Beyond “conversations:” confronting anti-Blackness among Arab-Americans
When discussing anti-Black racism amongst Arab-Americans one often finds themselves immersed in reductionism, apologetics and ponderous efforts to incapacitate any discourse at all related to the subject. For some, the very idea that anti-Black racism exists not only abroad but within Arab-American communities brings with it a wave of humiliation which rapidly creeps over them, while for others this subject induces a mixture of outright denial peppered with unashamed bouts of acrimony. This issue is one that demands a much more dynamic and vigorous response, and it is about time we do more than ‘have a conversation’ about a worrisome subject that continues to generate immense trauma for its victims.
As explained in Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations, by Tina Lopez and Barb Thomas, institutional racism stems from a network of structures, practices and policies which construct advantages for white people and oppression, disadvantage and discrimination for racialized people, this includes specific practices and laws which enforce segregation in housing, employment and education and the policies and procedures work to marginalize and exclude people of color.
Structural racism is the intersection of many folds of institutional power so as to normalize and legitimize racism. It allows individuals to practice racism unchecked. Arab-Americans, in relation to African-Americans, have the advantage of benefiting from white supremacy and from this network of structures regardless of whether or not they are aware of this system and of its devastating consequences.
Our communities must recognize that the active convergence of racism, colonialism and capitalism is necessary to interpret the historical context of societal inequality because, in the words of Reiland Rabaka, Professor of African, African American, and Caribbean Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, from his work on Black radical politics, “Capitalism is utterly incomprehensible without connecting it to the rise of race, racism, racial violence, white supremacy, and racial colonialism” (Du Bois’s Dialectics: Black Radical Politics and the Reconstruction of Critical Social Theory).
Psychiatrist, and political radical Frantz Fanon, whose philosophies continue to impact anti-racist and leftist movements, born in 1925 on what was then a French colony on the Caribbean island of Martinique, discusses these crossings in chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) in which he writes of what he calls the “lived experience of the black”; the discovery of his blackness and the ever-present whiteness around him. In the aforementioned chapter, Fanon continues to grapple with not only his identity as a black man but the confluence of class, capitalism and colonialism and their effects on the colonized – from the racialized political-economic nature of imperialism, including its push for civilizing regions of the world and the creation of “the other,” to branches of capitalism which deny the very humanity of said “other.” “The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white,” writes Fanon in chapter 6 of Black Skin, White Masks (The Negro and The Psychopathology); expounding upon the manner in which racism has been institutionalized so as to not only continue but rationalize the subjugation of one group by another. Fanon’s fiery response to racism and colonialism came by way of his masterpiece The Wretched of The Earth (1961) – where we find colonialism there is capitalism, and where there is capitalism there is racism and where these pieces intersect is where we discover the native robbed of his economic, political and human rights.
With this in mind, the observation of anti-Black racism amongst Arab-Americans should be viewed through a lense that reaches far beyond the lowest tier, that of social interactions; the language employed, including the use of dehumanizing terms like “abed” (singular) and “abeed” (plural), this reprehensible branding of Black persons as slaves, signifies an alarming reinforcement of racist frameworks – before we challenge these frameworks we must first admit that we are complicit in the demoralization and subjugation of Black persons and communities, and that the extensive exploitation of these communities is oftentimes denied or outright justified.
Dawud Walid, the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), has been one of many African-Americans bringing attention to pervasive anti-Blackness both online and on the ground, demanding that the use of the word “abeed” end and challenging Arab-Americans to do more than endlessly call for dialogue. “This issue has been dealt with too passively for many years,”writes Walid. He goes on to note that Arab-Americans should take “a more aggressive stands against anti-Black racism.”
What comes after recognizing the existence of racist structures and the identification of our own complicity is a long but necessary course of action that entails working against these structures and the tokenization that sometimes follows social justice organizations and activities. The romanticism surrounding oppressed peoples is pervasive, especially amongst those involved in anti-racist work who, while claiming to be allies, engage in increasingly dominant savior-esque fetishism and thereby turn powerful opportunities to learn from and engage with marginalized communities into narcissistic therapy sessions where their voices overwhelm and muffle the narratives of these groups; those who tokenize these communities oftentimes come across as well-intentioned but their actions are no less destructive. We are notgiving a voice to the voiceless, as the tired adage goes, because their voices surround us – in the words of Lilla Watson, Australian aboriginal artist, activist and educator: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I interviewed members of the African-American community, including Afro-Arabs, who went on to identify their experiences with anti-Black racism, the extensive influences of history and what they argue should be done to combat this racism. Responses have been edited for clarity.
Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Michigan Chapter (CAIR-MI)
There has to be spiritual, intellectual and social remedies in confronting this disease. There’s a fundamental problem with anyone who mocks others based upon their skin color and/or ethnicity. Muslims, who are a faith not an ethnic community, need to be taught as children and constantly reminded as adults that racism is a Satanic attribute exhibited by Iblis when he thought that he was better than Adam. Before social solutions, there must be a spiritual basis for change if it’s to be sustainable. Racism, more directly, is a type of rebellion against Allah’s will who decreed diversity among the human family out of Divine wisdom.
When it comes to anti-Blackness among Arabs, the long term effects of colonialism and global capitalism cannot be underestimated. Internalized oppression definitely plays a role in terms of how anti-Blackness is displayed, in part, due to the continued acceptance of frameworks of success and beauty that relegate Blackness as inferior. It’s uncomfortable for any group with privilege to openly accept that they have racism among them. Instead of deflection, there needs to be a sustained social discourse pertaining to anti-Black racism among Arabs, which includes lighter Arabs discriminating against darker Arabs. This will hopefully start a movement for deeper engagement, but long term and meaningful discussions must come first.
Studying a masters in health, community and development (social psychology) at the London School of Economics
I am a first generation American, raised by Zimbabwean immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1980s.
My experience with anti-black racism from Arabs has been pretty minimal, fortunately. I have a lot of Arab and Muslim (they’re obviously not the same, but they can overlap) friends, so I’m somewhat familiar with different cultures in the region as well as SOME understanding of Arabic. My negative experiences [while in London] have mostly been Arab men speaking about me in Arabic to one another in front of me under the presumption that I can’t understand what they’re saying. They’ve called me “abed;” “sharmouta sawda” (black whore) once when I was on a night out (that was pretty horrendous), one man called me “kafir” because I’m an atheist. And it obviously feels disgusting to be the target of racism, but it feels even worse when it comes from another person of colour. Reminds of the idea of dividing and conquering ethnic minorities in a predominantly white country – an alignment with whiteness makes the preemptive fanning of ethnic solidarity flames even easier.
I don’t know what exactly can be done to combat this racism. Is it unique? Is there a particular dynamic in Arab history and identity construction that allows it to flourish? I doubt it. I guess I’d recommend the same with Arabs as I would with white people: teach your children about racial/ethnic equality early on rather than allowing the same biases to be passed down. When possible, Arabs should call out the instances of anti-blackness they encounter rather than being passive observers who only react internally.
BA in Modern Languages with an emphasis on Arabic Studies.
I have lived in Egypt, Syria,Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. I have studied in all of those places in schools such as Damascus University and Al-Azhar. I grew up around Arabs and Indo-Paks practically my entire life. Arabs have been dealing with this issue for centuries. From as early as the 9th century Common Era Abu Jahiz started the discussion of anti-Black racism. He wrote what was to be one of the first books on “race relations’ and history in the Arabic language. Being a master of prose and history he documented what was the causes on his opinion of anti-black racism. He attributed the sentiments to the introduction of a large number of white or European mawali into the Arab polity in the form of concubines. White features were coveted as they were “exotic” and blackness which the Arabs were used to was maligned. He wasn’t the last as a whole genre of literature in Arabic addressing anti-Black racism was formed, boasting such stalwarts such as Ibn Jawzi who wrote his famed “Tanwir al Ghabash” which dealt with the anti-Black racism which had found its way into hadith literature such as fabricated hadiths mimicking the “Cursed sons of Ham” theory.
Imam Suyuti later writes at least four books mentioning the merits of Blacks via the Quran and Sunnah. What is striking is that all of these works were written in response to anti-Black racism of their day and age. Just those figures alone represent a span of over 700 years. So any discussion of racism within the Arab community can’t be remiss of these historical facts. So when we encounter modern day racism it must not be viewed romantically as a product of recent colonialism but a problem which has plagued the community for centuries.
Acknowledging our privilege is not enough
Our efforts should remain tightly focused towards a unified objective: to relinquish power – social, political and, or economic – by giving our spaces to those who have been denied self-determination, and to amplify voices that already exist but have been ignored and silenced. This is not a monumental forfeiture by any means – it is the very least we can do and it is what we must do. In the words of Frantz Fanon: “We are nothing on this earth if we are not in the first place the slaves of a cause, the cause of the people, the cause of justice and liberty”.
This is an active and all-encompassing process which begins with acknowledging what these destructive power imbalances are and then identifying what roles we play in continuing this destruction. But to acknowledge our privilege is not enough – as long as we are not actively resisting the structures of power which enable and perpetuate our positions of dominance there will be no change, regardless of how much self-reflection and critical assessment we take part in. If there is no effort made to build atop the remains of what our self-reflection has dismantled then there will be no transformation or development.