If we are one community, one Ummah, then why don’t we act like it?
As much as I love my Arab culture, from our beautiful weddings, lively music and delicious food to our great sense of humor and giving nature, there are some things that are just flat out wrong. Anti-Black sentiments and racism are two of them.
The extent to which the Arab Muslim community is divided is shocking. Our community will not only discriminate based on skin color, but also on nationality, religious sect and what village or town someone is from, even when they are from the same country.
By the same token, Europeans have preconceived notions as to what Arabs look and act like, so if you don’t look like someone straight out of Disney’s Aladdin you receive the classic response, “but you don’t look Arab.”
“… most Arabs associate dark complexions with inferiority, they automatically assume that Black people are less of an Arab or Muslim or aren’t Arab or Muslim at all.”
Arabs come in different shades of skin color, facial features, hair textures, eye color and the like. There is no one set Arab look. Rather, their characteristics vary from tribe to tribe and region to region.
But this isn’t something only non-Arabs say. Arabs also have their own preconceived notions as to what Arabs or Muslims look or sound like. Therefore, not only do Arabs have a hierarchy when it comes to skin color, but also rank Arabs on their “Arabness.”
Since most Arabs associate dark complexions with inferiority, they automatically assume that Black people are less of an Arab or Muslim or aren’t Arab or Muslim at all. In university, I was having this conversation with young Black Muslim women, and they told me that they feel like they have to prove their “Arabness” to non-Black Arab Muslims.
“You don’t speak real Arabic” and “You’re not really Arab” are some of the phrases they told me they often hear. Most people just assume they can’t read or recite the Quran because it’s in Arabic.
In my opinion, there is a deep-seated hypocrisy that lies within people who deem themselves superior because of where they are from or what skin color they have, and then preach about Islam’s inclusivity and how pious they are at the same time.
Unfortunately, it seems this is a result of a long history of European colonialism that led to many Arabs internalizing European social constructions and norms.
Many Arab nations were also involved in the kidnapping of people in Sub-Saharan Africa and sold them to European slave traders or used them as slaves themselves. Blackness became associated with inferiority, backwardness and the working class, whereas whiteness was associated with superiority, progressiveness and the upper class
“I grew up thinking that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too dark, that I didn’t speak enough Arabic.”
Slavery still takes place in countries such as Libya and Lebanon, and these associations with blackness and whiteness have been perpetuated along with the practice. Consequently, this has influenced how blackness is perceived in the Arab world, so much so that Black people are still often referred to as “abed” or “abeed,” which means slave or slaves.
One would have thought that being treated as an inferior because of your Arab and/or Muslim identity by some people outside of the Arab Muslim community would make our community much more sensitive to the plight of Black Arab Muslims, but the opposite is actually true.
Haneefah, a Belizean Muslim, shared her experiences as a Black Muslim in America. In her heart-wrenching video, she directly speaks to her friends and the Arab community. She begins by saying, “I know, and my sisters know, that I grew up thinking that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too dark, that I didn’t speak enough Arabic.”
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She recalls times where people would call her brother a thug, call Black areas frightening and call Black people slaves even in her presence. “These micro-aggressions are dangerous because you get away with them so often that it becomes commonplace to you,” she said. Her comment section is flooded with the similar experiences of other Black Muslim women.
These micro-aggressions are so normalized that when Black people point out the discrimination prevalent in the community, they are often met with the argument that racism is impossible amongst Muslims because Bilal was Black.
However, Muslims are not exempt just because we have good Black Muslims as role models. The United States had Mary Jackson, who was a genius mathematician that produced pioneering work as an aerospace engineer at NASA, but the country was still racially segregated.
Writer and historian Habeeb Akande said: “When non-Black Muslims refer to the contribution of Black people in Islam, they speak about servitude, of lowly figures who rose out of their abject poverty to become ‘honorable’ Muslims. It’s almost a back-handed compliment.”
“When people disagree with marrying a Black Muslim it tells me that Black people are seen as Black first and Muslim second.”
On the contrary, Islam teaches Muslims that no one is superior to another because of their skin color, sex, class, and so on, and that only God can judge us.
Yet, racism still plagues the Muslim community. Like me, many other Muslims find this frustrating because Islam is being contradicted and is treated of secondary importance to cultural norms and societal standards and judgments.
And the hypocrisy sometimes is very real. For example, my friend once asked me, “Why is it that when someone gets married to a Black Muslim some Muslims stan interracial love, but when it comes to their own families, they would never allow that to happen?” When people disagree with marrying a Black Muslim it tells me that Black people are seen as Black first and Muslim second.
This reminds me of the stories I have heard where Black Muslim women that are visibly Muslim and wear the hijab are asked, “Are you Muslim?” in a manner of disbelief or confusion.
Again, they are seen as Black first and Muslim second to the point where other Muslims feel the need to confirm their identity as a Muslim. There are a lot of Black people that are born Muslim, and there are also those who convert; it is very common, so why ask such a question as if it’s so rare?
Once I was told that someone “joked” in my absence that I would “bring home a Black man.” Why is a Black man the subject of a joke? What’s wrong with marrying a Black man? The negative connotations attached to Blackness need to be challenged.
The Ummah means we are one Muslim family and should embrace each other as such. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is.
White Arab Muslims need to listen to the experiences of Black Muslims, rather than dismiss them with excuses like, “Muslims can’t be racist” or “but Bilal was Black,” to avoid talking about the racism that needs to be tackled in our community. We need to change in order to create a better world for our generation and future generations to come.
We still have a lot of work to do. The way our communities perceive and describe dark-skin is still very negative. Dark-skinned people in our respective cultures and communities are deemed “less than”–less worthy, less beautiful, less favorable– despite it being part of our natural God-given ethnic traits.
To this day, Arab countries buy and sell skin-lightening products because they see pale skin as the epitome of beauty. In addition, there is a system of colorism in families where female family members get compared to one another, and their skin color is directly associated with their beauty and value, especially in the Arab marriage market.
“When dark-skinned Muslims are the target of constant criticism and belittling at the hands of their own community, they feel like they are in an identity limbo.”
Ayah Shaheen, founder and editor of AM Women Magazine said: “Honestly, it seemed very common in Palestine for a woman to marry a dark-skinned man, but not the other way around. Someone I knew had that very experience, where a white man wanted to marry her, even though she had dark hair, skin and eyes, but for the longest time his mother, who was white and had colored eyes, was against it because she thought her son deserved a woman with lighter features.”
She explained that it is common for people there to seek out girls with paler skin for their dark-skinned sons with the aim of having children with lighter features.
We don’t understand what harmful impact this has on our community, on our women and our youth. When dark-skinned Muslims are the target of constant criticism and belittling at the hands of their own community, they feel like they are in an identity limbo. At times they do not feel part of an all-white space, but they can’t identify with their own communities either. As a result, a lot of Muslims struggle with their identity and self-image.
Ayah explained how colorism affected her own mental health and self-esteem. “I felt like there was something wrong with me, and I gave in to that mentality that lighter was better, so much so, that when I was in Palestine, I would use lighter foundation, just like all the other girls did. Dark-skinned women, including myself, hid their skin tones behind that white façade in order to feel better about themselves, no matter how fake or hideous it really was.”
It has taken people of color years to be comfortable in their own skin after being told for so long that they aren’t beautiful or good enough. And many still struggle.
For the sake of humanity, we cannot afford to pass this toxicity and trauma on to the next generation. We must deconstruct these stereotypes, and doing this starts from home.
If you are favored because you are considered the fair, beautiful woman in the family, or you hear derogatory remarks made about dark-skinned family members, now is your chance to speak up and challenge this toxic mindset we have allowed to consume and divide our community for far too long.
Often, people see the idea that whiteness equates to beauty as part of the natural order, and so people need to know where this idea actually came from to realize it is anything but natural. Muslims need to truly value the teachings of Islam that preach unity and equality by discarding these toxic ideas from our cultures altogether.
“We need to be the change so that the generations to come will be prouder and more confident in who they are and in their own skin…“
You can use Islam as a common ground to connect with others and challenge their perceptions. To be better Muslims, we have a responsibility to address and resolve this issue that persists in our community because it harms our brothers and sisters and absolutely contradicts Islam.
As Ayah said, “We need to be the change so that the generations to come will be prouder and more confident in who they are and in their own skin, rather than spending their whole lives striving to be someone else, like a lighter and whiter version of the beautiful, capable, and worthy person they already are.”
What else can we do to challenge this mindset? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!