When I was younger, it never made sense to me how I can be two identities in one. Although I knew that I was Sudanese, it was still ingrained in my head that you are either Arab or Black–not both. I was either way too African to be Arab, or too Arab to be African, therefore I constantly struggled with my identity and continuously felt like an outsider in the Arab world. As I grew older though, I came to love both being black and Arab, but quickly realized that I was not loved by both of those communities.
When talking about Arab Americans, I always felt like Black Arabs are an exclusion to that category. The problems that black people in the Arab community face are almost never addressed. No one ever wants to talk about how there are barely any black people in Dearborn mosques. No one wants to talk about how differently Arab teachers in Dearborn schools treat non-black Arabs than black students. No one wants to talk about how non-black Arabs would go as far as disowning their child if they wanted to marry someone who is black. We are always talking about how there is so much racism towards the Arab community, but never talk about the racism in it.
The subtle or blatant racism that is presented by many non-black Arabs towards black people absolutely needs to be called out. I often feel like the racism that exists in the Arab world is worse than the racism that I experience from white people because it feels like I am hated by my own community. Nothing infuriates me more than when Arabs use the word “abeed”– meaning slaves– to refer to black people. The word has been ingrained within Arabs and normalized in their culture. There is literally an Arabic word for black, which is “aswad”, but for some reason, abeed has been the synonymous word of choice for black.
I remember speaking with an older Yemeni woman who was telling me about the history of Hamtramck. She explained to me how the city was once so beautiful, but then the “abeed” came in and ruined everything. My jaw dropped when I heard that word because I was so confused as to how I was a black person sitting right in front of her, yet she just referred to black people as slaves so casually. It was not only older people who used this very ignorant word, but it was also younger people who have been accustomed to it as well. Whenever I would call out friends when they use the word abeed, I am always met with the “Oh I’m so sorry! I did not mean you–you are different” empty apology. How was I different? If you did not know I speak Arabic and understand what you have said, you would have even used “abeed” to refer to me.
It is always very entertaining watching the reactions on people’s faces when they learn that I speak Arabic fluently though. The frantic look on a khalto’s face when she says something bad about me to another khalto in Arabic not expecting me to ever understand what she said, but then I respond back to her in Arabic is always hilarious. The “wow you speak Arabic? I thought you were just black! ” commentary always makes me chuckle. Laughing at these situations has been a coping mechanism for me because it is honestly very frustrating never feeling like I belong.
We often wonder why Arab communities are so weak and are easy targets of racism and discrimination from other communities, yet neglect to understand that it is that way because there is so much division between Arabs themselves. In order to build a stronger community not only in Dearborn but elsewhere, the walls of racism and separation between Arabs first have to be broken down.