Anti-Black racism is the discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping of Black people rooted in the unique history of enslavement and colonization. It can be as small as a condescending comment on one’s appearance or as institutional as a justice system seeking to further disadvantage a marginalized group. Anti-Black racism is deeply ingrained in Western society and while there has been some progress in addressing racial discrimination in the West, anti-Blackness in Arab societies continues to be dismissed.
Racism & Mental Health
A common byproduct of experienced racism is racial trauma. A form of stress similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), racial trauma is characterized by ongoing exposure and reexposure to race-based stressors. Black people have a unique racial experience as they have been historically disadvantaged and oppressed to a greater degree than other people of colour.
Anti-Blackness is a manifestation of prejudice creating a negative, hostile, and sometimes deadly environment for Black individuals. Ongoing discriminatory experiences, or fearing for their occurrence, can result in serious long-term impacts on Black communities.
A lack of Black representation in institutions often bars Black people from accessing necessary public services. This can be attributed to discriminatory concerns or a lack of trust for a system that has continuously failed them. With ongoing anti-Blackness, it becomes the expectation and becomes normalized amongst the communities that practice it.
Racial trauma is a complex disorder with lifelong effects. Without addressing the root of the problem, it can further amplify and be passed down generations. Through a process referred to as intergenerational trauma, the individual who experienced the traumatic event passes anxiety and trauma responses on to subsequent generations.
Anti-Blackness in the Arab World
While we like to ignore the faults in the spaces we occupy, this often proves to have detrimental and lasting effects on society. Ignoring an issue only magnifies it and creates an environment that does not allow room for growth. Without confronting the anti-Black racism evident in the Arab world, there cannot be any progress.
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To my non-Black Arab siblings, this one is for you. • We must to accept our privilege to accept our responsibility. • In the Arab world, the roots of anti-Black racism can be traced to the Arab slave trade, and is still prevalent in the corrupt systems of domestic work – akin to modern day slavery. The branches can be seen in the lingering and every-present anti-Blackness many of our communities harbour. For example, let’s talk about how Black Arabs and Muslims are treated in our own communities and the superiority complex Levantine Arabs hold. • As non-Black Arabs we have a urgent role to play, we have been more than complicit, we have been aggressors. Let’s start with a lifelong education process in which we learn and LISTEN from Black authors, educations, artists and activists. Call out your khalos and khaltos, mamas and babas, and your tetas and seedos. Let us unlearn and then learn because it starts but doesn’t end there. • The artwork I made was for a statement signed by Arabs who believe we must defund the police and strive for unity in order to eradicate anti-Blackness everywhere. (statement on mpowerchange.org)
Arab Slave Trade
Anti-Black racism is the Arab World can be traced back to the Arab slave trade. Slavery was only recently abolished amongst major Arab regions, causing the effects and subsequent anti-Blackness to still be evident today. Both the Ottoman Empire and Iran abolished slavery about a hundred years ago. Saudi Arabia and Yemen were of the last nations to abolish slavery, only doing so with pressure from Britain in 1962.
Following the end of the slave trade, Arab countries neglected to implement laws protecting individuals from discrimination and exploitation. This translates to abusive work environments, typically for Black immigrants.
Political silence and disregard for Blackness in Arab countries is thought to be an economic strategy. In many Middle Eastern countries, sponsorship systems are enabled so that migrants can move for work. Migrants coming from Africa to the Middle East are doing so on domestic work contracts with an employer.
This system has been deemed abusive by Amnesty International as the power is extremely imbalanced.
With the legal status of the migrant resting on their employment, their boss holds all the cards. Work contracts are frequently exploitative and impede on the worker’s human rights. However, going to authorities is often out of the picture since compromising their employer’s contract can result in detention or deportation.
Anti-Blackness is not only rooted systemically throughout the political framework of the Arab world, but also in the media.
Racial stereotypes are a prominent feature of all global media; however, Arab broadcasts take it a step further with their common use of blackface. Blackface is the use of makeup or face paints by a non-Black person to create a caricature of a Black person. While it has been relatively eliminated from mainstream entertainment, blackface is still prominent across the Middle East and North Africa.
This practice is rooted in oppression and hatred as using blackface was a common theatre practice when Black actors were not being hired yet Black characters were involved in the performance. Now, blackface is used to represent a derogatory caricature often where the “Black” person is the butt of a joke or being targeted in some way.
In Arab media, blackface is often regarded as comedic and not deemed offensive by the masses. This translates to its normalization, so much so that influencers utilize this offensive practice on their own platforms.
Blackface is so ingrained in Arab pop culture that in addition to its airing on television networks and its use by Arab influencers, blackface has also been used in the music industry.
Lebanese pop star, Myriam Fares, is shown in the music video to Goumi in a jungle setting. Fares wears a thick afro-style wig in one scene and is pictured with her skin painted black in another. The depiction of being Black in the video is completely manufactured and holds many negative connotations. For example, Fares is filmed in the jungle lounging amongst animals, giving the impression that she may be one of them as well. Amounting to over 25 million views, the music video is a further testament to the prevalence of blackface in Arab media.
Anti-Blackness in Muslim Spaces
Though not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab, there is still some overlap present. And whether outwardly acknowledged or not, anti-Black racism is apparent in many Muslim environments.
While the same manifestations of anti-Black racism in Arab spaces are present in Muslim communities as well, the difference now is the religious dismissal of such a large issue.
There is a disregard for the issue of anti-Blackness in the Muslim community because it’s frequently denied. While Islam is revered as the perfect religion by its followers, that does not mean Muslims themselves are not flawed. The religion upholds anti-racist beliefs; however, not all followers exercise the same ideology.
Commonly referenced is a line from the Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) where it is narrated that he said: “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab … except by piety and good action.”
This affirms that there is no place for racial hierarchy and discrimination within the formal teachings of the religion. Nonetheless, in an Instagram video by user gygynonstop, she explains that “just because Islam outlawed racism, doesn’t mean that Muslims aren’t racist.”
While Black Muslims are out championing every cause for the general Muslim population, that support is not reciprocated when it comes to fighting for Black causes. Issues directly connected to large Muslim populations are typically seen as “Islamic issues”, and thus Muslims see the need to engage. When the issue is impacting Black people—and thus Black Muslims—it isn’t seen in the same light.
If Black Muslims fight for Palestine, Kashmir, and Yemen, why aren’t non-Black Muslims fighting for Black lives?
Combatting and ending anti-Blackness is a deep and heavy societal venture; however, there are steps you can take to address anti-Black racism within yourself and the spaces you occupy.
The first, yet most difficult, means of addressing anti-Blackness is unlearning past biases. Changing your opinion or beliefs on certain topics when presented with new information is completely acceptable. Being a part of a racist society, there is a lot we all have yet to unlearn.
Learn about the various ways that anti-Blackness manifests in your communities as well as about Black history and the historical treatment of Black people in your country. Learning about what has been done and what still needs to change is a critical element in dismantling anti-Blackness.
Call It Out
It’s easy to stand by and say nothing when somebody makes an anti-Black remark but in doing so, you become just as at fault. Silence is complicit in the fight against anti-Blackness so if you have the ability to make a difference, do so. Take responsibility in holding others accountable.
Facilitate Family Discussions
Calling out your relatives when they are aggressors in anti-Blackness can be a difficult task. Maintaining certain levels of respect when addressing elders is a huge part of Arab culture. However, so is anti-Blackness. Create an open dialogue with your family surrounding the topic and use the conversation to respectfully educate without making light of the situation.
Anti-Black racism is deeply ingrained in all branches of Arab society. With an overlooked slave trade history, the neglect of migrant worker rights, and derogatory media portrayals, anti-Blackness is ongoing in the MENA region. Muslims are not exempt from being complicit in the fight against anti-Blackness. Without confronting these issues, progress cannot be made. It is now more important than ever that we begin the process of unlearning and addressing anti-Blackness that should have started yesterday.
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