While at a screening of the live-action version of “Aladdin,” I overheard a couple talking about the cast. Aladdin was Egyptian. Jasmine was English. One was a person of color. The other was white. Those statements are both true and untrue and illustrate the oddities experienced by people of Middle Eastern and North African extraction and what it means to be white in the US.
Mena Massoud was born in Cairo, Egypt to Coptic Orthodox Christian parents. He and his parent immigrated to Canada. Egypt is North Africa, but Massoud wouldn’t be considered African Canadian. In the US, he wouldn’t be considered African American either. In the US, to be African means to disassociate a continent with the region most actively involved with European civilization through Mediterranean routes and trade exchange. Egypt is not only part of Africa but also has a foothold in Asia. Yet while it is part of the Middle East, in the minds of many Americans is has no space in either continent except where credit for the ancient civilization of Egypt is required. Then it seems, African Americans want to claim Egypt but not the current Egyptians.
In the US, the US Census Bureau would count a person like Massoud, with ancestors from Egypt as white.
Naomi Scott was born and raised in England and that makes her English and British. Her father is English, but her mother is Asian–Gujarati Indian by way of Uganda (where she was born). Asian Indians are considered Asian (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind) and not white. In England, Asian Indians are considered black in the same way as Little Black Sambo was black and not African.
The man who plays her father, Navid Negahban, was born and raised in Iran. He has lived in German and Turkey, but moved to the US in 1993 when he was in his twenties. Although he is Iranian and Iran is in West Asia, he would also be considered white by the US Census.
Likewise, the actress Nasim Pedrad who plays Jasmine’s BFF, Dalia, is Iranian born considered white by the US Census.
Marwan Kenzari who plays the evil Jafar, was born in the Netherlands to a family of Tunisian extraction. Tunisia is in North Africa, but if Kenzari was in the US, he wouldn’t be African American. He would be considered white.
These actors were hired to represent the Middle East or what was once called the Orient–a region that spanned North Africa to the Hawaiian Islands a long time ago. Some like Scott might be white-passing. Yet other cast members might be considered Middle Eastern and, if unlucky face, the kind of prejudices some people have toward Arabs and Muslims, even if they are neither. This is the reason why there was an effort to form a separate category for Middle Eastern or North African or MENA for the US Census. Arab and Iranian Americans know they are not always accepted as white in the US by their fellow US citizens. Previously, some Latinos has been classified as white (e.g. Perez v. Sharp) so the shift wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In 2020, MENA will not be counted and they will augment the numbers of the white people who sometimes reject them and perhaps go to Aladdin and see them as foreign.