Racism in the Arab World: An Open Secret

A Region in Denial Reflects Ignorance of History

The killing of George Floyd, facilitated by generations of racial injustice and police brutality, has triggered thousands to spill onto the streets across the United States. As news spread across the world of Floyd’s final nine minutes, solidarity marches expressing outrage that the richest and most powerful country in the world should continue to treat its people this way took place from Berlin to Mexico City. But attention has focused not just on the US and its abuses, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has also stirred a bitter reckoning among many regions across the world as they reflect on the commonality of black struggles and confront some uncomfortable truths in their own backyards, the Arab world included. Anti-blackness is deeply embedded within Arab countries and takes on many forms – from the horrific human trafficking of African migrants in Libya, to the expansion of colourism through the promotion of white beauty standards, to the colloquial use of the Arabic word for "slave", to daily microaggression. All this plays out against a backdrop of misguided and distasteful media messaging echoed within the Arab world where blackface is commonly used to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and prejudices. Much too often, the conversation on anti-black racism has been met with denial and defensiveness. This culture of silence is symptomatic of a lack of awareness of the charged and complicated history of slavery, racism and the consequences of racial bigotry.


Arab social media users voiced their support for Black Americans and weighed in on the brutal crackdown on protesters in the US. Among them was Palestinian actress and film director Maryam Abu Khaled with a social media following of more than 200,000 people who slammed racism in the Arab world in a recent video posted on Instagram. In the video which quickly went viral, Abu Khaled, a black woman from Jenin, shared stories of everyday casual racism among Arabs, including hearing parents tell their children not to play in the sun for too long, otherwise they will "get sunburnt and start looking like Maryam”. She then asks: “Do you know that the things you say 'as a joke' can break the spirit of the person before you and shatter their self-esteem?" before explaining that Arabs have grown used to this casual racism and calling for more self-awareness to break the cycle by not passing these notions on to children. Abu Khaled also highlighted that there are both distinctions and similarities in race relations in Arab and Western communities by stressing that although black people in the Middle East are not being killed by police, racism is a deep-rooted problem in the region and is perpetuated by seemingly innocent comments that are very damaging. While news stories emerge almost daily in the US about police being called over black Americans doing nothing more than being black, Afifa Latifi, a Tunisian doctoral student in Africana Studies at Cornell University and co-founder of the Voices for Tunisian Black Women collective, told Majalla that although black people do not face the same amount of gratuitous violence against them in the Arab world, that does not mean that their experiences are better. “Beyond the microaggressions and virtual hate speech, there are various instances of violence that prove that we're not in a better off position,” she said. “When you think of the predicament of black refugees, black migrant workers and the Kafala system as an example, the various incidents of police brutality in countries like Morocco, the multiple crimes committed against West African students in Tunisia and slavery in Mauritania which was only criminalized in 2007, it is hard to see a difference in experiences.” “I find this unchecked verbal and non-verbal violence, impoverishment and marginalization of black people in the region, reminiscent of the social death that black Americans experience,” Ltifi said. Dr Amro Ali, a sociologist at the American University of Cairo in Egypt, highlighted some of the differences in the way anti-blackness operates in Arab countries. “The idea of race relations is just very, very convoluted. It doesn't have that sort of clear demarcation lines that you find in the US," e told Majalla. Dr Ali says that in Western communities, anti-blackness tends to be ideological due to a long history and structure of sustained racism. In the Arab case, however, “there is a very clear legacy of colonialism in the way colour is viewed. This is not to say that anti-black bias did not exist before colonialism, because I don't want this to be an excuse to say that everything was paradise before. It certainly wasn't. But if there's anything that I'm certain about is that the way blackness and whiteness are constructed has very clear Eurocentric influences,” he said.


One of the ways that anti-Blackness in Arab communities presents itself is through Eurocentric perceptions of beauty. “The billboards are the biggest giveaway. For example, in Cairo, you see the blue-eyed, white-skinned, blonde woman and who is not even representative of the Egyptian population in any way or advertisements for ‘Fair and Lovely’ whitening cream,” Dr Ali said. There are strictly enforced beauty standards in Arab countries that still favour fairer skin and straighter hair at the expense of diversity. One quick flick through a few Arabic TV channels can confirm that. These aesthetic standards translate into dangerous practices such as skin bleaching. In 2018, women in Egypt even began pouring chlorine in a bath to try to jumpstart the lightening process in a temporarily popular trend. Most importantly, these aesthetic practices lay the foundation for an internalised social hierarchy rooted in colourism - the prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people - and anti-Blackness which accepts dark-skinned people as being held to a lower standard.  The trauma caused by colourism is evident when it comes to marriage. “If one partner wants to bring a dark-skinned partner, there will be questions raised by the family. This is not unusual and it’s not limited to particular religious groups or particular minorities. It seems to be across the board. It’s not unusual in Morocco for an Amazigh to refuse the marriage of a dark-skinned African,” Dr Ali explains. The irony here is disturbing. In a world where Muslims and Arabs have long been subjected to racism, too many Arabs have failed to consider how they treat minorities. “I see brown-skinned Arabs discriminate against dark-skinned Africans and I’ve actually said to them, if you were in Europe, your brown skin would be discriminated against. The inability to feel empathy has a lot to do with not having to experience what dark-skinned Africans or local Egyptians go through,” Dr Ali said.


Global anti-racism protests have sparked calls for Arab governments to abolish a system of sponsorship for migrant workers.  About 23 million migrants, mostly from poor African and Asian countries, work in the Arab world under a system known as kafala that generally binds them to one employer, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.  Labour rights campaigners in the region said those expressing support for protesters calling for an end to racism in the United States and elsewhere should look closer to home, where foreign workers faced exploitation and abuse under kafala.  “These issues are very much systemic and ingrained in racist rhetoric and perceptions toward other nationalities in our own countries,” Salma Houerbi, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre advocacy group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  The anti-Kafala initiatives are increasingly garnering attention in Lebanon where the suicide last month of a maid from the Philippines highlighted the struggles of migrant women in the country where migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of two per week. Joey Ayoub, an independent Lebanese activist campaigning to abolish kafala, told Reuters that the system amounted to legitimised racism. “If we want to speak of black lives matter, we have to talk about the actual black lives that do not matter in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the protests that have roiled the United States for the past two weeks. “Even if the kafala system is abolished tomorrow, racism would still exist, but it at least would allow people who are themselves victims of racism much more say and autonomy in what they can do about it.”


While many social media users have used their platforms to express solidarity with BLM and raise awareness on the kafala system, others – including celebrities - have posted photos in blackface in tone-deaf attempts to support the movement. These incidents have once again drawn attention to the prevalence of blackface in Arab pop culture. On television networks and movie screens, rarely will you see dark-skinned or black people on air, instead they are routinely represented by lighter-skinned performers who darken their faces in comedy skits to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and prejudices. “The representations of characters on Arab television are primitive. When not marginal or silenced, black characters are mostly ridiculed through blackface and the desensitized allusions to their slave descent. They are rehearsed in roles that deny them any complexity of being where they are mostly depicted as flat characters. At best, they are accorded roles that are similar to the American magical negro or the sassy or wise black friend who is always assisting the main character. But even those roles are rare, as black appearances are scarce,” said Ltifi. The use of blackface also serves as another dangerous reminder of the widespread ignorance surrounding racism and anti-blackness in society. “In the United States, we still have politicians who have had to apologise for blacking up during parties in their youth. Kim Kardashian darkened her skin for a huge photoshoot, for which she too apologized. The reason I think this happens, in many societies including Arab societies, is how little people have been taught about slavery in their histories. Blackface is a practice directly related to African slavery, and education about that is unfortunately not deep enough at best or ignored at worst,” Professor Eve Troutt Powell from the University of Pennsylvania told Majalla. While black slavery can seem like a peculiarly American institution, it is also a painful fact of history in the Middle East where countless East Africans were sold as slaves. It was primarily women and girls who were abducted into the Arabian slave trade, to then be turned into concubines. Historically, the absence of laws enshrining racial segregation (like those that existed in the US until the 20th century) enhances this sense of superiority that propagates the extraordinary wall of silence around this history across the region. This culture of silence has helped to avoid challenging questions regarding the enduring legacies of slavery and anti-black racism in Arab societies that continue to affect social forms of life, and according to Professor Powell, has led to a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against black people exist within Arab societies.  “My experience in the Arab world is that most people do not know the historical meanings behind the word “abeed” (slave), or they relegate the idea of racism to the United States, without seeing how it can exist amongst themselves, in their own countries,” she said.


Moving forward from widespread denial to overcome the stigmatisation of black people requires a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, we need to stop glossing over the history of slavery. “I find it hypocritical to call black people “abeed” among many other epithets and demeaning slurs and yet we are too uncomfortable to discuss or teach the history of slavery. How is it that we are trying to avoid confronting the past, if we are literally invoking it all the time through the language with which we describe black people alone? We first need to write and face our history of slavery and then embark upon the belated all-encompassing emancipation project to bring about change,” said Ltifi. Secondly, curing racism will take political will. “I think that the political will of the state (through education projects, positive discrimination in politics, monitoring culture and art representation, etc.) can improve and even transform the lives of black people. When the state decides to confront the issues with laws and policies that will not only penalize overt racism but equally expand its definition and reframe its language to include that which we tend to take lightly such as “unintentional expressions of bias”, then perhaps we can start changing things,” said Ltifi. “Even if blacks face discrimination in the West, there are still strong institutions and legal mechanisms for them to address the discrimination, whereas in the Arab world, such mechanisms don't usually exist and so they're disadvantaged in that regard,” said Dr Ali. Thirdly, we need to call out casual racism. “The reason why many get away with racism is that it's just not brought up. When you tackle it by saying that it is wrong, unethical or haram to make a racist statement, then you get that person to start thinking about it, and at the very least, to make a dent in the way they behave.

19th-century engraving depicting an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara. (Wikipedia)

Any form of anti-black discrimination, whether it be from marriage prospects to your uncles to the desk officer in some ministry, needs to be spotlighted all the time until it is hopefully minimized and done away with,” said Dr Ali. “It is also important to remember that we are also part of Africa, the North African Arab countries need to acknowledge that this is a beautiful feature of what makes Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco rich and fruitful. And if we're talking about the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East, then they also have a very strong and long history with Africa and with the idea of blackness that's integrated into their societies” Fourthly, we all need to undertake some honest critical introspection. “The worst form of Orientalism is the invisible self-orientalising syndrome by Arab states and societies, the ones that nauseatingly repeat lines like Arabs don't care about freedom of speech as long as they have food on the table, or Palestinians are to blame for losing their land or Saudi women don't have high aspirations anyway, etc. The loop of this broken record echoes into each individual's sense of agency, making them question their self-worth, which then incapacitates their potential contribution to a better society. Collectively, this self-fulfilling malady aims to foster a passive citizenry. When the individual beats the odds, we certainly sometimes celebrate them, but until then, we will pave the path with misery, cynicism, pessimism, doom, gloom, depression, contemptuous inanities ripped out of the Geert Wilders handbook,” said Dr Ali. “As both post-imperial and post-colonial subjects, we are constantly internalising oppression and reproducing forms of anti-blackness and it’s about time that we recognise and face that. Perhaps the current BLM movement is helping us confront these obscured layers of history and is mostly taking away the cloak of innocence that we are constantly latching onto when it comes to the issue of racism in the Arab world, pushing us, black and non-black, to put an end to this insidious culture of denial and silence,” said Ltifi.