When it comes to representation, people of Middle Eastern and North African descent (MENA) have long faced a particular obstacle: the lack of a check box for official forms, including the US census. Instead of a specific category, Americans who identify as MENA are directed to tick the box to white – whether that reflects their concept of identity or personal experience of the world, and despite the systemic barriers and discrimination they often face are.
The census is notoriously imprecise in dealing with racial identities and, for example, also includes all indigenous peoples with roots in North, Central and South America under one label. But for those of MENA ancestry, the way lack of recognition extends beyond the census can feel like an attempt at cultural obliteration and forced assimilation. It also makes it difficult to identify and organize communities in solidarity against a shared experience of racism and systemic barriers – especially after the rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment after September 11th.
At today’s MENA summit in Adweek, entitled The Unaccounted, nine industry professionals of MENA origins came together to discuss their experiences. The resulting conversation was a celebration of heritage and culture, as well as an insightful discussion of systemic discrimination and racism. Participants shared how they’ve grappled with the tension between assimilation pressures and a strong sense of cultural pride, and how, as successful leaders, they can give more people of MENA ancestry space to take on leadership roles without sacrificing their style and share their heritage.
The panel moderated by Hue co-founder Fahad Khawaja included:
- Jasmine Atherton, Vice President Marketing at étuHome
- Maryam Banikarim, Marketing Director at Nextdoor
- Carla Hassan, Marketing Director at Citi
- Tariq Hassan, Marketing Director at Petco
- Stephanie Nadi Olson, founder of We Are Rosie
- Sepideh Nasiri, founder and CEO of Women of MENA in Tech
- Farhanna Sayegh, multicultural marketing director at CQ Fluency
- Dalia Tarabay, global executive director at Google
Khawaja opened the event by asking panelists how they are running their companies at this moment. In a year where the plans, workflows and business models of the coronavirus pandemic were turned upside down in ways no one could have expected.
Carla Hassan spoke about how her experience as an immigrant and colored person has given her a greater ability to empathize in leadership. “You know what it feels like when people don’t know who you really are,” she said. “If you are already the ‘other’,” she explained, understanding where other people are from can be more natural. “You can help solve problems with [those you lead]- their own personal problems from a management point of view – and wider business problems. “
However, for many of the panellists it was a complicated journey to get to a place of acceptance and trust about their heritage and identity in the workplace. Banikarim described how as a junior high school student she became a seasoned chameleon, downplaying her heritage and culture to better fit in with her peers and avoid discrimination.
It was only more recently, when she was earning a platform as a result of her career, that Banikarim began to “boldly carry my identity,” she explained. Following President Donald Trump’s 2017 order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, she said it suddenly felt more urgent to be more open and frank about her own experiences.
Nadi Olson repeated the feeling. “Being Palestinian is offensive to people – only our very existence is offensive,” she said. “I was taught at a very young age to keep this to myself. Just try to adapt.” But that has changed for her lately.