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Count me in

| Tuesday, September 28, 2021

When I refreshed my inbox this morning, the first subject line that popped up was “We want to know what you think!” The email was asking me to fill out yet another survey. If you haven’t noticed by now, I am not a big fan of filling out surveys. I am convinced that the rewards you are promised for filling out the survey are just a myth. The questions are often repetitive and sometimes make absolutely no sense. Aside from that, I have on multiple occasions felt misrepresented in surveys. I am Lebanese and I identify as Middle Eastern. However, it is very rare to see “Middle Eastern and North African” (MENA) as an option under the  question on race and ethnicity. In fact, almost all the Notre Dame related surveys I have filled out in the past three years did not include MENA among the possible answers. 

During my time at Notre Dame and in the U.S., people have frequently said to me “I would have never guessed you weren’t American.” Unless I tell people where I’m from, many jump to the assumption that I am white. That may be the story that my fair skin tells the world. However,  I do not want the fact that I, along with 94% of Lebanese living in the US, check the box for “white” for lack of better options to reiterate that false assumption. 

Despite numerous promises, the 2020 U.S. Census did not separate between “White” and “Middle Eastern”. Roughly 3 million people of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent live in the United States, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. But with the lack of representation in the 2020 census, it feels like we don’t exist. “We are our own community,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council to the Los Angeles Times reporters. “But it’s as if we don’t count.”

Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, recounted to Arizona’s Cronkite News that he has struggled to find the right way to identify himself on government forms since coming to the United States from Kuwait in the 1970s.

In every survey he fills out, including the decennial census, Shami picks “White,” even though, to him, the choice has never felt right. For example, when he travels with white co-workers, Shami is almost always the only one who is pulled aside for a secondary screening by TSA employees. Even though he is considered a minority by most people he encounters, he believes that “when his ethnicity is lumped with ‘white’ in the census, it feels as though the U.S. government does not.” 

“I’ve been living here for 40 years, and when this experience does not bother others, to me, that’s a problem,” Shami said. “Because deep inside their minds, I feel that they really think that I deserve it. That they think that, yeah, it’s OK.”

There have been a few attempts at rectifying the issue by Arab American community organizations. One of the largest efforts is a partnership between the Arab American Institute and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The campaign is called “Yalla, Count Me In” and the main goal is “making sure that everyone understands that the data that the Census Bureau is collecting is the most protected data that the government collects,” which is why an accurate count is critical.

As these campaigns lobby for change, I hope that the next U.S. Census will finally deliver on the promise of including a separate category for us Middle Easterners and North Africans. I also hope that change will start small right here at Notre Dame. Can the next survey Notre Dame sends out actually include MENA as an ethnicity? Can the next Notre Dame survey I fill out count me in? 

Krista Akiki is a junior living in McGlinn Hall, majoring in business analytics and minoring in computing and digital technologies. She grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and moved back to the U.S. to pursue her undergraduate degree. She loves learning new languages, traveling and of course trying new foods. She craves adventure and new experiences and hopes to share these with readers through her writing. She can be reached at [email protected] or @kristalourdesakiki via Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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