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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Rutgers chapter.

When I first learned about the concept of race, I was ten. I was the most naive ten-year-old in Bayonne, NJ. With my feet dangling from the chair, I looked around the classroom to see the most diverse group of fourth-graders I’ve ever seen. My teacher rose from her desk and handed out forms to the class. As I looked at the paper to pass it to my classmate behind me, I was enlivened but skeptical. “Every ten years, the United States Census comes for everyone to fill out,” Mrs. Russell says. “This one isn’t real, but we will go through it together.”

The room, filled predominantly with children of color, became an epicenter of excitement after coming upon question 9; everyone enthusiastically chattered about their heritage and culture.

Eyes glancing through every box, I found comfort in the box labeled “other”.

No other box seemed to fit me.

“No, Jessie,” Mrs. Russell said, strolling back to her desk to pull out my file. “It says here, that you are,” she paused, “‘White’.”

Confused, I obeyed. Looking down at my brown hand as it checked the box labeled “white,” I felt like a fraud.

My identity, since that moment, has become a part of a quest that I must satisfy in order to fulfill my conscious desire to be genuine.

That was the spring of 2010. Ten years later, I face the same challenge and the nation continues to face this challenge as well.

My culture finds itself on the top of Africa, just west of Western Asia. Most people know it as the Middle East. However, I am not from the Middle East. I am African. But not the African most people think about when they hear the word “African”. I am Saharan African—or North African. When I say I am African, most assume sub-Saharan African; this is a whole separate issue that I could go on about, but that is for another article. Most individuals from this region identify as MENA, an acronym that stands for Middle Eastern/North African.

The issue with race is that ‘race’ is a relative term for MENA people. In the United States, race is predominantly predicated on skin color; but the skin tone range among a pool of MENA people varies astronomically. Some MENA people are very fair, others are very dark, and others—like me—lie somewhere in between.

The absence of MENA on legal documents—Census, job applications, college applications, AP exams, and other major documents— tells MENA people that they don’t count. They don’t matter.

When it was announced that the United States Census Bureau intended on adding MENA as a category on the upcoming 2020 United States Census, I thought that we finally made it. We were no longer invisible. Someone had seen us. It was not until they decided to go back on their decision that I realized we must struggle for another decade to be heard and to be seen.

In the media sphere, MENA people are just starting to break out. Growing up, I never saw myself on television. I never saw myself in the media. I never saw myself in films, unless we were the terrorist. Never in the news, unless we were the culprit. I made it my duty to delve into these industries because of this; I figured, if no one else is going to do it, I will. Today, people like Rami Malek, Mena Massoud, Hoda Kotb, and Ramy Youssef are among the few MENA figures in popular media and are finally getting into the limelight. These figures, along with people of my culture, have helped me develop into my identity: my MENA identity.

What I have learned when understanding my brown identity is that, despite the fact that there is little representation and understanding of my culture, it is up to me to help spread the beauty of it. It is up to me to make sure that there is enough MENA representation for the generations after me. It is up to me to assure them that this representation is not predicated on the stereotypes inflicted upon us. It is up to me to make sure that, as a people, we do not compromise who we are to fit into another box on that checklist.

Hey, I'm Jessie Eshak. I'm a MENA American with goals to pursue a career in film and television. My passion to the improve the poor representation of Middle-Eastern and North Africans in entertainment in front of the camera and behind it.
Alishbah Arsalan is a graduating senior at Rutgers University majoring in Health Administration and minoring in Human Resource Management.