April 27, 2009

Lack of ‘Middle Eastern’ Option on College Apps Concerns Some

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As students continue to voice concern at the University of California, Los Angeles, over the absence of a “Middle Eastern” option on the race and ethnicity section of the U.C. application, the issue has found its way to the Cornell campus — should the University consider including an option for students of Middle Eastern descent on its admissions forms as well?
Aside from a college-specific supplement, the Cornell application currently consists of the main Common Application, on which students can optionally “check all that apply” from 10 ethnic possibilities (including “other”). Options for “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” do not appear on the application.
According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, an executive agency that advises the President, the federal government classifies all people of Middle Eastern descent as white. The official definition of white, at least in terms of racial and ethnic standards for federal statistics, is any person having “origins in the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.”
The distinction between Arab and Middle Eastern is more cultural and linguistic, according to Prof. Ronald Mize, developmental sociology and Latino studies. The term “Arab,” which is not geographically specific to the Middle East, refers to peoples from North Africa to the Middle East and West Asia. Iran, for example, is not an Arab nation, while Iraq is.
Some students from Arab American or Middle Eastern backgrounds check the “white or Caucasian” box, complying with the federally sanctioned classification. Disagreement and uncertainty, though, sometimes leads others to create their own alternatives by checking the “other” box. Some students also check “Asian” or “African.”
Sahar Raoofi ’10, a member of the Cornell Iranian Students Organization, identified herself as “other” on the Cornell admissions application — and then wrote in “Persian.”
“A specific option would make it more convenient,” she said. “It would be really nice if institutions recognized more specific ethnic backgrounds. But not having it doesn’t really bother me.”
Some students doubt whether the inclusion of a “Middle Eastern” option would be particularly useful.
While explaining that a specific option on the Cornell application would appeal to a sense of nationalist pride, Cina Sasannejad ’09 questioned the helpfulness of options for Arab Americans and Middle Easterners on Cornell admissions forms.
Sasannejad, who is president of the Iranian Students Organization, identified himself as “White or Caucasian” on the Cornell application.
“There are several different dimensions of diversity that admissions applications do not recognize, simply because they would be considered rightfully as inappropriate to ask about,” he said.
“Out of the spectrum of socioeconomic, political and religious diversity, an ethnic category for ‘Middle Eastern’ would not be doing much in terms of identifying diversity among a potential student body.”
Farhan Quasem ’11, the son of Iranian and South Asian parents, voiced concern about the implications of a “Middle Eastern” option on the Cornell application.
“Adding another box might lead to more room for misinterpretation rather than accurate interpretation,” he said. “If someone is really bent on including a particular ethnicity, [he or she] can and will [check] the ‘other’ box.”
Moji Olaniyan, executive director of Cornell’s office of minority educational affairs, did not see any effects that the inclusion of a “Middle Eastern” option would bring to the University.
“My impression is that there are already vibrant communities of students of Arab and Middle Eastern descent on campus through student organizations,” she stated in an e-mail. “There is no direct correlation between racial or ethnic identification on admissions forms and students’ rights and ability to organize and socialize with others of similar ethnic backgrounds.”
Mize expressed interest in the inclusion of a “Middle Eastern” option on the Cornell application.
“There are compelling reasons to consider Arab and Middle Eastern as racialized categories in terms of how those categories are deployed in the United States against Arab Americans and Middle Easterners,” he said in an e-mail.
“Particularly with the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Middle East sentiment and violence post 9-11, it makes sense to categorize the racialized status of Middle Easterners / Arab Americans if we want to utilize our categories to identify those marginalized by the processes of racialization.”