Boston mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George, who counts herself as a person of color, has faced questions about her identity since she jumped into the historic field — then filled with candidates who were visibly not white.
The Arab-Polish Boston native said she has identified as a person of color for the six years she has held public office, but she acknowledged she has not always.
With less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, how Essaibi George identifies remains a quietly persistent issue on the campaign trail. Wu supporters interviewed by GBH News tended to be more skeptical than Essaibi George voters in accounting for the depth of her cultural and ethnic identification.
“The idea of Arabs counting as people of color” has always been a “flexible conversation,” Essaibi George said, explaining her decision to adopt the term after winning an at-large seat on the Boston City Council and being welcomed in 2016 into the informal affinity group convened by Boston’s elected officials of color.
When Essaibi George applied for a job as a Boston Public Schools teacher in 2001, though, she said she identified as white.
“If Arab were a box, I would’ve checked it,” she told GBH News, saying she has consistently acknowledged her Arab heritage.
“We are not Black,” Essaibi George said. “My people are from Africa, [but] African American was always meant for Black people to identify. For me, that just further reminded me that Arabs don’t have ... a box to check” — an idea she said weighed heavily on her father who faced racism and Islamophobia when he emigrated to Boston from Tunisia in the 1970s.
“As his daughter, who is also the daughter of a Polish woman, my physical identity, my physical presence offers me opportunities to be in lots of different rooms,” she continued. “That I speak with a very heavy Boston accent, that the way that people perceive me allows me lots of privileges and lots of opportunities to float in and out of spaces that my father never would’ve ever been welcomed to.”
For Arab Americans, experts agree that identity is somewhat liminal, chiefly since the U.S. Census and many other official documents count them as white.
The lack of a proper and official ethnic designation has led to questions about whether Arabs and other Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or Northern African groups should be classified as white. There’s a national movement to add another ethnic category to the U.S. Census, with backing from the Biden administration.
“You have a category of Hispanic, African American, Asian, but you don’t have a category ‘Arab’ and [only] recently you’ve started to have the category ‘Middle Eastern,’” said Leila Farsakh, a political economist and the chair of the UMass Boston political science department.
That flexibility presents problems for some Boston voters.
Maxence Metayer, a Black Haitian American who lives in Roxbury and is supporting Michelle Wu, labeled it an example of “white privilege.”
“You can define yourself however you want to, just as we have pronouns,” Metayer told GBH News. “But, if you’ve been identifying and benefitting on paper, now you want to flip it, there’s a sense of a lack of integrity there.”
Even if there was an “Arab” box to check, that still would not capture the separate reality of racial appearance, said Emily Shamieh, a longtime Jamaica Plain resident whose grandparents hailed from Syria and Lebanon.
“Self-identifying is only a part of” being a person of color, said Shamieh, who identifies as Arab American but doesn’t consider herself a person of color. “The other part of it is how the world perceives you.”
“I was very much in the minority in my neighborhood,” she continued, recalling an instance in school when she had to stick a lone pin on a map to identify her family’s origins while most of her classmates were of Irish and Italian descent. “However, I benefitted from the benefits that come with being white — and I have always benefitted from the benefits that come with being white.”
Shamieh, who is also supporting Wu in the mayor’s race, acknowledged the impossibility of fully knowing another person’s lived experience.
“But that doesn’t change my feeling that you can’t access both identities. You can’t be a person of color when that works and be white when that works,” Shamieh said.
Yet, for others, like Abdillahi Abdirahman, who is originally from Somalia, Essaibi George’s African heritage overrules all the nuanced talk of who does and does not count as a person color.
“North Africa is more light-skinned,” he said at a meet and greet with Essaibi George in a Roxbury African and Middle Eastern eatery. “It does not mean that person is not an African.”
Abdirahman, who works frequently in Boston politics, would not disclose his choice for mayor.
“Of course, it makes a difference,” he said, acknowledging that Essaibi George could reasonably be perceived as white and be shielded from instances of racism.
“That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is ... when I [request something] and then, I don’t get it because I’m Black, or I am a Muslim. That bothers me,” Abdirahman added.
For Christian Orlando, a supporter and former student of Essaibi George’s, the question of identity or filling out a census are distractions from more important campaign issues.
“What did people expect her to put there?” he queried, pointing back to the lack of an Arab American ethnic designation. “I feel like people [are] discrediting her pride in her heritage.”
Orlando, who is Italian American and does not consider himself a person of color, pointed to recent New York Times article on how Essaibi George’s thick accent plays on the mayoral campaign trail and said “people should be proud of who they are and the fact that she’s getting questioned about it almost seems like it’s targeted, which is pretty unfair.”
UMass Boston’s Farsakh said the questions Essaibi George is facing are emblematic of Arab American politicians’ experiences, particularly those who are immigrants or children of immigrants.
“You’re trying to find a place you want, trying to fit in,” Farsakh said. “But, you also bring with you your background, your origins. Now how much you celebrate it, how much you want to deny it, is always either a political calculation or an expression or affirmation of power.”
The expression varies in U.S. politics.
New Hampshire Governor Chris T. Sununu, who is being courted by national Republicans to run against Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan, makes little mention of his heritage, but his father, John H. Sununu, famously fielded questions about his Arab — and Greek and Salvadoran — heritage when he was tapped in 1988 to serve as White House chief of staff to the late President George H. W. Bush.
Councilor Safiya Khalid, a Muslim woman who became the youngest and first Somali American city councilor in Lewiston, Maine, declined to run for a second term this year, citing racism and a desire to help anti-racist candidates win elections.
"It's unfortunate that in society, we've placed people into these boxes — and if you don't fit neatly into one of these very clear demographics, you don't exist."Annissa Essaibi George
Mohammed Missouri is executive director of Cambridge-based Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that seeks to build political power and engagement among American Muslims, in part, by training them to run for elected office.
He estimated that about 20% of the group’s trainees so far have specifically been Arab American Muslims, even though their religious and ethnic identity are frequently, incorrectly, conflated.
“You can’t ignore your identity,” he said during a recent interview with GBH News. “But, of course, you want to figure out what else is there. How does it connect with your policies, your values, and how will it impact you as a leader?”
Missouri’s group prompts trainees with questions such as: What does your identity mean to the work, and what will your identity mean for you as you do outreach?
Further afield, in the heavily Arab Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Abed Hammoud, recalls an inadvertent spotlight on his identity when he ran for mayor the year of the September 11 attacks, a year that many Arabs said marked a turning point in how they were treated in the United States.
“I became part of that story without wanting to be part of it,” Hammond told GBH News in a recent interview. “A lot of national and international media wanted to come and talk to me about my race, 9/11 and Arab Americans and the Muslims. ... It forced me to talk about issues that were not relevant to my campaign because I wasn’t campaigning on being Arab American.”
Arabs in politics facing questions about their identities is a political reality he believes will gradually become less intense as more Arab Americans run for public office.
“The name Hammoud is going mainstream in Dearborn,” he said, pointing to his son Mustapha’s bid for a city council seat and his unrelated friend Abdullah Hammoud, who’s now running for the same seat Abed Hammoud campaigned for two decades ago.
“I think that we are almost there in Dearborn, where race is not going to matter as much after this election,” Hammond said.
Back in Boston, Essaibi George said it’s been difficult and frustrating that her identity keeps popping up as an issue on this campaign.
“It’s unfortunate that in society, we’ve placed people into these boxes — and if you don’t fit neatly into one of these very clear demographics, you don’t exist,” she said.
“For some people,” Essaibi George said, “it’s really important and it has to be a part of what we talk about ... and that’s fine. But it also has to be about the work that we do because representation certainly matters, but we have work to do with that representation.”