The Brown Center for Students of Color is hosting its first-ever Southwest Asian and North African Heritage Series this year, with a welcome-back dinner held for SWANA students last week. The group’s increased visibility at the BCSC comes as SWANA-identifying students lobby for recognition at Brown.
The decision to create a SWANA Heritage Series was not a unilateral one taken by the BCSC, said Joshua Segui, director of the BCSC. Rather, there had been a growing awareness across the center and its student advisory board that SWANA students’ experiences were not being addressed in the center’s previous programming.
The SWANA Heritage Series will likely take the form of monthly cultural performances showcasing the art of Southwest Asian and North African countries, said heritage series staffer Nour Asfour ’18.
“SWANA” is used, among other purposes, to denote a geographic region that spans two continents and is home to a number of ethnicities, faiths and languages, Asfour said. “There is no single picture of a SWANA student.”
With this diversity, members of SWANA countries do not typically think of themselves as belonging to a single racial category — in fact, ethnic and communal tensions among groups have run high in the past, said Roksana Borzouei ’17. “In Iran, sometimes people will say, ‘We’re not Muslim. Iranians were attacked by Arabs!’”
But in the United States, those distinctions mean comparatively little, as the entire region is racialized in the same way. Sometimes, this characterization can be boiled down to pernicious epithets like “dumb or dangerous,” Borzouei said. SWANA students currently studying at Brown grew up surrounded by the rhetoric of the Iraq War and the War on Terror, she explained, and faced similar experiences of having to defend their parents’ accents or dress.
“It doesn’t matter how you think of yourself. Some Iranians say, ‘We’re Aryan, so we’re white.’ But it only matters how you are thought of,” she said. While SWANA community members can sometimes “pass as white,” they still face discrimination and hostility while searching for employment — a quick look at their names will reveal their descent, she said.
Nevertheless, members of SWANA at Brown end up ticking white on demographic surveys, nationwide censuses and University applications. Asfour selected the category of ‘other’ when applying to Brown.
“I didn’t see people who represented me,” Asfour said of her experiences in general once she arrived at the University. “What sort of career does someone like me have?”
The decision to refer to themselves as SWANA — and not Middle Eastern and North African Students — means that members have an uphill battle to fight in terms of raising awareness about what SWANA means and stands for. But to Borzouei, the term “Middle Eastern” is problematic and reflective of a Eurocentric worldview.
“The world is round. What is the Middle East supposed to be in the middle of?” she said. Referring to themselves as SWANA is, in itself, an attempt on the part of such students to define themselves on their own terms, she said.
The label ‘the Middle East’ also carries foreign policy and diplomatic connotations, Asfour said. As a term, SWANA designates community more than any one political agenda.
“Everybody is so ready to talk about the Middle East on this campus and elsewhere — but our voices are being drowned out,” Asfour said. She added that SWANA at Brown, an unofficial union of primarily Iranian, Arab and Turkish students at Brown and RISD, was formed in fall 2015 to amplify SWANA students’ voices and advocate on behalf of all members of the community.
SWANA at Brown presses primarily for institutional change. Now that SWANA has been recognized as a racial category by the BCSC, members are pushing to have it included in the University’s application process.
Borzouei pointed out that UC Berkeley has been including SWANA as an ethnicity since its 2013-2014 application, which set “a huge precedent,” she said.
Former Dean of Admission Jim Miller was receptive to the proposal last semester, Asfour said. SWANA at Brown had yet to approach the new Dean of Admission, Logan Powell, at the time of The Herald’s interview with Asfour.
“Brown can’t change the Common Application, but it can start including SWANA in its supplement,” Asfour said. “We can start to build this community.”
Bourzouei hopes Brown will set an example for other Ivies and northeastern colleges in this regard. “My ambition — and some people may chuckle at this — is to eventually change the U.S. Census,” she said.