Anti-Blackness does not exist in the Middle East. Racism is a Western problem, just like all the other godless activities committed there. Or at least that’s what most Arabs vehemently believe.
You can be Arab and Muslim and share a lot of similar identities with the majority of the population, but the minute you’re Black you’re othered. You’re discriminated against.
The Middle East’s branch of racism and anti-Blackness, however, is very different to the one in Western societies. It’s what I like to call soft racism. Thinly veiled, sugar-coated and blunted by the teachings of Islam, which forbids discrimination and prejudice.
It still manifests in many of the stereotypical ways though: dirty looks, bullying, ostracization, rejection, unemployment, and in some rare cases, outright physical abuse and threat to one’s life. Despite all that, racism in the Middle East reads more like a festering societal plague than systemic oppression, the latter being a very evident feature in America.
The confounding part is that Arabs sometimes practice their racism with inane “good intention”. Whether it was sporting Blackface to support the BLM movement, or portraying condescending depictions of Afro-Arabs on television as a form of representation, both Arabs and Arabic media seem to still have not received the memo about the offensiveness of Blackface and continue to perpetuate anti-Blackness under a comedic façade.
The argument of many Arabs is that Blackface is a Western concept and carries none of the racial implications or insinuations when practiced in the Arab world. I still remember the first time I saw Blackface as a child.
It was in an episode of one of my favorite comedic shows, Tash Ma Tash, a popular Ramadan special, where one of the lead actors, a light-skinned Arab, was playing a Sudanese character using Blackface.
I remember laughing uneasily at the jokes, but after a few minutes, a sinking feeling of shame set in seeing my country and its people represented as such. Even as a child, I clearly understood the undertones of derision and ridicule being implied, but that is a message yet to be understood by many White Arabs.
And for many years I wore a mask, flawlessly adopting Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian accents to converse with my friends rather than using my thick, “difficult” Sudanese accent. Even though we all spoke the same Arabic language.
“They won’t understand me”, I used to justify to myself, “It’s easier this way.”
I hated disclosing my Black origins to others. Most of the time it warranted a, “but you don’t look it at all!” owing to my light-skin complexion. But I’d rather disclose it face-to-face than disclose it remotely via, say, something such as a job application.
I subconsciously knew that if they saw me they would accept me because I looked like a White Arab. I could assimilate. If they didn’t, however, and they simply relied on my nationality, my Blackness, to judge me, my chances were notably slimmer.
I managed to successfully escape this othering of racism for so many years, but it still found its way through the cracks of my defences. Recently, a friend of mine disclosed how her mother had used me as an example of someone achieving something they did not have the full right to.
“Even your Sudanese friend is studying medicine!” she mocked, “If she can do it why can’t you?”
If the bar was so low as to accommodate me and my Blackness, then surely it wasn’t that hard.
The Healthcare System as An Afro-Arab
Being a Black healthcare professional in the Middle East is very complex. It’s a space that you can never feel fully welcomed in. You are given a chance, but no matter how qualified you are, your Blackness will always be a hindering factor.
A non-Black Arab with fewer qualifications will automatically have more points. Even if you get hired, patients will prefer a White Arab doctor over you.
I’ve witnessed these struggles through my mother, a visibly Black woman and a dentist by occupation:
“You have so much experience! If only you were white!” lamented one interviewer.
“A Sudanese?” scoffed one patient after enquiring about her nationality at the reception, “it would be the last day on earth when I get treated by a Sudanese!”
When you come from a country that literally means "land of the Blacks", your mere nationality becomes a slur on the tongue of Arabs.
Our Blackness is a disability. As a Black Arab, you’re expected to be less than. Less in looks, intelligence, and rights. No matter how smart or hardworking we are society will always view us with a lens of condescension. Any achievement is seen to have been achieved despite our Blackness.
"She’s Black but she’s so funny! He’s Black but he’s so smart! He’s Black but his heart is definitely white!"
"You’re Black but…"
What White Arabs are really trying to say is: you’re Black, but you managed to overcome. They know, whether consciously or subconsciously, that the playing field is not level or fair. We have to fight for a chance to prove our worth. We have to exert multiplications of the same effort that others exert to establish our spot.
Afro-Arabs are aplenty and exist in the Levant, North Africa and Gulf regions. They have rich and deep roots within the societies that they reside in but are yet to speak out and seek active change in their communities.
Perhaps it’s because if a Black Arab were to voice out their woes, they would be quickly shut down by trite phrases such as, “There is no racism in Islam” or “Bilal Ibn Rabah, the first person to call to prayer in Islam, was Black!”.
This weaponization of religion to fluff empty rebuttals in the Muslim-dominant Middle East seems to be the one-trick-pony for non-Black Arabs.
Yet, they are quick to use the word abid, or slave, the Middle-Eastern version of the N-word, at the first sight of a Black person. Any protest at the insult is combatted with “We are all slaves of Allah! How is that an insult?”.
Just like how the word 'nigger' by itself is derived from the Latin word “Black”, you don’t justify its usage as simply describing the color of someone’s skin. All parties involved are smart enough to realize that the infliction and context with which those words are used to describe Black people carry poisonous tendrils under the benign surface of their literal meaning. Any word can hold power when used with intention.
It is time for Arabs to start engaging in dialogue about racism, skin color, and slavery and abolish the culture of silence that has long prevailed in their countries. Their outright denial that racist attitudes exist within their societies has become a trite narrative. They need to educate themselves and consider racism the true societal aib, or a shameful act.