Source: Faces of America: "Who's White"
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Who's White Transcript (Document)
Narration: since the end of the civil war, only white people or black people could become naturalized citizens. Everyone else was excluded.
Gualtieri: Government officials begin to scrutinize the Syrians more closely and to ask this question: What race are the Syrians? Are they white? Or are they Asian? If they are indeed Asian, that would exclude them from the right to citizenship.
Henry Louis gates Jr.: Americans weren’t sure how to classify Arab Americans. They were betwixt and between. So the immigrants themselves mounted a campaign to prove that they were “white.” Now here’s a letter that your great uncle, Habib, sent in to the New York Times in 1909.
Her Majesty, Queen Noor: “It cannot be said that simply because a people reside on the continent of Asia, or in any particular part of that continent, that they are Mongolians… The Syrians are very proud of their ancestry, and believe that the Caucasian race had its origin in Syria, and that Christ, our Savior, was born among them, in which fact the Syrians take great pride.”
Narration: The same year that Queen Noor’s great-uncle wrote his letter to the New York Times, the first Syrian immigrant went to court to prove that he was white.
Although people from many other countries tried the same tactic, more of these cases were filed by Syrians than by any other ethnic group.
Gualtieri: Race wasn’t really one of the primary ways that they understood themselves in the Middle East. They tended to understand themselves in religious terms or place of origin terms. But when they came to the United States which of course was a highly racialized society, race became very important to them, and they realized the privileges of whiteness.
Narration: It’s no surprise to me that they filed these suits. If they wanted to become American citizens, they had no other choice.
Gates: Did you know about this, that they had to become white, prove themselves white?
Queen Noor: No, no… The color of the skin was a really determining factor in, for immigrants to the country.
Gates: Yes, I would say the consciousness of the color of the skin.
Queen Noor: Oh it’s terrible.
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