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Black or white? Egyptian immigrant fights for black classification

Black or white? Egyptian immigrant fights for black classification

by Joan MacFarlane

DETROIT (CNN) -- An Egyptian immigrant is suing the U.S. government because they've told him he's white when his entire life he's been black.

Mostafa Hefny was born in Egypt and has always been proud of his Egyptian culture and his African ancestry. But when Hefny immigrated to America, the U.S. government told him he was no longer a black man.

"I was not told by Immigration that I was white until I passed the exam for citizenship and then I was told I am now white," he explains.

Hefny initially laughed when told of his new racial classification, but he's no longer chuckling. He recently filed suit against the U.S. government to get his race classification changed back from white to black.

"It hurts me. It definitely hurts me," Hefny says. "It hurts me because I am unable to reconcile my reality as a black person."

In addition to the emotional hurt, Hefny says that when the government changed his race, they also changed his social status.

"Definitely, I would've had more opportunity for advancement and even for hiring had I been considered black," he says. "I was prevented from applying and requesting positions and other benefits for minority person because I knew I was legally white."

Origin determines race

One of the problems with the naturalization process, in Hefny's opinion, is that race is classified by geographic location and not ancestry. That's part of the immigration process his lawsuit hopes to change.

The lawsuit targets Directive Number 15 of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The directive defines black as a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. A white person is defined as having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, they found that different agencies were using different definitions for the same categories of people, and they thought it was important to have comprehensibility across federal agencies," explains Sally Katzen of the OMB.

The OMB is hoping to change the way they define races by revamping the troublesome directive.

"The principle we thought very important is self-identification," Katzen says. "I think that it is almost beyond dispute that an individual should identify himself or herself rather than have someone else do it."

Although it seems the government agrees with Hefny in principle, it refuses to respond publicly to his lawsuit. He expects that response later this year.

July 16, 1997