Hair. It’s beautiful, luscious and used to express culture, traditions and identity. It is historically also used as an element for scrutiny and discrimination, especially for the Black community. I grew up thinking children could not physically grow hair past their shoulder. No, I did not have some peculiar genetic defect, my mom simply did not understand how to deal with my hair. It wasn’t until I was 19, after a horrible haircut left me with an asymmetrical semi-mullet, that I realized that my hair had a 3C curl pattern (Refer to the diagram below). After this revelation came about, my entire family was in absolute shock at how an Arab woman can grow hair that coils and twists so tightly.
I was told to just brush it back down or blow dry, so it can look “normal” again. I just did not understand how something with so much beauty could offend people so much. I then turned to my Middle Eastern friends, who shared very similar stories and testimonies documenting how their friends and family would call their natural hair “ugly”, “messy” and “dirty”. It was apparent that my dark-skinned friends suffered the most from these sentiments. This led me to wonder about the origins of such dislike for naturally curly hair.
It then hit me in the face – the hatred of natural hair and its association with unprofessionalism purely stems from a painful history of black opression created by the Arab slave trade and perpetuated by European imperialism.
The Middle East is a geographical location nestled between Asia, Europe and Africa. It is a diverse melting pot and a host to a variety of ethnic groups and religions. Afro-Arabs are an ethnic branch originating from the indiginous Amazigh population of North Africa, or are descendants of African slaves brought to the region during the Arab slave trade. While I was investigating the various sources of anti-blackness in the Middle East, I came upon the Arab slave trade. I found myself absolutely shocked at the fact that a horrific millennium of suffering and pain was blatantly removed from the history we studied. More than 10 million East Africans were shipped to the Arabian Peninsula to be vessels for economic growth and prosperity. Their lives were ripped away from the pages of our textbooks, only to be replaced by poems about Arab generosity and kindness.
Although slavery was abolished in the Middle East in the mid-1800s, the ghosts of its painful past still linger between the lips of Arab men and women as they utter the word “abd”. In the colloquial Arabic language,”abd” – the label applied to dark-skinned individuals- literally translates to“slave”. Stereotypes about Black people being inferior were systemically ingrained in our society and curly/kinky hair was naturally one of them.
The eurocentric ideologies established by European imperialism have severely influenced the beauty standards in the global South, the Middle East included. Colorism in the region is exacerbated by the Arab desire to be like their European colonizers; rich, powerful, and most importantly, of fair skin. Light skin, pink cheeks and a small button nose are hailed as beacons of beauty. I remember my grandmother telling me how when I was born the nurse came into the waiting room, beaming, as she told her that her daughter had a beautiful white baby girl. In contrast, I witnessed my grandmother looking at my baby sister with a tinge of disappointment in her eyes and slight grimace of dismay on her lips moments after she was born and saying “she’s too dark to be beautiful”.
This issue is still extremely prevalent today in the age of technology where white-passing Arab content creators who have light straight hair witness extraordinary success, while their darker skinned counterparts are ostracized and used as comedic props. This normalizes the concept of Black Arabs having to straighten their hair and bleach their skin in order to seek opportunity, prosperity and acceptance within their own communities. Profiting off Black insecurity has become a lucrative business funded by white colonization and successfully marketed by colorism in Arab society.
The prevalence of blackface and the portrayal of stereotypical Black features in the media is so widespread that almost every celebrity in the region has done or contributed to it. There was a Kuwaiti TV show that aired in mid-2020 where every single character was in blackface for the entirety of the series. This is not an isolated incident as the characteristics of Black people are regularly used for comic relief in Arab media. The TV show in question was bombarded with a wave of criticism by activists in the region, yet the creators and the network managers publicly refused to take it off the air as they could not see what the issue was. There is a prevalent misunderstood discrepancy between appreciation and appropriation of Black culture that Arabs do not comprehend. Like their White European colonizers, they come up with excuses like “we have Black friends” and “I think wide hips and bronze skin are sexy”. These notions are all deeply established within the system and will need a strong internal force from them to be dismantled.
As a diverse Arab society, the only way to knock down the barriers constructed by a dark history of slavery and persecution is to acknowledge our privilege and use it to attack anti-blackness in our communities. This can be done by speaking up when we witness our friends and family members openly expressing anti-black sentiments and action. We must also actively reject the consumption of media that encourages discrimination and colourism by boycotting news outlets and network providers that create such content. A clear message of solidarity and a celebration of our physical differences need to be sent to the world. We will not stand for prejudice otherwise, we will be guilty of hindering the unity of a great community. Embracing our curls and coils and recognizing our privilege can be the stepping stone to a future where Afro-Arab culture is celebrated and honoured.