking out against the Muslim ban. Then it becomes a thing.” 

“It’s important to have a box that allows a community to identify as they want to be identified,” he said, “and also so they can fight for civil rights, better political representation, and federal funding.”

The question of a person’s race first appeared on the 1850 census with three options: white, Black or mulatto. Though other categories have been added over the years, Middle Eastern or Arab American continue to be overlooked. 

The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted access to U.S. citizenship to immigrants who qualified as “free whites of good character.” Not surprisingly, people coming from East Asia, South Asia, South West Asia, North Africa and other non-European regions often sought to be legally defined as white. 

The form proposed for the 2020 census asked for race or ethnicity and listed MENA as a racial category with the other racial groups, including white, Black and Asian. 

The 2018 Census Bureau’s population division chief said that “a large segment of the Middle Eastern and North African population” think that MENA should be treated as “a category not for race but ethnicity,” NPR reported. That was part of the agency’s justification for not using the new form. 

“When no MENA category was available, people who identified as MENA predominantly reported in the white category, but when a MENA category was included, people who identified as MENA predominantly reported in the MENA category,” a 2015 report for the Census Bureau states.

Truth vs. stereotype

Arab Americans make up the largest group of people in the U.S. who are Middle Eastern and North African, but they do not constitute the entire population. 

And not all Middle Eastern and North African Americans are Muslim. Armenian Americans, for example, are culturally Christian, while Israeli Americans are predominantly Jewish. 

Discrimination plus

Stacy Fatemi, a transgender educator in New Mexico, is Persian and Costa Rican. Their intersectional Middle Eastern and nonbinary transgender identity has had an even more profound impact on their livelihood and employability, Fatemi said. 

Data collected in the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey showed that transgender Middle Eastern people reported a 35% unemployment rate compared with 4% of the cisgender white population during the same time period. Cis Middle Eastern unemployment rates are hard to find and report due to the MENA gap in the data collection, but we do know that youth of Middle Eastern descent reported a 28-30% unemployment rate in 2014. Consistent with that, Fatemi said after they transitioned, the only job they could secure was one for people who have a hard time getting hired anywhere, despite language skills in Spanish and sign language.

“The only reason why I found this one job that I got in 2015 was because the owner of that place was actually known for hiring ‘unemployable people,’” Fatemi said, and two coworkers had previous felony convictions. 

“I’m really grateful for the fact that I was hired by him,” Fatemi said. “But the fact that I was hired by him is also an indication of the fact that it was pretty much impossible for me to get hired anywhere else.” 

After hiring Fatemi, the employer hired another transgender person.

(Courtesy of the New Mexico Transgender Resource Center)


Though the  Census’ previous race and ethnicity analysis supported the creation of a new category, one of the final issues to be hammered out is how it’s named. 

There is this growing split in the community around the label MENA. Some would prefer the acronym SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African)

In Asia

Central and Western regions of the Asian continent include:  Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula (Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as the southern portions of Iraq and Jordan), Mesopotamia (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait),  the Levant region (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan), and the Sinai Peninsula (part of Egypt).  

“This kind of sprung from the academic circles,” Jaber Stiffler said. “Some people said ‘Middle East’ is a colonial term. It’s a colonial vestige of how the British Empire described the region as being not the Far East, but the Middle East.”

“But,” he added “we’ve been working on and pushing a MENA category for 20 years, and you can’t switch the terminology on people this late in the game.”

Farah Nousheen is the new UNM Asian American and Pacific Islander Resource Center director.

Shared lived experiences, she said, should be part of the consideration.

“South Asians as well as Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans all experienced a particular type of racism in the post-9/11 environment,” Nousheen said.

People whose family hails from lands on the Asian continent began experiencing much more overt discrimination and hate crimes, making their lived experiences even more similar to people from South Asia.

And nonprofits and ethnic resource centers like UNM’s that serve Asian Americans have been serving Arab Americans and other Middle Easterners as well, Nousheen pointed out. So she can see why the SWANA option is on the table. But the goal, she said, is for people to know that while the details of the category are being worked on and more systemic efforts to recognize this population are being developed, regardless, they can access resources through centers like UNM’s AAPI resource center.

“The particular experience of Asian Americans in New Mexico is similar to that of Arab Americans in that we are invisibilized,” Nousheen said. “We are ‘forever foreigners.’ In general, the dominant culture in New Mexico doesn’t quite understand who we are.”



This story was updated on Thursday, Aug. 4, at 3:20 p.m. to expand on Nousheen’s position and reflect resources available at the University of New Mexico.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Lissa Knudsen
Lissa Knudsen

Lissa Knudsen was the news editor at the New Mexico Daily Lobo, following a stint as the publication’s public health beat reporter. She also worked as a data analyst for local NPR affiliate KUNM News. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy with an emphasis on racial and gender equity. Knudsen holds a bachelor's degree in health science and a master's degree in program planning and health education. She’s a critical cultural communication doctoral candidate, emphasizing reproductive justice, maternity and health. She is a board member of the New Mexico Public Health Association. Before she realized she was supposed to be a journalist, Knudsen was involved in local politics up until mid-2014, getting into hot water with her bosses as she pushed for transparency and public accountability.