Growing up, Disney’s “Aladdin” was my favorite movie — I could sing the entire soundtrack from memory. One birthday, my friends all pitched in for tickets to the “Aladdin” musical at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. I was so excited to see my favorite movie, but when I got there, I was quickly disappointed to see a decidedly non-Middle Eastern Aladdin and Jasmine.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t changed. Of the nine main actors in the current Broadway production of “Aladdin,” only one is of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Six are white. Apparently, any slightly tan, dark-haired white person can play a Middle Eastern character.
The whitewashing played out right before my eyes that evening in the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. Over time, I’ve realized that it reflects a larger problem in how we view the MENA community and treat the racism it faces.
Let’s go back to 18th-century Germany, when eugenicist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach classified all humans into five racial groups. In typical European eugenicist racism, he claimed Caucasians to be “the most beautiful” and “superior.” MENA people were lumped in under this category because Europeans wanted to claim their race was the foundation of civilization, and at the time, the landing point of Noah’s Ark was believed to be in what is now Turkey.
So begins centuries of MENA whitewashing, which continues today. If you don’t believe me, fill out the census. There are five federal racial categories, all derivative of the five Blumenbach came up with. The fifth group on the form is “white,” defined as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” So instead of MENA people having a place to adequately reflect our heritage, we are all counted as white.
That is inherently whitewashing, or taking something distinctly non-white and making it white. The federal government could not have been any less discrete about it.
Whitewashing gives politicians and Americans an excuse to discriminate. By defining one minority group — MENA — as white, all minority groups are defined in relation from “most white” to “least white.” And since we associate “least white” with “most affected by racism” and “most white” with “least affected by racism,” we also use the scale to look at discrimination of any type — personal, internalized, structural, institutional.
Since MENA is federally counted as white, Middle Eastern and North Africans’ place on this scale is instantly set at the extreme of “most white,” and therefore “least discriminated against.” However, discrimination does occur, due to Islamophobia and xenophobia. And although it is never explicitly said, the implicit belief that MENA groups are less affected by racism causes this discrimination to be ignored.
The Cato Institute, for example, has shown that a vast majority of Americans opposes racial profiling against most races. The exception is when it is against Middle Eastern people: 71 percent of Black Americans and 66 percent of white Americans support profiling towards those who appear to be Middle Eastern, according to a study done by researchers at Santa Clara University.
Profiling has very real and scary consequences. Remember Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old boy who brought a homemade clock to school, which people assumed to be a bomb? He was arrested, and even after finding out there was no evidence of a bomb, the police department still considered charging him for days. I’m not sure for what, maybe for expressing an interest in engineering while being Arab. But the courts didn’t believe this discrimination caused him harm, despite the fact that he was harassed so much that his family had to leave the country.
Anti-MENA hate crimes are also on the rise since Donald Trump, who actively advocates for MENA discrimination, got elected into office. Executive Orders 13769 and 13780, aka Trump’s attempt at a Muslim ban, highlighted this by banning people from many Middle Eastern and North African countries from entering the United States. Even the name of the orders, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” calls us terrorists.
It is true that some MENA people may be more white-passing, and those that are have some amount of white privilege. However, this only protects them from some day-to-day acts of discrimination. It still cannot protect a MENA person who wears a hijab, speaks another language in public or is already known to be non-white by those around them. And it can never protect from larger acts of discrimination, such as Trump’s executive orders.
America won’t change its views on a whole ethnic group overnight. But to start supporting the MENA community, we must re-examine our own beliefs and dismantle our perceptions of race.
SHYLA SUMMERS is a first year in Silliman college. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.