University applications provide applicants the opportunity to select the ethnicity that best describes their ethnic background. The racial/ethnic groups included on these applications often match the racial/ethnic groups included on the U.S. Census. The data collected from the census is used to keep track of these groups’ access to housing, education, employment, and other areas where these groups have historically experienced discrimination and differential treatment. The ethnic categories provided on the census represent a social-political construct designed for collecting data on the race and ethnicity of broad population groups in this country. Why, then, are “Middle-Easterners” still classified as “Caucasian” on these applications?
The classification of “Middle-Easterners” as Caucasian on a federal level was solidified in 1977 when the government standardized the use of racial and ethnic categories and officially recognized four racial groups: American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and White. Though many Caucasian peoples exist, the idea of a “Caucasian” race is a social and political construct has been used to define a specific community, individuals of European descent, as distinct from individuals of African and Asian descent. The classification of “Middle-Easterners” as “Caucasian,” demonstrates the racialization of minority groups within the United States affecting institutional access to education, training, employment, wealth, and social capital.
Evaluation and analysis of “Middle Eastern” ethnic groups without a pre-existing category to accurately record the individuals belonging to each group is impossible, since the number of those who check “Caucasian,” “Asian Pacific Islander” or “African” instead of writing in their specific ethnicity in an “Other” category is unknown. In addition, those who select “White/Caucasian” and specify that they are “Middle-Eastern” are still recorded by the U.S. Census as “White”. This lack of representation in the United States has made the Middle-Eastern community an “invisible” minority group that faces issues similar to other minority groups (i.e. lack of access to resources and low socio-economic status) but does not receive recognition as having such struggles. As a result, the Middle-Eastern community is often nationally and institutionally excluded from programs centered on diversity and multicultural communities.
These issues that are present on a national level are also present on a university level as well. While ethnic data is not considered in university admissions, this data is used by community and campus organizations, to evaluate acceptance, admittance, retention, and graduation rates. In addition, on-campus recruitment and retention centers utilize this data to measure outreach efforts to specific under-represented communities.
The lack of data collected on specific ethnic groups identifying as “Middle-Eastern” prevents universities from effectively recruiting students of Middle-Eastern descent and evaluating their graduation and retention rates. Consequently, the uncertainty of the number of “Middle-Eastern” students prevents effective advocacy and programming targeted towards the Middle-Eastern American community, recruitment of faculty members of Middle-Eastern descent, and development of various other educational resources essential to the Middle-Eastern student population. In order to solve these institutionalized issues of advocacy and representation on a university level, it is essential to separate the “Middle-Eastern” and “North African” categories from the “White/Caucasian” category.
Due to the colonial and Orientalist origins of the term “Middle-Eastern”, a more appropriate name for this new category is “Southwest Asian and North African” (SWANA) because it is based on the geographic boundaries of the region. The creation of a SWANA category on university applications will have wider implications in terms of general issues of representation of the Middle Eastern community and the erroneous assertion that people of Middle-Eastern descent are “Caucasian” and therefore are not an ethnic minority facing issues stereotypical of many minority communities.
ICAN recognizes the important positive effects the creation of a Southwest Asian/North African category on the university applications application will have on students of Southwest Asian or North African descent, including increased advocacy and information necessary to create recruitment and retention centers geared towards this community.
ICAN supports expanding all university applications, scholarships, or programs geared towards multicultural and ethnic communities to include the Southwest Asian and North African communities.
ICAN supports the creation of a Southwest Asian/North African category with the proposed subcategories on the ethnicity portion of university applications.
Student group and representative participants in the SWANA campaign will take action in any of the following ways:
- Standing in solidarity with the other Middle-Eastern communities on campus
- Working collectively to draft a bill to amend university applications to include a SWANA category
- Raising awareness on this issue through panels, speakers or discussions