Jenin Al Shalabi portrait

Written by Jenin Al Shalabi

Jenin Al Shalabi is a speaker and writer who is passionate about highlighting diverse stories that break barriers and ignite change. Within her school community, Jenin established a school-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion council.

I am seven years old. My grandmother and I drive through the streets of Jordan. I see billboard after billboard with images of women with fair skin, blue eyes, and Eurocentric features proudly plastered across them. None of these women look like the Arab women I know. All of them preach strange creams that apparently lighten their skin. 

I don’t think much of it.

I am ten years old. I sit in a classroom and listen as a teacher mocks a student for having monolid eyes, calling her eyes ‘little Chinas’. We all laughed it off. 

I am twelve years old. I frown as I hear family members mimic and mock a typical ‘Indian’ accent, coupled with exaggerated hand movements and facial expressions. I scowl, but I don’t speak up. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Racism is a virus that has embedded itself into the heart and soul of Arab communities, thriving on ignorant perpetuation.

The matter of the fact is that racism is, and always has been, deeply ingrained into Arab communities. It’s ironic: I have, on countless occasions, heard fellow Arabs express great frustration at the amount of bias and prejudice they received from those outside their communities. Arab communities have long been the target of belittling stereotypes, harmful remarks, and heinous micro aggressions. 

So – how can these same communities then so freely indulge in displays of racism towards other minority groups? How can we eternalize the same racism that has brought down our own communities for so long? 

Many Arabs don’t feel compelled to question their bigotry, because it has been so deeply ingrained into our cultural hegemony, that it becomes second nature. Take a quick flick through some Arab TV channels – the only time you would see people with darker skin tones was when they were portrayed as servants or villains. Ideally, the actors had porcelain skin that glistened on screen. Despite the fact that in the US alone, 20% of the Muslim population is Black. TV constructed an unobtainable beauty standard for the Arab population – teaching them to equate dignity with Eurocentrism. 

And it doesn’t stop there – growing up, many Arab children would have been introduced to a desert called “Ras ilabed”, which literally translates to ‘the head of the slave’. This dessert is composed of a marshmallow center dipped in chocolate, said to resemble the head of a slave due to its dark color. Thousands enjoyed this sweet without caring to confront its racist origins.

All the examples I’ve provided above may seem like mere jokes, silly comments, or meagre coincidences. But the actuality is, these insignificant occurrences are indicators of larger webs of underlying prejudice that can easily spawn into something much bigger, and much more horrifying.

A prime example is the murder of George Floyd – which shone a light on the ever-growing racial prejudice that dominates many corners of society today. Many of us have become increasingly familiar with the murder via social media. 

But, something that the media might’ve neglected to tell you: the corner shop that had originally called the police on Mr. Floyd was run by a Palestinian American man, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. Mr. Floyd was murdered right in front of his store. We enabled the atrocious murder of an innocent Black man. We stood on the sidelines. We allowed our deeply ingrained prejudices to interfere with our humanity. 

We think we aren’t a part of this story, but we are. 

We cannot complain about the hatred towards Arabs that has been promoted by Western media if we are willing to project that same hatred onto other communities. Contributing to a cycle of such hatred is the epitome of hypocrisy. 

Racism in the Arab community doesn’t stop at anti-blackness, unfortunately. The Arab community has also been an epicenter for appalling portrayals of bias against South Asians. All this, despite the fact that Arabs and South Asians have many cultural beliefs and practices in common.

I went to a predominantly Arab school, in which there were only two South Asian students in our entire year. These students were constantly isolated and ostracized. Any open expression of their culture was met with frowns and whispers. Living in Dubai, I had always believed the country to be a hub for diversity; a cultural melting pot. Hence, I found it sickening that in what was meant to be such a culturally aware landscape, many felt it difficult to move past archaic stereotypes that they had been spoon-fed.

What do we, as a community, gain from ostracizing and belittling other communities of color? Should we refuse to acknowledge the poisonous biases that lay deep within all of us, we will be feeding a cycle of hypocrisy and contributing to the suffering of many.

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