(Opinion) Ethnic ambiguity

Chess grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani, 19, of Iran poses for a photo on Saint Louis University campus, Oct. 5, 2015. The freshman was banned from playing for Iran after refusing to wear a hijab earlier this year. Now she plays for SLU and has become a member of the United States Chess Federation.


I experienced my first identity crisis in the spring of sixth grade, when our class was taking a standardized survey. As I was filling my information out on the form, I stumbled over one question: “What is your race?” Although it was simple, it seemed like quantum physics because none of the options applied to me. As an Iranian, I had never considered myself or had been considered by others as white. Iran is technically in Asia, but as far as I knew, Iranian people have never been referred to as Asian. And I surely did not fit the other categories listed. So as my peers quickly flipped through the pages of their survey booklets, I went over the question and options over and over again, until I finally just guessed.

Years later, as I was applying to colleges, I found myself staring at the same question, with the same options. This time around, I had Google on my side and after a few quick searches, I learned that Middle Eastern falls under “white” on forms.

While this may not seem like much concern, to those who must check-off white despite it clashing with their own identity, it doesn’t feel right. Like many other Middle Easterners, I had grown up under the impression that I was a minority. Whether it was going through extra security checks at the airport or teachers commenting on my skin tone or having people make fun of my name for being weird and foreign, there were plenty of people and societal attitudes that were sure to remind me that I was brown, not white. So, to learn that I was supposed to report that I am white, it came as a shock and was, frankly, frustrating.

It seems as though Middle Eastern people are only to be considered white when it is convenient for society. At all other times, it is made clear that we are not the same, and in many cases not welcome. Brown people go through their entire lives facing racism and hate in the form of slurs, attacks, bullying and harassment, all because of the pigmentation of their skin and hair, their accents, their names, their features, their traditions and their origins.

The prejudice against people of Middle Eastern descent becomes especially worse when people decide that the despicable crimes of a few twisted, radicalized individuals are collectively the fault of an entire group of people. Throughout society, it is made clear that we are brown, and far from white. Yet, when it comes to standardized tests, college applications and the census, we are suddenly white. This way, more people are considered white in the country’s population and our college applications are stripped of our diversity, as though to ensure that we don’t get any special treatment.

One would think that through all the hardships a brown person in America faces, at the very least, we would be able to consistently identify ourselves how we choose, but that is not the case. In the best case scenario, we are able to select white and then select Middle Eastern as a subcategory. However, that is a luxury featured only on some forms. Many such documents, including Virginia Tech’s admissions application, still do not provide the option to select Middle Eastern. Allowing people to identify their race correctly should not feel like a luxury. Forms need to offer accurate options for all people to feel included and represented in society. 

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