Are Arab Americans colorful people? The mayoral vote raises the question

BOSTON (AP) – Are Arab Americans colorful people?

The issue revolved beneath the surface of Boston’s historic mayoral race, where one of the two candidates, Annissa Essaibi George, found herself on a pre-election journey because of her decision to identify as one.

On Tuesday, Essaibi George confronts a colleague of Boston City Councilor and Democrat Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Whoever wins will be the first woman and the first person of color to be elected the city’s highest political office.

Essaibi George, who describes herself as an American of Polish-Arab descent, admits that she did not always identify as a colored person – in part because Arab Americans do not fit exactly into the fields that Americans typically require them to mark on official forms, including z on the U.S. Census.

“We find ourselves in this strange situation where we can’t identify as Arabs,” Essaibi George said in a recent interview. on GBH News. “It is unfortunate that the Arabs do not have this proverbial field that could be marked, and it is important that the Arab community is considered to be seen, heard and recognized.”

Essaibi George said she has defined herself as a color person over the years in an elected position.

Essaibi George often spoke about the obstacles her father, a Muslim immigrant from Tunisia, faces, and the challenges he believed she would face as well as his daughter. Her mother, a Catholic, immigrated from Poland.

In a city like Boston with a long history of white elections, especially of Irish and Italian descent, a girl with an Arab name could never be successful in politics, her father warned, with no chance of becoming mayor.

But 47-year-old Essaibi George, a lifelong Boston resident and former public school teacher, won a major seat on Boston City Council in 2015 and ranked second in the September preliminary election, setting the president a duel with Wu, who won the preseason.

Although she identifies as a person of color, Essaibi George acknowledges that her physical presence – including a strong Boston accent – allows her a certain degree of privilege as a “woman who can maneuver in different spaces in different spaces”.

She also said that although her father’s family came from North Africa, she is not considered African-American, a term that refers to black people.

The question of whether Arab Americans should identify as colored people extends to the Arab American community itself.

Nuha E. Muntasser, who describes herself as a Muslim Arab American or a Muslim Libyan American, said she is horrified when she has to check the box for “white” instead of having the opportunity to identify as North African or Middle Eastern.

“I don’t identify as a white woman and it’s frustrating when I have to identify like that,” she said.

The choice is all the more discouraging because many Arab Americans do not have the same experience as white Americans, she said. This sense of difference can be even more pronounced in Arab or Muslim American women wearing the hijab, she said.

“People like me need to prove our Americanness,” said the 26-year-old, who lives in Sudbury, 45 miles west of Boston and is a member of the city’s Diversity, Justice and Inclusion Committee.

Muntasser also hesitates to call himself a colored person. “Because I understand the difference in what black women experience in this country, I don’t like to say I’m a colorful person,” she said.

The lack of a field to check on Arab Americans can also limit economic opportunities, said former Cambridge city councilor Nadeem Mazen, an Arab American and American Muslim.

This is especially important when considering possible business contracts, especially with the federal government.

“When you’re a company owned by minorities, veterans or women, that’s important,” Mazen said. “People speculate a lot about which fields you can check.”

Mazen, who lives in Cambridge, said he doesn’t look like a black person, but they also don’t see him as white, as he occupies, as he described, a kind of moving window.

“I’m not saying I’m a colored person or I’m not a colored person, but I do know that someone like me faces much more discrimination than your average white upper-class Cambridge,” Mazen said.

A turning point in the lives of many Arab Americans came with the 9/11 attacks, with many still feeling exposed and suspected 20 years later.

A survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, conducted ahead of this year’s 9/11 anniversary, found that 53% of Americans have unfavorable views of Islam, compared to 42% who favor it.

Mohammed Missouri, 38, chief executive of Massachusetts-based Jetpac, a nonprofit that seeks to build political power among American Muslims, said previous generations of Arab Americans focused on assimilation rather than their identity.

“With younger people in the Arab-American community, you see people whose goal is to build real power and not just power for themselves, but for the wider community,” said an Arab American from Missouri. “Younger Arab Americans are very proud of their heritage and see it as an integral part of their identity as Americans.”

Missouri also said that although he is forced to check “white” on census forms – defined as “all individuals who identify with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Europe, the Middle East or North Africa” ​​- it is not considered for a white man. .

Whether Arab Americans fall into a broader category of colored people is still the subject of debate in the community, he said, adding that some “white passers-by Arab Americans” prefer to identify with whites.

“This will be an ongoing conversation that we will continue to have,” he said.

The city’s former elected mayor – Democrat Marty Walsh – resigned and became U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Joe Biden.

Walsha was replaced as actress by Kim Janey, who was sworn in on March 24 as the first female and first black mayor of Boston.

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