I see a lot of debate recently over ‘proper’ identity terminology for US citizens with what's been referred to as ‘Middle Eastern’ ancestry. First of all, I don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I am Lebanese on my father’s side and I take pride in that. My Lebanese family members use the terms ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘Arab’ to identify, both in the US and abroad. In regards to the US Census, until now, that was the box that many people of the diaspora ticked. The terms SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) are two acronyms being used at the moment. Though I am happy that some people are beginning to look at the issues of the region more closely, I’m not sure that changing the terminology is the more pressing concern of this time.
We see MENA being increasingly rejected these days because the use of 'Middle East' is said to elevate whiteness and center 'The West', suggesting its existence to the east of Europe and the United States; it was initially an Imperialist term coined around the time of World War I to identify the area of Syria (Mt. Lebanon at the time, too), Palestine (pre-Israel), Jordan, and Iraq. But does anyone consider the fact that although the term 'Southwest Asian' is being proliferated as a de-colonial term, it was originally introduced by Jimmy Carter to refer to people living in regions east of the Israeli/Arab conflict, or what has also been referred to as the 'Persian Gulf'. Therefore, this is another questionable term, considering the current Arab Americans that lived through this period, and the current efforts of Israel to annex Palestine. I fear that using the term SWANA, though a promising attempt to be inclusive, can represent an exclusion of people from Arab regions, or force them to identify as something they are not. To add to the issue, Middle Eastern Identity has been erased from the 2020 US Census (which I’ll get into later). Likewise, Middle Eastern is not synonymous with Arab, not at all, and when people start thinking that all SWANA/MENA identified people are Arabs, for example, or Muslims, entire histories are over-looked e.g Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Azeris, Coptic Egyptians, and many, many more. All this at a time when people should be more concerned with looking at the lives being taken in yet another senseless, ongoing genocide.
With the absence of Middle Eastern identity on the new 2020 census, there is no option for people from these regions other than to use the term "white" and write in their country or ancestry of origin. Though I am only part Arab, and have white skin, there are many recent immigrants, mixed-race, and first-generation MENA/SWANA US citizens who are brown and do not identify as ‘white’. Where do they write in their identity? Similarly, the US census has completely removed Hispanic and Latino identity from ethnicity options, another group of people who have been exploited and further subject to border patrolling and oppressive violent acts from more powerful neighboring nations. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that these two populations are being forced to vanish into the ever increasing pot of whiteness in America.
What concerns me is that people from all of these very varied cultural backgrounds get lumped together under one term, or no term at all. We are left to flounder in a colonial identity crisis, and left to negotiate a way to representation; there is no way to track how our demographics have been represented in the media, job force, educational institutions etc., and without that information we have no ground on which to make a case for better representation in the United States and globally, if indeed we are observing global human rights from a place of equity. Ethnic categories are not stable as many white ethnographers with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’ would like them to be. The fact that a category can be socially constructed or created by colonialism does not make it invalid, especially if we are going to determine who gets social status, rank, access, and in some cases who gets to live or die. We have to look at how we might be contributing to violent erasure. There is no way to count the number of deaths for a landless and nameless people, right? A genocide can reach beyond borders and into the cages, prisons, refugee camps, and hospitals in other, bordering nations.
Basically, my plea is this: Whatever terms you elect to use, please be sensitive and take a look at the individual states, regions, and the histories of these countries. Recognize how terms have been used to divide, replace, and erase certain populace or bury them within a larger, more watered-down identity. It is the first step in glossing over entire histories and creating a veil of silence, a conjuncture that appears to be significant for abuse and negative outcomes in colonial cases of genocide. Note that comparative and systematic analyses of genocide are rare for this reason. Hundreds of thousands of people in the area of Mt. Lebanon died in massive numbers during the Great Famine of World War I, and many Lebanese people came here then as refugees, but no one knows about this atrocity. Similarly, Palestinians die every day at the hands of Zionist terrorists who are further encroaching on their lands. The Lebanon/Israeli border is closed to Lebanese people. If I go to Lebanon they will not allow me to enter through the border to go to Palestine. The United States funds Israel, and when people in this country try to speak out against the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, they are considered anti-Semitic (which is not the same as anti Zionist), and they’re often held back from media and publishing platforms where they could raise awareness of these issues.
How do the terms MENA and SWANA either perpetuate or challenge power dynamics? I guess the answer rests in exploring which communities and people they benefit or erase. If we are going to adopt SWANA as a term we have to also explore the intersections of power and hierarchy therein and how people who identified previously or currently as Middle Eastern and/or Arab fit in. Also, there are Jewish people all over the world who do not support the Zionist occupation, just like there are Muslim people all over the world who do not support the terrorist activities of the Islamic State, so lumping religious identity with regional or ethnic identity can have deadly ramifications. All I am saying is before we start to question who gets to call themselves what, erasing terms formerly used by entire diasporas, or start broadly lumping people into categories, we must recognize that we may be unknowingly contributing to humanitarian crisis by judging and/or excluding certain perspectives before the whole picture is explored. We have to take the time to think critically about our biases and see how we may unknowingly participate in a form of political passivity that enables, for example, the continuing investments of US dollars in a nation that is killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in an ongoing heartless territorial land grab. For more information please read the below link regarding the 'Day of Rage' July 1st 2020, and Israel's planned annexation of Palestine.
The Planned Annexation and Palestinian Resistance
Israeli Soldiers Kill Palestinian Journalist's Cousin Days Before Annexation
Are Arabs and Iranians White? 2020 Census
With Whom Are Many US Police Departments Training?