In light of recent developments in the Black Lives Matter movement which witnessed protests spreading in all 50 American states and 13 different countries, global popular media found itself engulfed in sentiments of solidarity and aid. Criticism of most of this solidarity was that it was counterproductive and managed to silence the movement rather than amplify it like the #blackouttuesday hashtag that was saturated with black squares.
One particular trend among Arab “influencers” was a blatant use of blackface to express solidarity. To them, darkening their skin tone by numerous degrees showed love to black people, and expressed the sentiment that the colour of your skin doesn’t matter. The posts came off as extremely ignorant, racist, and tone-deaf, with captions that read “I wish I was black, today more than ever” and “Just because we are black on the outside, doesn’t mean that we are black on the inside.” Some of the artists still refused to delete their posts and apologize after hundreds of people attempted to educate them on the history and severity of blackface.
None of this is new to arab media, with blackface being used in TV shows streaming on the largest Arab channels while displaying actors in exaggerated blackface ridiculing black communities and enforcing harmful stereotypes. Just last year in May, Egyptian actress Shaima Saif appeared on a prank tv show which aired on MBC. Donning her blackface, Saif supposedly impersonated a Sudanese woman pestering people on a minibus, stealing from them while intoxicated. Following heavy backlash, Saif claimed “It’s just comedy.”
History of Blackface
The history of blackface is most widely known in its American context which began around the 1830s and persisted for more than 100 years. White performers would act in minstrel shows where they would paint their faces black to ridicule enslaved Africans. The stereotypes pushed onto black people were laziness, thievery, hypersexuality, and ignorance. Blackface persisted when popular media moved from stages to TV, with artists like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney also wearing blackface. This effectively kept the characterization and caricaturization of black people alive to this day, invoking a painful racist history and present.
Blackface is not exclusive to American communities, however, with a staple of Iranian Nowruz parties in celebration of a new year being Haji Firuz, a blackface character. While Arabs do not conveniently have one character to don in blackface, explicit racism is portrayed across all art forms, especially TV series.
Blackface and racism in Arab shows
In one Libyan comedy show, a woman in blackface is left outside an elevator door while her baby carriage is inside. She calls out for the unsuspecting victims inside to take care of her “babies” which turn out to be a pair of monkeys.
In 2018, Lebanese singer Myriam Fares uploaded a music video of her song Goumi in which, halfway through the video, she appears in full body blackface in a faux jungle setting. It’s ridiculous that throughout the entire production process, no one stopped to reflect on the absurdity and racism displayed. In January of this year, makeup artist Ghadeer Sultan uploaded photos of her in full blackface in an instagram post that has now been deleted claiming she was “showcasing her talent.”
Blackface in Egypt, home to a large Nubian population, is prevalent. The popular film Sae’di fil Gam3a el Amrekiyya (An Upper Eqyptian in the American University) serves as a good example of the characteristics used to ridicule black people, with the colour of their skin often being the punchline of most jokes. “Why are you turning off the light? You are already dark by nature,” says the main character, played by Mohamad Henedy, to a black prostitute. When the same character, Khalaf, hears of someone’s death he tells the prostitute “The lady died because of your black face,” reinforcing the link between black people and bad luck that is present in Arab media. In the 2005 Egyptian film Eyal Habiba (Lover’s Kids), three characters laugh at a family picture of a Sudanese man, played by someone in blackface, when a character asks, “Did someone burn this apartment before or what?”
The racist tropes exhibited on screen extend way beyond that and are in essence a reflection of anti-black sentiments that exist in the West Asia and North Africa region and beyond. Actors in blackface and even black actors are reduced to comedic blips that stem from their “dirty” behavior in purposefully subordinate roles like servants, janitors, and housemaids.
A Forgotten Slave Trade
Conversations that are brought up to tackle anti-blackness in Arab communities are often shut down in the fear that they would hurt “Arab unity” and for many, pretending that a long history of anti-blackness doesn’t exist in their own communities is easier than coming to terms with it.
Not too many centuries ago, Arab Muslims in East and North Africa traded African slaves in the Middle East. The Arab-Muslim slave trade, or the trans-Saharan trade, is regraded as the longest slave trade, having lasted more than 1300 years.
Reports on the numbers of slaves that were captured vary widely, with many pinning the number at nine million. Research also concluded that almost 3 out of 4 slaves died before reaching the market they were to be sold at due to illness and exhaustion.
Zanzibar became the hub of the slave trade with Arab merchants buying both goods and humans and using the slaves to transport their newly purchased raw materials to their lands. The slaves worked in fields, as teachers, and as harem guards which led to the inhumane castration of male slaves. This castration altered an entire generation of Africans, an unimaginable crime. There is a missing African generation in history due to the widespread theft of reproductive rights.
When European countries and the Americas were abolishing slavery in the 19th century in legal terms, Arabs resisted that change and persisted in their trade until the 20th century.
Current realities and moving forward
One hundred years later, Arabs are no longer trading Africans and People of Colour, at least not in the traditional sense.
Anti-blackness and racism in Arab communities is what dictates the Kafala system which excludes migrant workers from Africa and East Asia from the labor law. It is what subjects them to cruel conditions upon their arrival to countries like Kuwait, Lebanon, the UAE, KSA, and more. Racism is what pushes employers of domestic workers to take away their passports, make them live in a 1 meter squared room, if any, and outright abuse the workers in their home. Racism in our communities is why two migrant domestic workers in Lebanon end up dead each week, most often in murders that are covered up by a racist system. Racism is why people of colour and specifically migrant domestic workers are not allowed into private beach and pool resorts in Lebanon.
Racism is not a foreign concept in Arab communities. Anti-blackness is not a structure exported to us from the USA that we must only express our disdain towards and extend solidarity with because anti-blackness is a structure that is everywhere. When your friend says the n-word and you laugh because “we’re not in the States and these issues don’t affect us, so it’s not racist” remember the trans-Saharan slave trade and that Arabic racial slurs are used around you all the time with no accountability.
We need to have these difficult conversations about race and our history. There is a growing consciousness on social media that is holding racist celebrities and organizations accountable, but it does not extend much further than that. What we need is a radical transformation of the racially-charged structures that define the lives of black, brown, and asian minorities in our communities.
In the academic field, more and more scholars are tackling Arab anti-blackness in a modern and historical context. This work needs to infiltrate our everyday lives so we can begin to witness change in our communities. Include the history of the Arab slave trade in history books and allow our communities to sincerely tackle racism without the censorship and pretense currently associated with it. Lift up the voices of Black Arabs, call for the abolition of the modern-day form of slavery which is Kafala, and educate your communities.