“Arab-Black” solidarity shouldn’t erase Afro-Arabs & the racism they face in the Arab world
September 5, 2017
By Lama El-Hanan*, AFROPUNK contributor
Note: This article involves a discussion of Afro-Arab identity and experiences. From the outset, I would like to make note of the fact that many Black people within the Arab World as it is defined by the Arab League do not identify as Arab, most notably Somalis and Djiboutians but also to a lesser degree Sudanese and Mauritanians. Many others do however. Whether or not a Black person identifies with Arabness is, in many ways, a very personal choice which depends on such things as their nationality and ethnic/tribal affiliation as well as their individual experiences and politics. To honour this, I ask that you add a mental “self-identified” next to every mention of Afro-Arab in this article as I have opted not to for the sake of style and flow.
Of late, Arab-American activists have made an effort to foster solidarity between Arab and Black communities, asserting that there are commonalities between the two groups’ struggles for civil rights. This effort has involved speaking out against the racism and marginalization that Black people face within the American white supremacist superstructure. It has also included addressing anti-blackness within the Arab-American community by—among other things—calling out the use of racist terms such as abeed (slaves) to refer to Black people. The phenomenon of Arab-Black solidarity has been celebrated in social justice circles as a laudable development which encourages allyship and coalition building across different communities of color. However, the push towards Arab-Black solidarity is not unproblematic. Further examination reveals it as not only hollow and performative in many respects, but also as reinforcing the anti-blackness amongst Arabs that it is purportedly meant to address.
Arab-Black Solidarity Contributes to the Erasure of Afro-Arabs
Newsflash! Afro-Arabs exist. While many believe that there are no Black people in the Arab World or that all that are are Sudanese, there is in fact a sizeable minority of Black citizens in most Arab countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, U.A.E, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine in large part due to the Indian Ocean Slave Trade but also as a result of religious pilgrimages. This is not to mention people in North-African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria who would be racialized as Black in the West as well as self-identified Arabs along the coast of East Africa in places like the Zanzibar Archipelago and coastal Kenya. By echoing the artificial separations between ‘Arab’ and ‘Black’ within Western conceptions of race, White and Brown Arabs cosign and reproduce constructions of Afro-Arabs as ‘racial paradoxes’ which erase our existence and alienate us from our language, cultures, and identities.
Arab-Black Solidarity allows Racism against Afro-Arabs to go Unaddressed
Although Arab-Black solidarity does explore anti-blackness in the Arab community, it is largely done so only in relation to African-Americans. Arab anti-blackness thus becomes configured as something that Arabs adopted as a means of accruing relative privilege within the context of a specifically American white supremacist system in which they are also marginalized. While anti-blackness in the Arab world and the diaspora was undoubtedly reinforced by Western colonialism and racism, it is not in any way its point of origin. Anti-blackness was a problem in the Arab world before Europe’s so-called “Age of Exploration” and is very much tied to the Indian Ocean Slave Trade during which anywhere between 10 and 28 million Africans were enslaved and shipped to different parts of MENA. By contributing to the obscuration of this socio-historical context, the paradigm of Arab-Black solidarity becomes a cop-out for White and Brown Arabs’ racism against Black people in the Arab world. The assertion is that real racism is something that is exclusive to White Westerners. This myth lessens the urgency of countering racism against Afro-Arabs and other Black populations in the MENA region.
It goes without saying that efforts to address anti-blackness in the Arab-American community are important and urgently needed. But when this comes at the expense of (a) erasing Afro-Arab identities and experiences, and (b) literally whitewashing racism and anti-blackness in the Arab World, it reveals itself as a hollow and performative form of solidarity-building. I’m glad you care about Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile and add #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackMuslimLivesMatter to your facebook posts. But if you do not also think critically about making Arab spaces inclusive of and safe(r) for Afro-Arabs, then you unequivocally cannot call yourself an ally to Black people. Being pro-Black means caring about all of us, and not only those of us whose identities fit neatly within your aesthetics of solidarity. Otherwise you are simply exploiting our struggle as Black people—sporting it as an ‘allyship badge’ that you can use to cultivate and project a righteous self image. So yeah…You can keep your Arab-Black solidarity. I can see straight through it. You don’t really care about us.