Some Middle Eastern students no longer want to be considered white.
A student movement to add a Middle Eastern category on the University of California application has begun to pick up steam, as university officials mull over implementing the change.
Students who self-identify as Middle Eastern are typically expected to categorize themselves as white on the UC application, though some choose African, Asian, or other. The ambiguity has motivated some Middle Eastern students to call for a category of their own.
Though the movement began at UCLA, support for a change is growing across the UC system.
“I think that it is a fantastic idea to have more ethnic groups included,” said Shadee Amirkiai, a junior neurobiology, physiology and behavior major in an e-mail interview. “I didn’t like the fact that [UC] could take the time and use the space to include Middle Eastern in parenthesis with the ethnic group “white,” but that they would not set it as a separate ethnicity.“
The student movement has caused UC to consider adding a Middle Eastern category application. While the university agrees that the change would improve the quality of student data, it would also entail costs to modify computer systems at UC and the individual campuses, said UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez.
UC will make a decision in the next few months. If the change is adopted, it would likely be implemented for the fall 2010 UC application, Vazquez said.
This is not the first time students have called for UC to expand its ethnic categories on the UC application. In 2007, UC approved adding 23 Asian American Pacific Islander groups to its application after thousands of UC students supported a “Count Me In” campaign. The modification went into effect for the fall 2008 UC application.
UC aims to use the richer Asian American Pacific Islander data to target underrepresented ethnic groups. Similarly, Vazquez said the addition of a Middle Eastern category would allow UC and its campuses to send promotional materials targeted to students who self-identify as such.
“The data would be for analytic purposes. The information might be used to target services, allowing campuses to mail to students who identify as Middle Eastern,” Vazquez said.
The change will have no bearing on the admissions process itself, as Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996, bars UC from considering race as a factor on the application.
Steven Baissa, director of UC Davis‘ Cross Cultural Center, said the change would allow the campus to better serve the Middle Eastern community.
“This whole [movement] is about stopping assumptions, combating stereotypes, increasing visibility, and the synergy that comes from celebrating differences,” he said. “Some students don’t feel comfortable identifying with a category they don’t understand.“
Suad Joseph, chair of the UC Davis Middle East/South Asia Studies program, said the practice of identifying people of Middle Eastern descent as white was established in U.S. courts in the early 20th century, when eligibility for citizenship was in question.
Joseph said she supports adding the Middle Eastern category on the UC application because some people do not feel comfortable self-identifying as white and the data could be useful for analyzing the representation of Middle Easterners at UC, she said.
“I think we have social reasons for the Middle East community to feel very strongly as people of color or they identify as a separate ethnic category, and not necessarily people of color or white,” Joseph said.
Joseph said it is impossible to estimate how many Middle Eastern students there are at UC Davis without any data, but she said there could be over 500 Iranian students at UC Davis alone.
The U.S. Census does not have a separate Middle Eastern category, either. Estimates of people who identify as Middle Eastern population range from two million to ten million, Joseph said.
Some students are less enthusiastic about the change. Natasha Longhmanpour, financial coordinator of the Iranian Student Cultural and Aesthetic Organization, said while she does not oppose the change, she has never felt inadequately represented by labeling herself white.
“I don’t personally find it offensive to mark myself as ‘white‘ on applications. If anything, I’d rather not be racially targeted depending on the political tension at that point in time,” she said.
Joseph said the wide range of opinion is precisely why the category should be created.
“There isn’t one view on this issue and that’s a compelling reason to create the category,” she said.
The proposed Middle Eastern ethnic category for the UC application comes at a time when the Middle East/South Asia Studies (MESA) program at UC Davis is rapidly expanding. The MESA minor was added in 2004 and the major in fall 2008.
MESA had two faculty and five courses in 2001, which has expanded to 18 faculty and over 70 courses this year, with over 30 more course additions planned for the next three years, Joseph said. Student support provided the impetus for the expansion, she said.
“The MESA program is an exquisite example of what students can accomplish in the university when they are focused and organized,” Joseph said. “They wanted this program, they worked to make it happen and it happened.“
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.