The United States of MENA

Matthew Jaber Stiffler
December 11, 2023
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The Headline

There is no federal category for the Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) community. Not yet.

But on the 2020 decennial Census, for the first time ever, there was a write-in line under each racial and ethnic category. And every person that identified as a member of the MENA community—whether they wrote Arab, Persian, Yemeni, Chaldean, or any of the other two dozen related ancestry identities—was counted. In September 2023 the U.S. Census released the results of these write-in identities: nearly 4 million people identify as having MENA ancestry.

What we have then, in the absence of a federally-recognized category, is a beautiful portrait of the diversity of our community based solely on how people identify themselves. In this graphic that was created by New York-based Egyptian artist Noran Morsi, we see that some people choose to identify based on a specific country (whether the person is an immigrant or their families have been in the U.S. for four generations), an ethno-religious group, or by simply saying “Arab” or “Middle Eastern.”

A map of all of the identities written in on the 2020 census and counted under the MENA category.
The Details

CAN suggests using the number 3.8 million to refer to the MENA community. In our previous blog post about MENA data from the 2020 Census we used 3.5 million, but that number does not include Sudanese or Somali people (more on that below).

Now, there is no single, agreed upon definition of who is MENA and who is not. Like all identity categories, the definition of MENA is very fluid, includes many countries and ethnicities, and (most importantly) is based on self-identification.

According to the U.S. Census, the MENA community is comprised of people who identity ancestry in 20 different countries and a handful of ethnic or ethno-religious groups like Amazigh (Berber) or Kurdish. These identities, written in by individuals on Census forms, are coded and counted as part of the broader MENA community. The Census has done extensive testing and has held many community conversations to help determine which communities they will code as MENA. Based on their national testing in 2015 they determined that Sudan and Somalia would not be counted with the MENA population.

The Center for Arab Narratives and its partner institution the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) use a more coalitional definition of MENA than the U.S. Census. We understand that identity is conditional and contextual. For example, someone who has Sudanese ancestry (whether they themselves are an immigrant from Sudan or their parents/grandparents are) may not always identify primarily as Middle Eastern or North African. They may identity as an Arabophone (someone whose native language is Arabic) and African, but given the long history of anti-Black racism in many Arab and Middle Eastern communities, they may not see themselves primarily as MENA. However, for the purpose of coalition building or being part of the national movement to get better data and representation, this same Sudanese person might align themselves with the MENA community. Further, the experience of people with Sudanese or Somali ancestry in the U.S. is similar to that of many other MENA communities—specifically the impact of U.S. imperialism and rampant anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. For these reasons, CAN includes Sudanese and Somali people in the United States as part of the MENA community—but we are not coopting identity and would not assume that all Sudanese and Somali people would primarily identify as MENA, if at all.

The Conclusion

The MENA community in the United States is ever-growing, diverse, and often overlooked. With almost 4 million people (depending on who is included and how they are counted), it is a community with many narratives and is building its power to affect change at local and national levels.

There are many definitions of MENA, but the most useful method of defining the MENA category is to see who self-identifies with it.