Ten years ago, when Sarah Kazem's dad filled out the U.S. Census form for the household, he racially identified his family of Egyptian descent as "white" when he answered the question on race. But this time around, Kazem, a 22-year-old Michigan resident, is going to make sure her dad marks "Some Other Race" and write in "Arab" instead.
"Why are we marking white when we're Arab?" she asks. But that is how the Census counts Arabs. After 20th-century Syrian immigrants won citizenship as "whites," Uncle Sam applied the label to all Arabs. To change that, a California-based group of Arab-American leaders formed the Arab Complete Count Committee and launched a campaign dubbed "Check It Right, You Ain’t White." The campaign—which has been circulated nationally through the Web—is an attempt to get people of Arab origin to write in their true ancestry.
"We're like an anomalous minority," says Omar Masry, 30, co-chair of the Orange County-based committee. "It seems we get counted or magnified whenever something bad happens, but where there's an opportunity for minorities, we feel marginalized."
If the campaign is successful, experts say the official Arab-American population could swell from an estimated 1.2 million people to more than 4 million—a leap that could help the group coalesce into a distinct and formidable political block.
The problem: many Arabs, fearful of terrorism-related witch hunts, are reluctant to fill out the census form at all, much less self-identify unnecessarily as Arabs. "There's fear of profiling, especially heightened after 9/11," says Masry, who is an Irvine, Calif., city planner of Lebanese and Saudi descent. "So what we try to do is educate Arabs that, by law, the information they provide can't be shared." (The Census Act prohibits the disclosure of individually identifiable information.)
"The laws that govern our confidentiality are very strict," says James Christy, regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau in Los Angeles. "We don't share information with any other agency; it's not allowed, and it's not done."
After being contacted by community leaders with concerns that Arab-Americans are fearful of filling out census forms, the bureau hired Arab-speaking specialists, such as Manar Fakhoury from Claremont, to work directly with the population, Christy says. "Throughout the years, Arabs have become distrustful of the government," Fakhoury said. "We understand they've been hurt in the past, but we reiterate that the census is safe."
Masry contends that an inaccurate count negatively affects Arab-Americans' political influence. "When policymakers and pundits in the political sphere see these artificially low numbers, it's easier for them to cast us as this minority-fringe element."
"We want to assimilate to the point where we are accepted and heard, but still want to hold onto our identities," says Ahmad Ullah, 25, a financial analyst who is primarily of Pakistani descent but also part Arab. "We want our political leaders to include us in dialogue concerning foreign policy in the Middle East."
Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation in New York, says some Arab-Americans do not feel the need to create a separate identity. Being classified as white, she says, "is a reflection of acceptance into the majority culture, one that was not so easily offered to the pioneer immigrants a century ago."
But for other Arab-Americans, the racial categories designated by the Office of Management and Budget—which handles the classification standards of federal data on race and ethnicity—can be confusing or irrelevant."Those who have recently immigrated or who have come of age in the distinctly diversity-conscious America of the past several decades often relate more with American minorities and people of color," Samhan says. "The sting of racial profiling, discrimination, and cultural intolerance some have felt, especially since 9/11, has only added to the feeling of being distinct from the white majority."
While reluctant to identify as such on government forms, many Arab-Americans still strongly identify with their origins. "You don't stop referring to your culture just because you were born here or have been here for a long time," Kazem says. "Ethnicity and culture are strong in our families, so we'll always be American as well as identify with our mother cultures and pass them along to our children."
These issues have also become part of Arab-American comedy. "We're an underrepresented group," says comedian Dean Obeidallah, who is half Palestinian, half Italian.
"A lot of Arabs do not respond to the census, and they don't realize that it gives us more influence politically to have people know how many of us there are in this country." He raised the issue along with colleagues Aron Kader and Maysoon Zayid on their recent "Arabs Gone Wild" comedy tour, which had stops in Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calif., a city dubbed Little Arabia because of its high concentration of Arabs.
And if Arabs are still fearful of identifying their ethnicity, the activists are deploying humor too: "We [joke that Arabs] are already being tracked," Masry says. "Or you remind people that whether you're Arab or whether you're any other group, you've already lost your privacy or you've given it away by posting your life on Facebook."
Ashmawey is deputy editor of InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper in Los Angeles, and a part-time temp for the Census Bureau.