Arab/Muslim Racism: The divisiveness that permeates Detroit’s communities of color

Leah Vernon, who runs a popular Instagram account that celebrates being “fat, black and Muslim”, never formally studied Arabic but, growing up in Detroit, she learned the word abeed: the Arabic plural for slave, a derogatory term used to describe African Americans. Sometimes she heard the word while she and her mother were in attendance at predominantly Arab mosques in Detroit’s neighboring city of Dearborn. Other times, she heard it at “party stores”, small corner shops that dot Detroit and are almost always staffed by Arab cashiers, who often sit behind inches of bulletproof glass.

“Honestly, I heard it my whole life,” Vernon said. “I was called abeed so many times I never thought anything of it until a Somali friend, who speaks Arabic, explained to me, ‘No, they are calling us slaves.’ I have even heard it from 11-year-old kids.”

In some ways, talking about race in America has become easier. It wasn’t that long ago, in the late 1990s, when I was a graduate student in public policy at UCLA, that a professor asked me to disband a study group I co-founded for students of color because it was “divisive”. Twenty years later, I am back again in graduate school, this time for creative writing at the University of Michigan, and I am floored at the extent to which campus officials now encourage students of color to assemble, sometimes picking up the tab when they do so. But while there is, at last, a greater space in which to discuss institutionalized racism, too often conversations about race are limited to a white/non-white binary. As a result, prejudices within communities of color, and in particular the problem of anti-blackness within immigrant communities, routinely goes unchecked. The subject of these tensions comes up whenever I report from Detroit, especially once I turn off my recorder.

Arab/Muslim Racism: This blackface skit of “lazy” Sudanese re-exposes racism in the Arab world

A popular Kuwaiti television show has aired a skit that exposes the country’s problematic race relations.

Block Ghashmarah featured a skit in which Kuwaiti actors portrayed negative stereotypes of Sudanese people. The show aired during Ramadan on Kuwait 1, with each episode dedicated to mocking people from a different country, according to a BBC report.

In the episode targeting the Sudanese, all three actors are in blackface, smeared in dark brown make-up. One wears a wig with thick black woolly hair. Their characters are all reclining, and speak in a drawl that is meant to mock the Sudanese accent. As one character asks to marry the other’s daughter, they punctuate their words with “aaah,” right before the characters take a nap.


“Guys, this is 2018? What’s up with you painting your faces black?” asked Waleed Abdulhamid, a Sudanese teacher living in Canada. “You know, the Kuwaitis themselves, there [are] a lot of dark-skinned people, so why do you have to do this?”

If Kuwait TV wanted to portray Sudanese characters, producers could easily have hired Sudanese actors living in the country. While the skit’s main actor has since apologized, use of blackface and reliance on stereotypes and caricatures is nothing new in Kuwait or the other Gulf states.

As BBC journalist Abdirahim Saeed pointed out, Egyptian TV series Asmi We Ashgan also used actors in blackface with braided wigs to portray Sudanese. That show centers around two conmen pursued by a detective. In one episode, the blackface characters play a Sudanese father and daughter, trying to seduce a wealthy Egyptian man.


These shows are indicative of a much deeper problem with race in the Arab world. Even more harmful is the mistreatment of expat workers from Africa and Asia through the kafala system, which gives employers broad power over low-wage workers.

In countries like Kuwait, the vast majority of the labor force is made up migrants from Asia and Africa who often work as maids and construction workers—and end up caught in a system of racial hierarchy and exploitation.  The local population often has various skin shades, but lighter skin is preferred. In Egypt, the dark-skinned Nubian community routinely complains of racism and prejudice, writes journalist Mat Nashed: “The Arabic word for ‘slave’ is often colloquially used to address black Africans in the Middle East. Just think about the uproar—and how justified the anger—when racists refer to Arabs in an equally degrading way.”

Countries without a racially segregated past will at times try to absolve themselves from responsibility for fighting racism. Or—as the Netherlands does with Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”)—they will point to their current diversity as proof that their society isn’t racist, even when dressing up as a much-loved Christmas mascot presents a clear example of blackface. Just as China has been forced to reckon with its race relations after outcry over blackface skits and its portrayal of Africans, the Arab world needs to face up to its own prejudice.

Correction: A previous version of this article had an incorrect spelling for the name of journalist Abdirahim Saeed.


Arab/Muslim Racism: Egypt blackface sketch about Sudanese spotlights racism in region

An Egyptian comedian has sparked anger by using blackface in a sketch and mocking Sudanese people, drawing attention to what experts say is a deeper racism problem in the region.

Speaking what she thought would pass as Sudanese Arabic, Shaimaa Seif, wearing blackface, chatted to Egyptian commuters on a bus as part of a sketch aired on the programme Sha’labaz.

The footage was broadcast by the local affiliate of Saudi-funded MBC, one of the largest entertainment channels in the region, and offended many in the Sudanese community who voiced their anger online.

There have been calls to boycott MBC, and the broadcaster has not apologised for the sketch since it was aired on May 10.

“Was this supposed to make us laugh? While you were filming we were protesting with the people,” said Marwa Babiker, a Sudanese doctor with a sizeable social media following.

She was referring to unprecedented mass protests in Sudan that led to the removal last month of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir.

Others turned to social media to criticise negative portrayals of Sudanese people, just the latest such incident involving Egyptian entertainers.

Arab/Muslim Racism: The outrageous racism that ‘graced’ Arab TV screens in Ramadan

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are meant to abstain from food, drinks, smoking, sexual activity and offensive language. Understandably, during this month, TV broadcasters across the Arab world tend to tone down programming and promote more family-friendly content.

Yet year after year, racist mockery and derogatory language against Afro/black Arabs and black African migrants make it to the TV screens of millions of Arab families gathered to enjoy TV series produced especially for Ramadan.

This year’s Ramadan TV content failed to “disappoint” in this regard.

The Egyptian comedy series “Azmi we Ashgan” (Azmi and Ashgan) created by controversial Egyptian producer Ahmed el-Sobki, featured the lead actors donning blackface repeatedly throughout the series, as well as the use of racist language (including the use of the n-word) and the portrayal of black people as servants who speak in broken Arabic and practise sorcery.

The Kuwaiti comedy series “Block Ghashmara” (The block of jokes), on the other hand, dedicated a whole episode to actors in blackface portraying Sudanese people as lazy and cynical.

Despite the outrage on social media, the film crews behind the TV series defended themselves.

Ahmed Mohy, the scriptwriter of “Azmi we Ashgan,” downplayed the racial slurs in his show, said on Twitter that “[the team] do not aim at insulting part of the Egyptian people, because we are all one people”.

On Instagram, the Kuwaiti actor Hassan al-Ballam, who starred in the controversial Block Ghashmara episode, apologised, but said that the criticism against him was exaggerated and that he was “misunderstood”.

These exchanges and criticism, however, were limited to social media and as in the past, failed to produce a bigger society-wide discussion. This is hardly surprising given that racism in Arab popular culture and in Arab cinema, in particular, is pervasive and there seems to be little interest in the Arab society to change that.

Arab cinema’s racist tropes

“Why are you turning off the light? You are already dark by nature,” says the main character to a black prostitute in the 1998 Egyptian film Sa’eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia (An Upper Egyptian at the American University). 

“Is there a power cut in there or what?” – says one lead character when he sees a group of black people walking out of a night club in the 2001 Egyptian film, Africano. 

“Did someone burn this apartment before or what?” – laugh three of the characters in the 2005 Egyptian film, Eyal Habiba (Lover Kids), as they look at a wall of family photos in the apartment of a Sudanese man (played by an Arab in blackface).

These are just a few examples of anti-black racist language which has dominated Arab cinema for decades. The industry continues to inject its popular drama series, movies and talk shows with a despicable amount of racism to create undignified images of Afro/black-Arabs and black African migrants.

The portrayal of black people in Arab cinema reflects the widespread anti-black sentiments and racism that exists across Arabic-speaking countries.


On the screen, black people are cast into subordinate roles, reduced to servants, housemaids, prostitutes, clowns and doorkeepers working for rich families.

Black men and women are constantly depicted as dirty and sluggish and their skin colour is subject to racist mockery and associated with bad luck.

When the main character, Khalaf (Mohamed Henedy), in Sa’eedi fil gamaa el amrekeia hears the news of someone’s death, he turns his gaze towards a prostitute played by a black woman, and declares: “The lady died because of your black face“. The same movie contains many racist comments about the black prostitute illustrating how Afro/black Arab women are perceived as ugly and unfeminine.

Even black children have fallen victim to this racial mockery. In the 2003 Egyptian comedy, Elly Baly Balak (My thoughts are your thoughts), the protagonist addresses his wife after mistaking a black maid’s child for his own, saying “You are white and I am white, how could we have this bar of dates as a child?”

It is apparent that the Arab cinema industry has no qualms about practising Arab-washing, following in the footsteps of Hollywood and its penchant for whitewashing stories and characters.

But while in the US the use of blackface has been largely phased out, in Arab cinema it is constantly used in order to have non-black Arabs cast in black roles. They often don blackface, put on exaggerated fake buttocks, thick Afro curly hair and bright-red lipstick.

It is also indicative that for decades the first and only dark-skinned actor who played leading roles in Egyptian cinema was Ahmed Zaki (1949- 2005). But even he did not escape racial characterisation: He was nicknamed the “Bronze Star” and the “Black Tiger”.

The taboo subject of slavery

Despite the persistence of this negative portrayal of black people and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes against them, there is almost no public debate about it within the wider Arab society. On the contrary, there is a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against black people exist.


That legacy, however, is still seen as a taboo subject and when raised, Arabs often try to deflect it by talking about Bilal Ibn Rabah, a black slave who Prophet Mohammed freed and who became the first muezzin (the person who calls to prayer). This episode of Islamic history is brandished as proof of the existence of egalitarian and inclusive Islamic society in which there wasn’t and isn’t any discrimination based on race.

However, the emancipation of Bilal did not really end slavery in the region. On the contrary, for centuries various interpretations of Islam were used to justify a flourishing slave trade and the culture of concubines across the Middle East and North Africa.

Slavery in Arab countries was abolished completely by 1970 (with the exception of Mauritania, which did so in 1981). While not all dark-skinned people in the region are descendants of slaves and not all slaves were black, people with darker skin are stigmatised and, by default, considered to have such background, regardless of how they self-identify.

This, in turn, impacts social relations, perceptions and social and political positions. In 2008, for example, when Adel Al-Kalbani, a black Saudi imam, was appointed to lead the prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he faced a barrage of racial insults, with some Muslims openly protesting his appointment.