[Personal Narrative] The Elephant In the Racialised Room: The Conundrum of Black-Arabness by Bedour Alagraa
Race remains inscribed into and through the body, its reading an embodied and inescapable reality effecting how we are seen and how we too come to see ourselves. In her personal essay, Bedour Alagraa explores the elephant in the room as a Black-Arab and the traumatic tension that ensues in the spaces between them.
I’m a Black Arab. Not half-Black/half-Arab, but Black-Arab. My family is from Sudan, a country so diverse and with such a violent history of slavery and colonialism, and with such an intensely divisive pigmentocracy that perhaps my chosen nomenclature of ‘Black-Arabness’ might very well be considered a point of conflict for those still living in the newly split nation and those members of the Afro-diaspora at large.
My presence has been unsettling to the insidious forces of racism and colourism among White-passing and self-identified Brown Arabs. The prevailing attitude is that nobody really wants to be black unless they absolutely have to, right?
My father attended a missionary school until he reached university, and colonialism is a part of his first-hand memory. My father never missed a beat: “Sudan is located in the heart of Africa! We’re the largest country on the continent! We’re the land of the Nile! We share more borders with more countries than any other nation! We received independence before Ghana, don’t let those history books tell you they were the first!” I consider myself lucky insofar as I have a mother that never played into the pigmentocracy that underpins most of the globe.
I basked, and still do, in an undeniable shade privilege among black colleagues and peers despite being subject to virulent colourism and racism from white-passing and brown-identified Arabs. Despite having these privileges in my back pocket, as a child and preteen I tried to downlplay the ‘African’ part of me, as if it were so easy to amputate the country that gave me my name, my history, my parents’ distinct dialect. “I’m Arab too!” I would shriek. “Sudan shares a border with Egypt so we’re totally Arab!”
For most of my life (including the present) I’ve felt the stinging pains of anti-Black racism more so than anti-Arab racism, mostly because the world has read my body as Black for my entire life, and also because I’m proudly pro-Black and identify with Blackness with greater ease than I do Arabness. Why then, as a child, did I so desperately cling to an Arabness that would never be affirmed by other Arabs and indeed the world?
The trauma of racism as a child made me grasp for something within myself that was as close to whiteness as I could muster. For me, this association was Arabness, as if being a Black Arab meant I had no legitimate claims to Arabness in the first place.
In attempting to climb the apparent rung of racial hierarchy, in an attempt to pull myself closer to whiteness through Arabness, my anxiety about how my body is read vs. how I wished to be read, as a Black Arab, began to intensify. In turn, any expression of my parents’ language made me feel like a fraud, as if nobody would in turn legitimize said Arabness. I began a life long torture of pushing away and closer to both Blackness and Arabness depending on where the most recent trauma was located. Little did I know that the trauma was located between those two.
9/11 really complicated things. My twin brother, a Black-Arab male, became trapped in the concentric rings of oppression that came with Black-Arabness. He grew increasingly frustrated at the flagrant racial profiling he experienced as a Black male in Toronto. We both grew equally frustrated at the hours and hours of extra border screening because of our Muslim names and birthplace of Doha, Qatar. It became clear to my family and many other Black Arabs that it would be difficult to escape the crushing particularity of the intercept between anti-Black racism and Islamophobia.
As I grew into my politics in my later high-school years and my early university years, a few things came into very sharp focus. Among white-passing and Brown-identified Arabs, my colour was undeniably Black, as Black as it gets. Black, Black, Black.
My shade privilege among Black folks was (and still is) intense, and I rode this aesthetic privilege all the while honing my pro-Black politics in a desperate and embarrassing display of the aptly named “Huey Newton Complex.” This experience was served as a useful counterpoint at the existential conundrum my Black-Arabness presented, particularly as I reached university and my politics began to crystallize. One professor of mine even went as far as to approach me and, without even a greeting, asked me if I was a Moor. Really. After my initial astonishment I politely informed him that North Africa had countries and my name was not and never will be Othello.
Last year I completed my Master’s degree in Race, Ethnicity, and Postcolonial studies. I salivated at the thought of meeting peers that might finally understand the language I use to describe myself, and might even respect my choices re. personal identifiers!
My expectations were shattered when one classmate remarked “Oh, you’re Black-Arab? Cool, very Homi K. Bhabha-Hybridityesque!” Now, if there’s one thing I hate more than Homi Bhabha’s deployment of the rather eugenic-sounding hybridity, it’s having what Junot Diaz calls a ‘low-budget Foucault’ making a term paper out of my experiences.
I’ve learned to find some humor in my ongoing racial melodrama. One of my favourite pastimes is going ‘incognegro’, where I eavesdrop on Arabs having conversations in Arabic and surprise them with a confrontation at their racism (directed at others or towards myself). Shaming people out of their racism isn’t the best tactic, but it’s hard to control myself when I realize that these candidly racist conversations between Arabs happen in my presence because of two assumptions: (1) people nearby won’t understand them, and (2) I won’t understand them because there’s no such thing as a Black Arab.
I’m here to assert that Afro-Arabs and Black Arabs do exist. Not only do we exist, we create a necessary tension in the articulations of Brownness/Blackness, we disturb the rigidity of the Black/Brown/Yellow/Indigenous markers that fall under the juggernaut ‘Person of Colour’ identifier, and we inspire a necessary appreciation of the multiplicities that might be produced within this rather dogmatic racial order.
I am a Black Arab, and I will not conform to the regimes of the body and to the whims of a body politic that tells me I do not exist.
Bedour Alagraa completed her BA at the University of Toronto in 2011, majoring in International Relations and Political Science. She recently completed her Masters in Race, Ethnicity, and Post-colonial studies at the London School of Economics She worked at the Institute of Race Relations while completing her dissertation on race and the humanitarian industrial reporting complex.
She is a self-identified Africanist and a lover of all things Beyonce.
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