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Students fight the imposing of identities

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With the excitement that comes with filling out college applications, we cannot remember a time when we could breeze through the ethnicity portion without having to stop and think about which false identity to group ourselves under. Would it be “Other,” a statistic that is rarely counted on a national level? Or would it be “White,” wherein we would be forced to hide our Armenian and Iranian backgrounds and ignore the struggles and narratives of our immigrant parents?

As of fall 2013, prospective students of Middle Eastern and North African descent applying to the UC system will no longer have to make that compromise. On May 2, UC President Yudof announced that the “Southwest Asian/North African”  — also known as SWANA — category, including its 32 subcategories, will be adopted in the ethnicity portion of the 2013-24 UC application. The subcategories include every country in the region as well as Assyrian/Chaldean, Berber, Circassian, Kurdish and Palestinian. Previously, “Middle Eastern” and “North African” were listed under the broader category of “White/Caucasian.”

This campaign, coordinated by UC Berkeley’s SWANA Campaign Committee, has been a two-year process of universitywide community and administrative discussions and advocacy. In the past two years, support for the campaign expanded to other campuses, which resulted in the passage of bills in support of the campaign at Berkeley, Los Angeles, Irvine, San Diego, Davis and the University of California Student Association. Additionally, around 140 student groups from across the UC system, representing a diverse group of students, stood in solidarity with the campaign by signing a statement of support. We are also incredibly grateful to Judy Sakaki, vice president of student affairs in the UC Office of the President — as well as her entire office — for their support and efforts. Their support for this campaign and their attentiveness to the student voice turned our dream into a reality.

Before we address the psychological and emotional impact of the inclusion of this category in the application, it is important to acknowledge the tangible benefits of such data. This data will provide quantitative information that can be used to address institutional and educational inequalities facing SWANA communities while also enabling the establishment of financial and educational services to support targeted recruitment and retention efforts. This data not only provide a more accurate picture of UC demographics but also collects informaton on a community that has historically been an invisible minority in the United States.

In addition to the tangible benefits of this category, the psychological and emotional impacts are immeasurable. Now that the UC system will become one of the few institutions of higher education in the country to collect and report data on the Southwest Asian and North African community, prospective applicants of SWANA descent will finally have the ability to accurately identify themselves. Though this may seem to be a minor portion of the applicant pool, for our community, it will be the first time that the cognitive dissonance between our experiences as a minority community and our racial classification is resolved.

We are a generation ready to challenge these imposed identities and take active steps towards advocating for our communities. We no longer have to be an “invisible minority” in the eyes of the UC system. We no longer have to assimilate into a group of people we truly do not feel like we identify with. The fact that our communities endure many of the same obstacles as other communities of color in terms of access to education and resources can no longer be ignored. We are here, and we will be counted.

Christina Mehranbod is a junior at UC Berkeley. Nairi Shirinian is a recent UC Berkeley graduate. Both coordinated the SWANA Campaign Committee.

JUNE 02, 2013