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The Arabs and the black skin: Dynamics of racial identity

What it means to be black in the Arab world today lies at the complex intersection of religion, race, and class. There have been numerous cases of racial discrimination in the Arab world. The media often show pictures of light skinned Arabs, usually classified as white. This is despite the history of most Arab nations being occupied by black skinned people. So what’s this little dirty secret, asks Mona Eltahawy, that the Arab world is hiding?



What it means to be black in the Arab world today lies at the complex intersection of religion, race, and class. For a longtime, black people have been subjected to discrimination, oppression, slavery, and subjugation, premised on racial and colonial ideologies.  The black skin that has been viewed and treated with disdain, and ascribed different negative and demeaning names.

But black women have started reclaiming their racial identity, showing pride in the colour of their skin. Hashtags #melanin #melaninpoppin #melaninonfleek #melaninrich #melaningoals #melaninbeauty #melaningoddess, and many other elements that melanin could be hashtagged to has been created to promote the beauty and pride of the black skin.

The melanin movement has also had a huge impact on black women reclaiming their natural blackness, beginning to appreciate the natural black hair. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been an advocate of natural hair, an issue she raises in her book Americanah. There have been ripples  as a result of her advocacy. The incident that quickly  comes to mind is that of students of Pretoria High School for Girls who protested against the hair policy of the school. The girls stated how their hair was described as untidy and compared to a bird’s nest.

Read: Are there any dark skinned women in Africa? You wouldn’t know it from looking at many of our music videos


Being black in the Arab world

The problematic idea widely held that all Arabs or Indians are light skinned has resulted in many black Arabs bleaching their skin.

Abeer Sinder is a black Arab that faces racism. Photo: Abeer Sinder/ Twitter

In a recent YouTube video Yes she’s black . . . but she’s pretty that’s gone viral, (in Arabic), Saudi Arabian health and beauty blogger, Abeer Sinder talks about the undertones of racism she’s faced.

In a statement to The New Arab, Sinder said, “growing up I always felt that my dark skin is beautiful and that I was pretty,” “but that changed when I went out into society; I started to hear so many hateful, racist comments that made me hate myself for a while… I even considered skin bleaching.”

The issue of racism in Arab speaking countries is one that seems buried under many layers. Egyptian feminist and activist, Mona Eltahawy in her article the Arab world’s dirty secret said:

We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it. On my Facebook page, I blamed racism for my argument and an Egyptian man wrote to deny that we are racists and used as his proof a program on Egyptian Radio featuring Sudanese songs and poetry!


Our silence over racism not only destroys the warmth and hospitality we are proud of as Egyptians, it has deadly consequences.

What else but racism on Dec. 30, 2005, allowed hundreds of riot policemen to storm through a makeshift camp in central Cairo to clear it of 2,500 Sudanese refugees, trampling or beating to death 28 people, among them women and children?

She further stated:

The racism I saw on the Cairo Metro has an echo in the Arab world at large, where the suffering in Darfur goes ignored because its victims are black and because those who are creating the misery in Darfur are not Americans or Israelis and we only pay attention when America and Israel behave badly.

The absence of social or public representatives of the black girl spurred Sinder to start blogging in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. She told The New Arab, “I couldn’t relate to any of the public figures and style influencers I followed, and I looked for someone with my complexion so that I can benefit from their experiences but I couldn’t find any… So I decided to be that person for a lot of other black Arabs.”


Read: “Wash the black away” Chinese detergent advert has everyone fuming

Racism has had its focus in America and Europe, but the Arab world, according to Dawud Walid “lacks a sustainable movement with leaders who methodically confront the issue of anti-Black racism with any sort of regularity.” Walid further told The New Arab that “It’s not even considered a majority societal issue to acknowledge much less confront, pertaining to bigotry that faces African immigrants and refugees, to even black Arabs.”

Read: Mainstream Media’s Coverage of Libya Disturbing

With the recent killings of African immigrants in Libya, the question of hatred against the black skin by the Arabs is no longer a dirty little secret.