Why are some black Africans considered white Americans?

Sudanese Americans do not fit neatly into the existing racial classifications of the American society.

Women pray before the start of the annual Muslim Day Parade in the Manhattan borough of New York City
Sudanese Americans, like all African American and Black Muslims in the US, suffer from invisible intersectionality, writes Makki [Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

I always knew I was black. My childhood was the scent of coconut oil hair cream and the taste of bean pie after Friday prayers in a Bilalian mosque on Chicago’s south side. I knew the words to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and called Harold Washington my mayor, even though I lived in the suburbs.

My parents had immigrated to the United States from Sudan in the late 1970s and raised my sister and me to be comfortable in our skin. I spoke Arabic at home and English at school where it seemed no one else agreed that I am black.

Outside of the box

When my father registered me for kindergarten, the school administrator told him that we had to select a box to designate our race.

My father – raised in a post-colonial Sudan mired in ethnic tensions and civil war – wondered aloud why the government was tracking pupils based on race.

The administrator recommended that since Arabic is the language spoken at home, we should mark “white”. My father, whose adolescence was shaped by Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba and Malcolm X, laughed. He patted his conspicuous Afro and wryly said, “We may speak Arabic at home, but you can clearly see that we are black.”

My experience highlights the absurdity of US racial classifications. The US Census Bureau classifies all Arabic speakers as white, owing partly to the fact that the earliest Arabic-speaking immigrants to the US were Levantine Christians who could, and wanted to, pass for white.

Becoming white

US history is defined by centuries of rigid racial hierarchy, with enslaved Africans and their descendants at the bottom of the heap.

Catholics, Jews, and southern European immigrants were not automatically granted whiteness and its legal benefits (PDF).

But by the 20th century, if a man looked white, he enjoyed full benefits of citizenship. But if he looked or was suspected of being black, then he would have to contend with racist laws designed to disenfranchise and terrify African Americans.

The author's paternal grandfather al-Makki Muhammad al-Faki (left) and her maternal great-grandfather, al-Haj Ahmed wad al-Haj Taha (right) would have been classified as
The author’s paternal grandfather al-Makki Muhammad al-Faki (left) and her maternal great-grandfather, al-Haj Ahmed wad al-Haj Taha (right) would have been classified as “white” per the US Census Bureau [Al Jazeera/Hind Makki]

The immigration of non-Europeans threw a wrench into this system. Early 20th-century Arab immigrants were not interested in being on the wrong end of Jim Crow laws and did not want to live as non-citizens like some Asian immigrants. They petitioned the government to grant them legal whiteness and it did.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to chip away at systemic racism.

The Arabic-speakers who immigrated to the United States after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, including my parents, were much more diverse than the previous waves.

Most of the newcomers, who included people from 10 African countries, could not pass for white even if they wanted to.

Identity erasure

My elementary school wanted to designate me as white because Arabic is my mother tongue, but no one was under any illusion that I actually was a white person. Rather, the question was: as an Afro-Arab, am I black enough to be considered racially black in America?

Sudanese Americans racial identities are often erased. Ahmed Mohamed, the so-called Clock Boy, was described as “brown” by many commentators as if he was South Asian.

Famously, Aziz Ansari, the Indian American actor, tweeted that he stands with Ahmed, “because I was once a brown kid in the south, too.”

I am a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf; I cannot point to an Afro to prove my blackness. Like Ahmed, my racial identity is often erased and transformed into an amorphous brown “other”.

Having your racial identity erased means hearing racial slurs against your community in your own language. It can also lead to absurdly ironic situations.

My family used to live in a predominantly African American apartment complex, whose residents were bused into predominantly white schools.

OPINION: Are Arabs white?

Once, a white woman stepped on to the bus with her blonde granddaughter and scanned the aisles. She loudly commanded, “Go sit with those Indian girls; I don’t want you to sit next to any n*****s.” It was only when the girl plucked herself down next to us that my sister and I realised that the older woman had meant us!

Sudanese Americans do not fit neatly into the existing racial classifications of our society. Though many identify as black, proximity to the Arabic language negates their claim to blackness in the eyes of others.

The artificial line between North and sub-Saharan Africa has followed us across the Atlantic. And during the Sudanese Civil War, journalists often described a conflict that pitted the “Arab North” against the “African South”.

For the reader, the word “Arab” conjures images of pale-skinned people from the Middle East, not images of my ebony-skinned great-grandfathers irrigating their farms along the banks of the Nile.

This politicised language still reverberates, even though many Sudanese immigrants actively identify as black and are treated as such by the state, law enforcement, and society at large.

Intersectional invisibility

There was an outpouring of support from American Muslim communities after three young Levantine Arab Muslims were shot dead by their neighbour.

Yet, the responses from African American and Muslim communities were tepid when three young men, Sudanese refugees, were also shot dead later that year.

The founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, Kameelah Rashad writes: “Psychologist Valerie Purdie Vaughns coined the term intersectional invisibility to describe the phenomenon that occurs within a subordinate group in which individuals with intersecting identities (black and Muslim, for example – embodying racial and religious minority identities) are not perceived to be typical members of that group and often erased from the collective imagination.” (PDF)

READ MORE: Race in the US – What if your identity was a lie?

Sudanese Americans, like all African American and black Muslims in the US, suffer from intersectional invisibility. One unexpected side effect of the #MuslimBan has been a larger platform for Sudanese American artists and commentators to grapple with their own intersecting identities. The diversity found internally in Sudan cannot be crammed into an American box.

In an era of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and the xenophobic, anti-Muslim Trump administration, Sudanese Americans are carving their own identities at the intersection of Islamophobia and anti-black animus.

Hind Makki is a second-generation Sudanese American. She is an interfaith and anti-racism educator, and works to improve Muslim women’s access to mosques in North America. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.