EDITOR’S NOTE: This article names one offensive slur and makes reference to situations that may be traumatizing to some.
The senseless killing of George Floyd in May 2020 outside a Palestine-owned corner store in Minneapolis, Minnesota was an important catalyst in furthering the ongoing conversation on Arab American racism against Black American communities.
“We had to do something. There was a lot of anger from Black Muslims,” said Margari Hill, the Executive Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC). “The dialogue that was happening was so tense. There was a fragility around addressing this- what does it mean for Arabs and Muslims to do business in Black neighborhoods?” MuslimARC is a “human rights education organization which largely provides racial justice training and consultations, with a focus on both systemic and personal racism.
Arab Americans in the United States have often been used as a buffer class, owning businesses such as gas stations and tobacco shops in Black communities, and living in white neighborhoods (though not exclusively).
For example, Flint, Michigan is a predominantly Black community and in the 1990s, 104 of the city’s 108 convenience, corner, and tobacco stores were owned by Arabs and Arab Americans. According to The Arab-American News, in Detroit, which has the largest Black population in the country, most convenience stores, gas stations, and grocery stores are Arab-owned.
Dr. Butch Ware, a Minneapolis-born professor at University of California-Santa Cruz says similarly. “In many Arab societies before, communities migrate or individual families migrate and they’re coming from Arabic-speaking societies where there’s already anti-Blackness embedded. Those same communities then try to mimic whiteness, which is embodied by anti-Blackness. Anti-Black racism in many Arab societies really arose very prominently in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it isn’t discussed openly. It isn’t the subject of explicit racial, political struggles in the same way that it is here. It’s not directly addressed.”
Arab Anti-Black racism can stem from religious observation and analysis, beliefs of Arab superiority (due to skin color and regionalism), and ignorance due to the lack of anti-Blackness discussions not occurring in many Arab communities. In Arab communities, anti-Black racism can show up in “comedy,” the use of Blackface, and the invisibilizing of Black Arabs.
One of the issues that arises from Arab presence in Black communities is that Arab Americans often drain financial resources and don’t work to build relationships with the surrounding communities.
“There’s this sense that we’re happy to take your money, but other than that, there’s not going to be a substantive interaction. We’re not friends, we’re not part of the same community,” said Ware.
He and others discuss these perfectly legal and very predatory business practices that further increase the tension between Black-American and Arab-American communities. Ware notes that there are also cultural and linguistic challenges that deepen the tension. He notes that he’s been called “abeed,” which translates to slave and is the Arabic word often used to refer to a Black person.
“Most of the time immigrants, when they come to the United States, they lean into the structural prejudice of racism that exists in this country,” said Elsadig Elsheikh, the Director of the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley.
Leaning into structural prejudice is especially true for Arab Americans who have a history of horrifying racism as evident by the Arab slave trade and covert racism already built into the culture as explored through language and class dynamics. Additionally, many of Arab nations were formally and are currently being colonized by white supremacist nations, where a belief in a racial hierarchy and in racism is an implicit piece of the puzzle; and where that colonization and a “military industrial complex” has led to deep trauma and the death of millions of Arabs from across the Arab nations.
“There is social consensus that it was and is okay for racism to exist,” said Amuna Mohamed, the Yemeni-Somali founder of the Black Arab Collective. Mohamed grew up in the United Arab Emirates and talks about the experience of being a Black Arab growing up in the Arab world, an experience that is not unfamiliar in the United States, where a belief in a racial hierarchy is only magnified. The Black Arab Collective aims to “share the stories and amplify the voices of Black Arabs.” The organization has hosted digital events, storytelling sessions, and has an active Instagram feed.
Black Muslims comprise 20 percent of all Muslims in the United States, with about half of those Muslims individuals being converts. White Muslims make up 30 percent of the U.S.-based Muslim population, in contrast. Additionally, 37 percent of Muslims in the United States were born in this country, while 26 percent were born in the Middle East and North Africa region.
“We still live with our colonial mindset, even though we got rid of colonialism physically,” said Elsheikh. So we still believe in a racial hierarchy, even though we don’t talk about it, so when we migrate, we transfer the same understanding into the new place.”
Language has been one of the colonialistic traditions used to reinforce anti-Black sentiments. In the mid-2010s, there was a growing movement pushing for Arab-Americans to “drop the a-word,” organized by Dawud Walid, the Executive Director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Michigan.
“There were two things that jump started the conversation to drop the a-word from my perspective and my activism around that. One was relating to an issue that took place where there was a conflict between an African American woman and a cell phone shop owned by an Arab American. Within the social media comments, I saw a number of Arab Americans who were openly calling her the Arabic word for slave. This was also close to the same time period, when Mike Brown was killed by the Ferguson Police Department and the uprisings that came up on the streets afterwards, and I saw again a number of Arab Americans who were justifying police action,” said Walid.
Walid notes that in communities like Detroit, the tensions between Arab Americans and Black Americans arise more from economic stressors, rather than Islamophobia, though Detroit is also home to a sizable Arab Christian population which has its own unique relationships with religious prejudice and racism.
Despite the various tensions, deep work is happening on the ground in Black Arab, non-Arab Black, and in non-Black Arab communities to break down understandings of racism and to openly discuss the often-misunderstood dynamics of discrimination that are culturally inherent.
“Our first event was on doing business in Black neighborhoods. And we spent several months building out an anti-racism curriculum that was culturally responsive and recognized that a lot of the store owners have trauma. I tried to focus on not coming in and having an anti-racism pedagogy that treated Arabs like white folks exploiting Black folks,” said Hill. “There’s such complex dynamics, but really trying to rethink how we do anti-racism education and recognize how Arabs are a buffer class in the United States and what does that mean to envision a different type of relationship between store owners and community.”
For many Arab-American communities, a crucial piece of the puzzle is Palestine. Historically, Black leaders like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, have spoken out in solidarity and defense of Palestine and institutions like the Student Nonviolent/National Coordinating Committee have as well. Today, many Black Lives Matter organizers have done similarly. It is in that defense that many see the early stages of Black American and Arab/Arab American solidarity.
“There were memes where [former MPD Officer Derek] Chauvin has his knee on [George] Floyd’s neck and [the Israeli Defense Force] has their knee on a Palestinian neck. We all felt ourselves, under the weight of repressive, violent white supremacist authority and being choked by everybody could understand that,” said Ware. “And then on the other side, there’s been a really increased realization that essentially the Palestinian struggle in and of itself is an anti-colonial struggle. I think increasingly, and this is a reading that comes from Malcolm X reading of the Palestinian struggle as well. Fundamentally, Zionism is an expression of white supremacy. It is a European settler population dispossessing an indigenous population that speaks Arabic, and that’s settler colonialism.”
That analysis, according to Ware and others, has led to deepening solidarity with Palestine from many historically disenfranchised groups, Latin Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Black Americans. And for Arabs, “the problem of Palestine,” is a crucial one.
One key facet of Black solidarity with Palestine has been the lessons learned between movements. It is impossible to talk about Arab anti-Black racism, without also talking about the ways in which Palestinian liberation movements have learned from and been inspirational to Black liberation movements in the United States and internationally.
“Solidarity for me is definitely the idea that we are truly one,” said Hill. “You can’t dismantle the prison industrial complex unless you also address the war machine.”
To learn more about the work of MuslimARC, visit: https://www.muslimarc.org/
To learn more on the Black Arab Collective, visit: https://www.instagram.com/blackarabscollective/?hl=en
Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.