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 Egyptian.
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.