Why are middle eastern people categorized as "white"?
January 23, 2009 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Why do middle eastern people get lumped into the "white" category when asked to declare their ethnicity?

Yes, technically, middle eastern people are "white," but so are most hispanic/latino people. And, with several million people of middle eastern origin, it seems like somebody would be interesting in counting them separately.

This question was inspired by the Daily Kos weekly poll's crosstabs. I was really curious to see Obama's ratings among middle eastern people, but there's no such information!
posted by tumbleweedjack to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure middle easterners aren't getting lumped into "other/ref" in that case?
posted by katillathehun at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2009

listen to the NPR Radiolab episode on RACE

Not that it will answer you question completely, but I thought it was interesting.
posted by bdoop21 at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2009

My guess is that it's just sloppy thinking possibly just loosely informed by the US Census race categories.
posted by jessamyn at 2:29 PM on January 23, 2009

It depends on the data source, but the US census form has two measures that are relevant here. One is a question about race. Hispanic people are counted as white/black/etc. here. There is no hispanic option for race. There is a second question that asks each person whether or not they are hispanic. The race question does not include middle-eastern as an option. I would think that's because like hispanic it's more of an ethnicity than a phenotype (which I presume is what race tries to capture), but then again they distinguish between several flavours of Asian that are phenoptypically as similar as the several flavours of white that they don't distinguish between.

Figuring out how to measure race best is complicated and there have been a lot of people working on it for a long time, as a google search of the literature will show.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:30 PM on January 23, 2009

Jessamyn has it, I believe. It's due to insufficient categories that don't capture race very well and/or don't distinguish between race and ethnicity.
posted by proj at 2:31 PM on January 23, 2009

This is mostly historic, and has to do with the obsolete definition of "race", which was based mostly on a limited set of physical attributes (skin color, hair texture, and the presence or absence of an epicanthal fold). The existing classification system is a residue of this obsolete definition, which does not create a clear separate category for people of Middle-Eastern descent (or South Asian descent, for that matter). In most governmental documents in the US, people of Latin American descent are also considered white but there are separate "white, hispanic" and "white, nonhispanic" categories.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:32 PM on January 23, 2009

Well, you could keep creating these divisions forever. There are enough Hispanics in America - 45 million or so, that it's worth looking at them as a group. Most - nearly two-thirds - of them are of Mexican ancestry. One can assume that most are Catholic and Spanish- or English-speaking. So that's a pretty monolithic group.

What's "Middle Eastern?" Many people in the USA whose origins are in the Middle East are Christian - lots of Lebanese Christian. Many, of course, would be Muslim, but Muslims make up only 0.6% of the population of the USA, and many of those Muslims are from non-Middle Eastern nations. There are also Middle Eastern Jews. And among Middle Easterners, there is a pretty diverse number of languages spoken. It's not as "identifiable" a group as Hispanics; there may be more diversity, and it's a small group. Using "Muslims" as a rough guide for the number of US citizens of Middle Eastern descent, there are about 25 times as many Hispanics. The difference is mostly in the numbers.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:37 PM on January 23, 2009

Most "middle easterners" are Caucasian, even if their skin is darker. (Some Indian Caucasians have skin as dark as any African, but they are Caucasian nonetheless.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:40 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think people care about race because they care about religion or necessarily think they match. If someone is Muslim, it doesn't tell me if they are back or white and I would never think it would.

To answer the original question: I think it is because in America the fundamental division of race is white/black/native. Then you get more immigrants and start slotting people into categories. Asians, meaning East Asians, we the obvious addition and then as more immigrants came, they were slotted in wherever made sense. Since being white is pretty superior to being black in experience, anyone who could get slotted into "white" would, and if you aren't obviously black then hey! Hence the "whitening" of Jews, Italians, and now Middle Easterners. That is my totally random yet plausible explanation.
posted by dame at 2:47 PM on January 23, 2009

I suspect it's not just a question of race, it's a class issue.

Racial Classification in Brazil: Discrepancies between Observed and Self-Identified Race

In Brazil, racial classification is organized around three main categories: white, pardo (i.e., mulatto), and black. There is considerable slippage between these categories, leading some scholars to hypothesize that money whitens. Some have speculated that the social pressure to identify with lighter categories whenever possible presents an obstacle to race-based mobilization in Brazil. However, there is some evidence that there has been a recent trend towards racial mobilization that includes a push to identify as either black or white, which would suggest an increasing polarization of racial identity in Brazil. This paper tests these hypotheses by examining the individual and neighborhood characteristics associated with “self-lightening” and “self-darkening.” Self-lightening refers to a discrepancy in which the respondent’s racial self-classification was lighter than that reported by the interviewer, and self-darkening is the opposite. The findings are consistent with the theory that money whitens and provides partial evidence for racial identity polarization, although not necessarily as a result of political mobilization.
posted by aquafortis at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2009

If I remember correctly, this came about in response to immigration policies in the early 20th century. The U.S. was not too accepting of "Asian" immigrants, so citizens of fairer-skinned Mideast nations like Lebanon and Syria actually lobbied to be able to check the "Caucasian/White" box on the U.S. immigration forms - and won. This was extended to a couple of other countries during the 1970's (Egypt for sure, can't remember the others) and now is widely accepted.

This seems to have a more in-depth discussion.
posted by non sum qualis eram at 2:56 PM on January 23, 2009

I have always thought that there were three races, Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid.

I have no idea whether there is any scientific basis for those categories.

Middle Easterners, despite having darker skin, are Caucasoid.
posted by jayder at 3:16 PM on January 23, 2009

Though it's not directly related to a poll context like the Daily Kos one (which I notice doesn't poll for "Asian" opinion either), for state universities the federal government requires certain data that the schools obtain with the racial and ethnic categories on admission applications. To comply with the requirement they follow the same categories on the state and federal census.

At the University of Michigan, students with Project: Check It have pushed for a new option on application forms "North African/Middle Eastern" but it doesn't sound like it will happen. In 1997 when considering revisions to the classification of federal data on race and ethnicity, an OMB agency decided against an Arab or Middle Eastern category. In addition to research and other considerations mentioned here they considered the use of having this category for monitoring discrimination against this population. That was before 9/11 so I wonder if they would have decided the same today.
posted by PY at 3:36 PM on January 23, 2009

Because middle eastern isn't an ethnicity?
posted by gjc at 7:03 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

These things are entirely historical/cultural. Every time I fill one out in a different country they have different categories, based on local norms.
posted by fshgrl at 8:34 PM on January 23, 2009

The Middle East is a heck of a lot closer to the Caucasus than so-called "caucasians" living in the US!

But on a more serious note... I had understood that Persians are considered ethnically "white/caucasian", while the rest of the Middle East was more or less "Arab". So, "Middle Eastern" as a race label doesn't really work, but perhaps "Arab" is a race is a possible category that ought to have been represented.
posted by kosmonaut at 11:39 PM on January 24, 2009

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