Now Reading
Schrodinger’s Race – The Paradox of the MENA Identity

Schrodinger’s Race – The Paradox of the MENA Identity

The path to becoming a physician is wrought with standardized testing — from the SAT to the MCAT to multiple USMLE exams and finally dual board certification exams, I have sat for more standardized tests than I care to count. Yet no matter how hard I studied, one simple question has always evaded me: “What is your race?”

At my core, I am a Copt. Derived from the ancient Greek word for Egyptian, Aigyptos, the word Coptic refers to the Ancient Egyptian people and their lineage — in the modern day, the term broadly refers to Coptic Orthodox Christians native to the land of Egypt. We modern-day Copts trace our ancestry and ethnic identity to the first century AD, with the establishment of the still-standing See of Alexandria by the Patriarch Mark the Evangelist (yes, author of the gospel). Since our existence, we have shed blood for our faith. From the early centuries stained by the Roman Empire’s attempts to purge the East of Christianity — culminating in the Great Diocletian Persecution so morbid in Egypt that it marked year 1 AM (Anno Martyrum, Year of the Martyrs) of the Coptic calendar — to the barbaric beheadings of targeted Coptic martyrs in 2015, the Coptic people have endured tireless suffering. Yet, therein lies our pride and our identity. The aptly named Church of the Martyrs has not only persisted but flourished. We hold our heads high, in pride of our historic struggle and steadfastness.

Forgive me then, if I find it profoundly ignorant to be labelled Caucasian.

For decades, the US Census has classified Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) people as White/Caucasian. I ought to be grateful, as this was indeed the claim asserted by my MENA ancestors in the late 19th century. Fleeing persecution in our own countries, we took to the courts to pledge allegiance to Whiteness — this was, in truth, the only path to legal naturalization at the time. It was easier for those of us who were lighter-skinned or Christian, as the latter aligned with Eurocentric markers of Whiteness. It seems we were successful, as even today light-skinned and Christian MENA are more likely to identify, and be identified, as White; darker-skinned or Muslim MENA by contrast are more often perceived as Black or non-White.

That is, until there arises a sociopolitical need to create a novel group identity of “Arab-Americans” to scapegoat, align religiously with Islam, and equate ideologically with radical terrorist groups. Infamous for his “Muslim ban” of 2017, Trump has vowed to not only restore his “wonderful, beautiful” travel ban, but to expand it. In his most recent attempt to reinstate a time when “the US stood up for Israel and ‘Judeo-Christian values’”, surely referencing a time when America was indeed great, he vowed to ideologically screen immigrants were he to reclaim the Presidency. Why? Well, with a stroke of manipulative genius fraught with logical fallacies, he aligned Palestinian civilians with radical Muslim extremists by sheer commonality of his own definition of “Arabs” with “very dangerous thoughts.”

Enlighten me please — I am Middle Eastern, yet I am not Muslim. Arabic is my native language, yet I am not Arab. I am Christian, yet identify with the Palestinian people. Where then would I fit in one’s framework of Good vs Evil, Judeo-Christian vs Arab Muslim?

Herein lies the roller coaster ride of extrinsically defined identities imposed on the MENA community, bending to the will of the ever-changing sociopolitical status quo. The government defines us as White, until the news outlets need to define us indiscriminately as Arab in a way that justifies, or simply deflects accountability for the condemnation and dehumanization of our people. How then can we advocate for ourselves if legally, statistically, and demographically we don’t exist? How can we ever speak up if we are labelled amongst the “privileged White”? How can we ever unite if people have been taught to fear us? If you will treat us as other, then let us at least self-identify, commune, and speak up as such. I speak on behalf of our majority when I say we are happy, if not proud, to be “other.” In fact, our solidarity in self-identifying as non-white has historically strengthened in times of anti-MENA rhetoric, emulating the pride of the Coptic identity.

Now, I recognize that while most MENA agree with my sentiments, not all do. In fact, some of us may identify as White even given the opportunity to do otherwise. I welcome this discord though, as it illustrates my very point – we are not all the same. We are not all White, Black, Brown, Arab, Muslim, or whatever other identity you decide to impose upon us. We are our own people.

Treat us as such.

© 2022 VISIBLE Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Branding by Studio Foray.


Your Cart