By Himo Kash
Featured Artwork: ‘Nubian Girl’ by the Armenian-Egyptian artist Ervand Demerdjian. Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
Her skin is dipped once in milk and twice in chocolate.
It is a sad and heartbreaking fact to realize that color – how dark or light you are in the eyes of a prospective partner even of the same race – can determine who is deserving of romance. It is the question of desirability, of who we believe is worthy of love, that leads me to write this article.
When I was 15 years old, I walked past my mother as she applied foundation to lighten her skin. I saw how much she hated the process of lightening her skin, and how she did it to fit in and avoid comments like “that color is not for dark skin” when she wore her yellowish jacket that she bought with her savings. How can we demand acceptance if we couldn’t even accept our own skin color?
Now, I’m 23 years old and reading about colorism made me realize why mama wasn’t comfortable with her natural beautiful skin. I am beginning to understand what it meant for her to look black.
My mother struggled with her identity and sense of self, in part, because she married someone from a family with lighter skin. This elevated her social status but brought on racist comments from my father’s side. This was difficult for her, but so was hearing her entire life that she needed to be lighter to be more beautiful. She was raised with comments like:
You shouldn’t go to the beach a lot because the sun will make your skin dark … Don’t walk too comfortably under the sun because it will make your skin darker … Don’t wear bright colors because it will make your skin appear darker … You look like abeed (a racial slur that stands for slave in Arabic) …
It is no wonder that she felt lesser because of the shade of her skin.
A mediatized obsession
Arabs’ preoccupation with fair skin is well known and deep-rooted, and color prejudice is widespread and open, as if skin color correlates to one’s personal worth. TV programs, movies, billboards, advertisements, they all reinforce the idea that “fair is beautiful.”
We see this racism in Arab TV is overt, even in the holy month of Ramadan when broadcasters tone down programming and promote more family-friendly content. Year after year, racist mockery and derogatory language against Afro/black Arabs and black African migrants make it on the TV screens that families gather around each night. Black men and women are depicted as dirty and sluggish and as having bad luck.
Further, these caricatured depictions of black people and racist practices like blackface are so widespread that they aren’t even recognized as offensive. They even help “animate” music videos, as if black-ness were a costume.
What sort of values is this spreading so freely and openly? What would it feel like to watch these programs as a black person, especially knowing the associations of “fairness” as virtuous and darkness as backward also run through our culture?
It is no wonder that mama was desperate to look fair. Some dark-skinned women like mama use makeup that is meant for lighter skinned women, choosing to look “whitewashed” rather than embracing their natural skin tone.
Feeling Colorism in Arab Countries
Racial hierarchies mediated in television shows reflect cultural ideologies that have very real consequences. Women with fair skin are believed to have higher levels of confidence, and more success in relationships, education, and employment than dark-skinned women. Additionally, many dark-skinned women feel a degree of uncertainty when dealing with others because of the biases they have come to expect; they might expect being seen as lesser or unattractive both by larger society and by her own community.
“They” would never admit that they are racist: Lebanese would never admit they’re racist…. Libyans would never admit they’re racist… even people from Sudan would never admit that they perpetuate racist ideologies against their own black people. It was only through taking a step back and looking upon the media and my life through a new lens that I realized that “ok, something really awful is going on here.”
It is no wonder that mama was desperate to look fair. Some dark-skinned women like mama use makeup that is meant for lighter skinned women, choosing to look “whitewashed” rather than embracing their natural skin tone, and others use bleaching products. Common cosmetic products, such as “Fair and Lovely” skin whitening creams, are advertised to show the not-so-veiled link between skin-color and success or likability. The widespread availability of products like these is symptomatic of a “need” produced by discriminatory societal norms.
Ending colorism in Arab countries.
We still have a long way to end colorism in the Arab countries, and Black Lives also matter in the Arab world. However, people are less likely to acknowledge how the systematic and systemic racial discrimination at the heart of the BLM movement afflict many in the Gulf, the Levant, and North Africa. Recently, social media has amplified the voices of Black Arabs and others in the region who are seizing on America’s moment of reckoning and shedding light on prejudices against a sizable minority of Black Arabs in this part of the world.
We cannot tolerate racism, xenophobia, or intolerance. We must speak out against abuses to show solidarity and to make the offender think twice about their comments, some of which may be unintentional. We must do this even if it is uncomfortable, no matter your background, and no matter the place.
Rather than waiting for the world to catch up, maybe we can use the lack of media representation and gross mis-representations as an opportunity for conversation. Maybe the family is the place to start: parents should teach their dark-skinned children the beauty of their heritage and interrupt these racist ideologies before they take hold.