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The Arab world has experienced invasion, colonialism, and oppression. Yet in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing has come a growing awareness that the region is not immune to colorism and racism. The debate here was kicked off not by police brutality, but by tone-deaf attempts to express “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement that have reinforced racial stereotypes.
In just one example, an Algerian singer posted a photo of herself in complete blackface, the word “solidarity” written across. The result has been a backlash on Arab social media. “People, don’t overdo this ‘solidarity,’” says Maryam Abu Khaled, a Black Palestinian actress, in a viral video seen by over 2 million, “because that itself is racism.”
A shift in attitudes is slowly taking shape. After 13 years of campaigning against institutional inequality, African Iraqis, a minority of 500,000, are finally receiving media attention to their cause by drawing parallels between the killing of Mr. Floyd and the 2013 assassination of their community leader in his hometown of Basra.
Tunisian malls and clothing lines have dropped Arab models and stars that recently used blackface. Joseph Fahim, an Arab film critic, says there has been “a growing awareness that no, this is not right.”
Abu Yahya watches protests in Minneapolis rage on his mobile and shakes his head in amazement.
“Here they say, ‘We aren’t racist,’ that we are all Arabs and Muslims, until they see my skin,” says the Sudanese refugee in Amman, Jordan. “Then they call me ‘slave.’”
“Just as there’s an awakening in America, it’s time for our society to wake up.”
The protests following the police killing of George Floyd that are shifting perceptions in the United States have also sparked a growing awareness that even here – in a region that has experienced invasion, colonialism, oppression, and war – there is a need to come to terms with its own past of colorism and racism.
Yet the growing debate in the Arab world about attitudes toward race was kicked off not by police brutality or historically tainted statues, but by ham-fisted and tone-deaf attempts to express “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In recent weeks, several Arab stars, singers, and actors sparked a backlash by posting online statements that inherently reinforced racial stereotypes.
One Algerian singer posted a photo of herself in complete blackface, the word “solidarity” written across, and the sentence: “Just because we are black on the outside doesn’t mean we are black on the inside.”
A Lebanese actress posted a digitally altered photo of herself in blackface with an Afro, saying, “I wish I was Black,” while other media stars denounced the violence against Black Americans while voicing casual colorism and racism, such as, “It’s not their fault, that is the way God made them.”
“People, don’t overdo this ‘solidarity,’” Maryam Abu Khaled, a Black Palestinian actress says in a viral video seen by over 2 million, “because that itself is racism.”
Analysts say part of the Arab world’s struggle to acknowledge racial inequality, racism, and a culture of colorism stems from a refusal to acknowledge a muddled history with Black populations.
“The George Floyd protests have opened an opportunity for us, but we still live in societies that are in denial about our very existence,” says Khawla Ksiksi, a Black Tunisian activist who leads a collective demanding the rights of Black Tunisians, an estimated 10% to 15% of the country’s population.
With the Arab world acting as a link between Africa, Asia, and Europe, there is a range of skin colors among Arabs – white, olive, tan, brown, and black – sometimes within the same tribe.
But there has long been a bias for white or fair-skinned actors, models, and potential brides and grooms, and an inherent prejudice against Black Arabs with origins in Africa – a colorism activists say is rooted in slavery.
From the ninth to 19th centuries, Arab merchants and rulers played a role in the trans-Saharan slave trade and the Indian Ocean slave trade, with merchants selling Black Africans either on to the West, or to be used as laborers and servants in the Persian Gulf and in Arab cities.
In addition to employing indentured servants and slaves, the Arab world absorbed a migration of African workers, merchants, and traders from modern-day Zanzibar, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Black Arabs from Sudan also settled permanent communities in the Arab world and Iran.
Ottoman, French, and British colonial powers barred these communities from receiving services and filling positions of power.
By the 20th century, post-independence Arab nationalist leaders eager to depict the “utopia” of a united nation papered over marginalized and impoverished Black communities, deleting them from their country’s past and present.
Activists today point to chronic inequality in access to education, employment, and housing, and cycles of poverty stretching centuries. Worse still is representation in government; most Arab countries have yet to appoint a Black government minister.
“Dictators erased us and made us invisible, preventing us from even speaking or appearing in public,” says Ms. Ksiksi.
“To this day we do not know how many Black Tunisians exist in Tunisia. Until we accept and embrace Black communities, we are a long way from working towards equality.”
The debate over race has opened what Arab citizens and activists are calling a long overdue discussion of Black people’s representation – or lack thereof – in Arab media.
The use of blackface on Arab television and in film has sparked a backlash on Arab social media, with citizens calling out the hypocrisy of actors and filmmakers declaring solidarity for Black Lives Matter in America while wearing blackface at home.
“People are starting to become conscious that blackface is a problem that goes beyond cultural appropriation or exoticizing; it is a message that we look down upon Black people and that we perceive black as ugly,” says Joseph Fahim, an Arab film critic and writer. In the past few days, he says, there has been “a growing awareness that no, this is not right.”
People have been reposting clips of Egyptian and Gulf television comedians decked out in blackface mocking Sudanese and Africans by acting lazy, dumb, rowdy, and even “primitive” – some scenes as recent as 2019.
Meanwhile, activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and elsewhere point to the lack of Black media presenters, anchors, television hosts, and interviewees on the airwaves.
“The problem is not just misrepresentation in television and film; it is a complete lack of representation. Africans and Blacks are not present on screen,” says Mr. Fahim. “In most cases they simply don’t exist.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has also spurred an online debate over the use of the Arabic equivalent of the N-word in daily conversation and even in newspapers, as well as the casual use of abed, or slave.
The firestorm has spread to the dessert menu.
Even as American companies reevaluate racially insensitive brand names, a culture war has erupted in the Arab world over Ras Al Abed – a round, chocolate-covered marshmallow sweet popular in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and among Palestinians whose name translates as “slave’s head.”
Activists online have been posting photos of Ras Al Abed packages with a smiling character in cartoon blackface, with blinding white teeth and eyes, and wearing African garbs, stating, “How is this not racist as well?”
Already in Jordan, one chocolate company dropped the name of the controversial sweet, posting “we heard you!” on social media in response to campaigners.
But some Arabs have pushed back online and in the broadsheets against the charges of racism. Such words are used in jest, they say, not part of a systemic racism or an ideology of racial superiority.
“I wanted to answer people who say, ‘Maryam, you can’t compare racism in America to racism in the Arab world. At least we don’t kill,’ ” says Ms. Abu Khaled, the Black Palestinian actress, in another viral video.
In a lighthearted tone, she describes hearing mothers telling their children, “Quit playing in the sun, or else you will burn and become like Maryam,” and swimming in a pool while other patrons openly debate whether her skin color will “run off” in the water.
“Do you know that the things you say ‘as a joke’ can break the spirit of the person in front of you and shatter their self-esteem?” Ms. Abu Khaled says.
Shift in attitudes
But a change in discussion – and a shift in attitudes – is slowly taking shape.
Tunisian malls and clothing lines have dropped Arab models and stars that recently used blackface, and pressure campaigns continue in Egypt to do the same.
After 13 years of campaigning against institutional inequality, African Iraqis, a minority of 500,000, are finally receiving media attention to their cause by drawing parallels between the killing of Mr. Floyd and the 2013 assassination of their community leader, Jalal Diab, in his hometown of Basra.
Tunisians have held multiple protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to draw attention to racism in Tunisia, pressuring the government to enforce a 2018 anti-racial discrimination law, the first of its kind in the region.
“This is an opportunity to put the campaign against racism in the spotlight and have that uncomfortable conversation Arab societies have been avoiding for decades,” says Ms. Ksiksi, the Tunisian activist.
“We can still teach the new generation a different way,” Ms. Abu Khaled says in a video. “We can explain that people are different, with all honesty. ... Children’s hearts are pure, so let’s teach them what’s right from a young age.”