How the Lebanese Became White?

This post is written by Dr. Akram Khater, Director, Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. Khater is a professor of history at North Carolina State University and has published extensively on Lebanese migration to the United States. 

Race is a difficult topic. It is fraught with a violent history and tumultuous feelings. Yet, race was a central element in the Lebanese immigrant experience, not only in the Jim Crow South of the US, but in Africa, Australia and South America.

The Lebanese left homes in Zahleh, Dayr al-Qamar and other villages and towns where their sense of self was anchored in their community, family and religion. Race–as a biological marker of ability, social opportunity and rank–was not something they had encountered until they arrived here, and other parts of the mahjar (land of emigration).

Coming into the Jim Crow South (or the equally racially segregated South Africa and Australia) Lebanese immigrants faced discrimination, harassment and in few cases even worse. As Phillip Shehdan noted “there were three things you did not want to be in North Carolina [in the first half of the 20th century]: a foreigner, a Catholic [or Eastern Christian] or black. The Lebanese were two out of those three!!!” Examples of this bias abounds. Speaking of the “Syrian” [a generic term applied to all immigrants from today’s Lebanon and Syria] a writer in the Wilmington Messenger wrote: “These foreigners are…filthy and immoral in their habits, breeding pestilence and filth wherever they live.” (June 23, 1897). American Nativists, worried about the “immigrant menace”, lashed out at the Lebanese and other ethnic communities. In the charged environment of racial politics of the South, Alabama’s congressman John L. Burnett argued in 1907 that the Lebanese “belong to a distinct race other than the White race.” In 1914 North Carolina Senator, F. M. Simmons went further proclaiming: “These [Lebanese] immigrants are nothing more than the degenerate progeny…the spawn of the Phoenician curse.”

This hostility toward the Lebanese (as well as Black, Italians and other non-whites) in the South sometimes led to tragic and violent events such as the lynching of Nola [N’oula] Romey in Lake City, Florida in 1929. Nou’la had immigrated with his wife Fannie from Zahleh to Valdosta, Georgia around 1906. They decided to move to Lake City, Florida in 1926 after N’oula was flogged by the local KKK chapter, and after several run-ins with the law in Valdosta. Unfortunately for the family, problems with the law persisted in Lake City, and came to a head when the Sheriff and his deputies shot Fannie to death over an altercation at the Lebanese couple’s store. They then placed N’oula in jail where later that night a mob dragged him out and killed him.

These verbal and physical attacks on the Lebanese in the South mobilized the community to defend itself against defamation and discrimination. For instance, H. A. Elkourie, a physician and president of the Syrian Young Men’s Society in Birmingham, Alabama responded to Congressman Burnett’s aspersions in several editorials published in the local press. Similarly, in Wilmington Haykal Gideon [Jad’oun] wrote a scathing response to the editorial accusing the “Syrians” of being filthy and immoral, and pronouncing himself and his community to be law-abiding and hard-working parts of the community.

While individuals and even local Lebanese organizations did respond to these attacks, the larger Lebanese-American community in the United States did not formulate a coherent and coordinated response until the naturalization case of George Dow, a “Syrian” immigrant living in South Carolina. George Dow, who was born in Batroun (north Lebanon) in 1862, immigrated to the United States in 1889 through Philadelphia and eventually settled in Summerton, South Carolina where he ran a dry-goods store. In 1913 he filed for citizenship which was denied by the court because he was not a “free white person” as stipulated in the 1790 US naturalization law.

For the “Syrian” community this case was crucial because it could mean the end of their ability to become US citizens, and thus maintain their residence and livelihoods in “Amirka.” Moreover, it was a matter of equality in rights. The community’s struggle with the fluid concept of “free white person” began before George Dow, with Costa Najjour who was denied naturalization in 1909 by an Atlanta lower court because he was too “dark.” In 1913 Faris Shahid’s application was also denied by a South Carolina court, because “he was somewhat darker than is the usual mulatto of one-half mixed blood between and the white and the negro races.” In rendering his decision in the Dow case, Judge Henry Smith argued that although Dow may be a “free white person,” the legislators from 1790 meant white Europeans when they wrote “free white person.”

The “Syrian” community decided to challenge this exclusionary interpretation. Setting aside their differences, all Arab- American newspapers dedicated at least one whole page to the coverage of this case and its successful appeal to the Fourth Circuit court. Al-Huda led the charge with one headline “To Battle, O Syrians.” Proclaiming that Judge Smith’s decision was a “humiliation” of “Syrians,” the community poured money into the legal defense of George Dow. Najib al-Sarghani, who helped establish the Syrian Society for National Defense in 1914 in Charleston, South Carolina, wrote in al-Huda, “we have found ourselves at the center of an attack on the Syrian honor,” and such ruling would render the Syrian “no better than blacks and Mongolians. Rather blacks will have rights that the Syrian does not have.” The community premised its right to naturalization on a series of arguments that would “prove” that “free white person” meant all Caucasians, thus establishing precedent in the American legal system and shaping the meaning of “whiteness” in America. Joseph Ferris summarized these arguments a decade later in The Syrian World magazine as follows: the term “white” referred to all Caucasians; George Dow was Semite and therefore Caucasian; since European Jews (who were Semites) were deemed worthy of naturalization, therefore “Syrians” should be given that right as well; and finally, as Christians, “Syrians” must have been included in the statute of 1790. The success of these arguments at the Court of Appeals level secured the legal demarcation of “Syrians” as “white.”

What makes this particular story more remarkable is that similar ones were unfolding around the same time in South Africa and Australia, both of which had racially-based definitions of citizenship and concomitant rights. For example, in 1913 Moses Gandur challenged the classification of “Syrians” as “Colored Asiatics” before the Supreme Court of South Africa and won by arguing that although “Syrians” resided in Asia they still were white or Caucasian, and thus not subject to the exclusionary clauses of the 1885 Law. In all of these cases, the arguments were also quite similar to the one summarized by Joseph Ferris above.

These decisions meant that the “Syrians” (and by extension today all Arabs) are considered white in the US. This entry into mainstream society–where whiteness bestowed political and economic power–meant different things for different members of the Lebanese community. Some were satisfied to leave the racial system of the South unchallenged as long as they were considered white.

For others, the experience of fighting racial discrimination convinced them that the system is inherently unjust and must be changed. Thus, many NC Lebanese (like Ralph Johns who encouraged his black clients at his clothier store on East Merchant Street to start the sit-ins in Greensboro) participated in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s to end the era of the Jim Crow South.

Today we live in a far more multi-cultural society where diversity and ethnicity are celebrated by most Americans as positive aspects that enrich our country economically, politically and culturally. In part this was due to the struggles of our early immigrants, but also to the continuing work of high-profile activists like the late Helen Thomas, Edward Said, Ralph Nader and a myriad of local and national organizations that raise the profile of our community within the larger society.

For a detailed history of race and Lebanese immigrants to the US you can read Sarah Gualtieri’s book, Between Arab and White.

22 responses on “How the Lebanese Became White?

  1. Darrin says:

    AS an American of Lebanese descent it doesn’t surprised that the country was not only often divided among racial but even ethnic lines. And as I explained to many blacks growing up regarding my ancestry when questioned about it, whiteness is a social construct, one that may or may not include we Lebanese based on its context, but racially we are indeed Caucasoids in race.

  2. Khadijah Shakur says:

    are you saying that you are white? yes or no maybe I missed something.

    1. Darrin says:

      Again, whiteness is a social construct, a color metaphor for race, just as blackness is. Now, any anthropologist will explain to you that the Caucasoid race to which we belong was never exclusive to Europe, but is also indigenous to parts Asia, and yes, North Africa too. In the biological sense we are therefore white. But in a sociological sense we were oftentimes considered “nonwhite” in that we differed from most ethnic Europeans in that the majority of us seemed to keep a year round tan, whereas most of them are of a fairer skin tone. In our relations with other peoples who are Negroid or Mongoloid in race, they simply look at us most times from a purely biological level and acknowledge that we are Caucasian and thus white. In any case I am as happy with being a Caucasian or white as I am with being an ethnic Lebanese, and am of course a staunch opponent to anti-white racism.

      Sorry about the late reply. Hope that cleared up the confusion, friend.

  3. oh please says:

    “Race–as a biological marker of ability, social opportunity and rank–was not something they had encountered until they arrived here, and other parts of the mahjar (land of emigration).” This is completely false. Skin color is a major factor in the homeland and across Africa. The word “abd” is a racial slur, depending on context, in arabic, and skin tone and color — along with racism — is probably more pervasive there than it is anywhere in the US. Be honest.

  4. oh please says:

    my uncle was a world famous champion syrian boxer who was living in alabama…he travelled the world and eventually became featherweight champion of the world. i have never ever heard him paint the world in these racial terms. perhaps this was true for some but the world was still completely open to all…he made himself extremely successful and the same opportunities were afforded everyone.

  5. Habibi says:

    This is the problem with lebanese people in the comments sections… the reality is some lebanese are white and some aren’t . .. indians are considered caucasian in race as well… does that make them white?? I’m part white and part lebanese and palestinian and look puerto rican…I look absolutely nothing like my white family members… I consider my self a mixed race person… if you don’t have my experiences and look like me then do not try to speak for the lebanese / syrians / palestinians that do not pass for white..

    1. Justin says:

      Saying you “look Puerto Rican” is about as vague as saying you “look American” considering neither of these are ethnic groups. Anyway, like you said, your race is really just based off your experiences and your surroundings. If you’re surrounded by a bunch of Northern Europeans (which I’m assuming you are), they’re gonna see you as something more than just white (which is why you identify as mixed). Now throw yourself in Greece, you’re probably gonna be just another Southern European (white)… put yourself in a majority East Asian community, you’re gonna be the white guy. Which further shows why race is just a social construct.

    2. Lisa says:

      Many people from IIndia and Lebanon are Caucasian. In that sense they are white.
      Caucasians can be light or dark. Most Middle Easterners are tan skinned Caucasians.

  6. CHARLES A BROX says:

    Excellent article. Enjoyed reading about my relatives…the BROX”S and SALIBA’S. I grew up in the 30’s and remember delivering milk with my father to all the Syrian Lebanese stores in Lawrence. Our dairy was in Dracut.

  7. Mary Ellen Conklin says:

    Richard Daniel Ferris was from Lebanon. He came to Ellis Island in the late 1800’s.

    Original name close to fotuoh (sounding )

    He thought he was white.

    I am interested in the family still in Lebanon. Mount Lebanon area.

  8. John Wakeen says:

    My four grandparents immigrated from Lebanon in the early part of the 20th century. They married Lebanese spouses and had a lot of Lebanese friends and family. I suspect they were on the fringes of white society, mostly through church and neighborhoods. My father, who had an olive complexion and brown eyes, once told me that white families in the small Michigan town where he lived did not want him dating their daughters. He eventually married my mother, a Lebanese woman from Canada with limited marriage prospects there as well due to her being labelled as a “Syrian.” Fast forward to my generation, growing up in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I recall being asked as a child if I were Mexican by neighborhood kids because of my deep tan. However, me and my three siblings all married fair skinned, blue eyed white spouses. Now the third generation is having children. Again, white fair-skinned, blue eyed spouses. So the great-great grandchild of my immigrant grandfather is now only 25% Lebanese. So in some ways that is how our Lebanese family became white.

  9. Jo Ann Spring says:

    I am 86 percent Lebanese 3 percent Cyprus and 11 per cent Italian trying to find out if I was black or white,

  10. Mona says:

    Being half Lebanee has made for an interesting life. People in my younger years didn’t know where to place me, whether it be, Latino, Italian, and sometimes Mulatto. When I told them I was a Lebanese Catholic, the racial slurs began; Camel Jockey, Sand {N} Word, etc. Yet I was proud to be Lebanese. I still am,even though ignorant people ttempt and sometimes succeed in trying to make me feel guilty, as though I could be a terrorist. I wrote a novel “Hand of Wisdom”, depicting the lives of Bedouins. The research was so rewarding.

  11. Adnan Tabeek says:

    I am a Lebanese-American and many people assume I am an Italian-American guy from Brooklyn.Also remember that Lebanon was once a French colony and there exists an admixture of French-Arab mixing,too.The Lebanese can also look very Mediterranean and many can pass as Southern Europeans like the Greeks, Italians or also the Turks or Persians in the region. Blue-gray eyes,green eyes,hazel eyes,red hair or blondish hair with fair skin is not uncommon for the Lebanese people,as it is also with the Syrians.

  12. janine alexander says:

    Lebanese were black people as all others in that part of the world which is Africa. Original humans were black from East Africa. Blacks are not treated well there, though they have greatest claims to that land.

  13. Vicki West says:

    Thank you! I am 2nd and 3rd generation pure Lebanese born and raised in the USA. I identified as white my entire life of 61 years, and now, society and politics is trying to redefine what truly is an ethnicity.

  14. Jude Craigue says:

    Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thank you, However I am having troubles with your RSS. I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anybody else having similar RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

    1. bbrown6 says:

      Hi Jude, thank you for your comment. We had some technical issues on our end which should be resolved now.

  15. Pat says:

    I am 25% Lebanese and long have I been trying to find out just who the Lebanese people are from a racial standpoint. This article and comments really helped; it seems like we are our own race, some are closer to Whites, some are closer to Arabs…

    My Lebanese (Jidu, we Americanized it and called him Jiddy) grandfather married an Irish girl and had 7 kids. One of her sisters called him a sandni**er once, lol…but his actions proved that he was a man of high quality. He didn’t try to censor her like people do now (which is pathetic). That said, I do not believe in race-mixing (particularly in large scales) as it can destroy identity and culture, but, in the case of my family, they produced healthy, productive, and smart people. So maybe the Lebanese are not far off from Europeans…

    Any thoughts are appreciated

  16. Dale Andrews says:

    We had a doctor in our small town in southern Louisiana by the name of Harry Shaheen. He was full blooded Lebonese and some referred to him as a “camel jockey” and it was meant as a friendly type of joke. He took no offense at it. Of course, this was the sixties, when political correctness wasn’t even invented.

  17. John-Paul says:

    This article is incredible. My mothers parents immigrated separately to America in 1902 from what is now Lebanon. Granddad was Moslem and Grandma, Maronite Catholic. They met in New York City and four of their ten children were born there. The birth certificates of those four children, including my mother, identify them as nonwhite, while the six born in Western Massachusetts are identified as white. I’ve always identified more with my Middle Eastern ancestry than my French Canadian. I “feel” Middle Eastern, not European. By the way when my siblings and I had our DNA analyzed, through our father we received DNA from North Africa, in my case 16% of my DNA originated there. I truly am more MENA than European. Immensely enjoyed this article.

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