Anyone who’s ever filled out a census document or taken the SATs is
familiar with that odd moment when you have to bubble in your racial
classification. For many, the choices are confusing, limiting, and
problematic. In the end, each person bubbles in what they best feel
represents their identity. But when Mostafa Hefny immigrated to the
United States from Egypt in 1978, he didn’t get a say in that decision.

“The government [interviewer] said, ‘You are now white,” Hefny told CBS Detroit.

Since the 1980s, CBS reports, Henfy has been fighting to have the
U.S. government reclassify him as black, which is how he’s always seen
himself. “My classification as a white man takes away my black pride, my
black heritage and my strong black identity,” Henfy told the Detroit News.

Hefny, 61, filed a suit in 1997 against the U.S. government to be reclassified, but his case was dismissed. Hefny has also reached out to President Obama for help, writing him a letter on June 29, the Detroit News reports, as well as the Justice Department and the United Nations.

“I have been awarded, inadvertently, the negative effects of being
black such as racial profiling, stereotypes and disenfranchisement due
to my Negroid features. However, the legal demand of my racial
classification of ‘white’ prevents me from receiving benefits
established for black people, “ he told CBS.
Hefny says he’s lost out on university teaching positions because they
were positions designed for a minority and he did not qualify.

Currently, Directive 15 for the federal Office of Management and Budget Standards
for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity defines
race by the following categories: Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or
Alaska Native, Asian, Black of African American, Native Hawaiian or
Other Pacific islander, White, Nonresident alien, Resident alien, and
Race/ethnicity unknown.

(READ: Should the Census Be Asking People If They Are Negro?)

“White” is defined as “a person having origins in any of the original
peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” — which is why the
U.S. government classifies Hefny as such. However, the desgination for
“Black or African American” applies to “a person having origins in any
of the black racial groups of Africa.” According to CBS, Hefny says that
he is descended from the Nubians, the ancient group of Egyptians from
the northern part of Sudan and southern part of Egypt.

An article by Charles Whitaker in Ebony in 2002 entitled “Was Cleopatra Black?
explored this topic of racial classification in Egypt, and found that,
among scholars, “discussions of Cleopatra’s race were so couched and so
guarded that professors even fear engaging in the discussion publicly.”

“Cleopatra is one of those figures whose race often depends on the
lens you use to view her,” Julia Perkins, associate directors of
community programs for the Art Institute of Chicago told Ebony.
Whitaker talked to various scholars who all found classifying Cleopatra
to be “full of complexity, full of odd historical twists, and that
there was no real, easy answer.” Her father’s mother may have been a
concubine from Nubia, Whitaker writes, so that would make her African

Hefny also classifies himself as African Egyptian, and has co-founded
The Association of Black Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Nubian Advocates to
drum up support for his cause. He’s posted a petition online, and currently has collected 188 signatures.

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