When Youssef Ibrahim left his family behind in Egypt to enroll last year at Yale University, he found that he gravitated to others who shared his love for traditional Middle Eastern food and music. Many, like him, were feeling homesick in their new surroundings, missing the close family ties they grew up with.
Yale’s four cultural centers, for Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American students, offer programming to provide students with this sense of belonging. None, to him, seemed a good fit.
Creating a cultural center for Middle Eastern and North African students has become a priority for Ibrahim and others at campuses across the country, where pressure is building to acknowledge their distinct racial and ethnic identity, sometimes abbreviated as MENA. It’s part of a broader cultural reckoning about how people from this vast region of diverse languages, religions, colors, and cultures want to be recognized and valued.
The U.S. Census Bureau officially categorizes them as white, even though many suffer discrimination that they say gets overlooked as a result. That may soon change. The federal government is resurrecting the idea of adding a category to the census for people who identify as Middle Eastern or North African. In June, the nation’s chief statistician said her office was reviewing and revising how data on race and ethnicity is collected and reported, and it’s widely expected that a question about MENA identity will surface again.
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Germine H. Awad, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has been working with other researchers to push for a MENA category in the census, a move the Census Bureau supports, but the Office of Management and Budget has yet to approve.