Reflecting on our roots: on Arabs, racism and ignorance

First and always foremost, rest in peace, George Floyd. May justice for him and for all Black people be swift and unyielding. 

Second and less significantly, this is a piece that reflects my experience. It is not, however, a commentary on Black lives, on George Floyd’s murder or on the systemic oppression that Black individuals must confront each and every day. It is clear to me, and should be clear to all, that those of us who are not Black should not impose our opinions and perspectives on Black issues, Black oppression and the lived experiences of Black people. We need to amplify those marginalized voices and, for once, shut up and listen. 

Our two cents are worth nothing when it is not pennies that Black men and women seek; it is freedom. 

Now that we’ve established those realities, there is a real injustice that I felt obliged to speak on. As the key events within the George Floyd murder continued to be revealed, it was reported that the store that Floyd attempted to use a counterfeit bill at was owned and operated by an Arab man, Mahmoud (“Mike”) Abumayyaleh. As rumors swirled surrounding Abumayyaleh’s role in the arrival of the police, many Arab-American journalists began calling out not only Abumayyaleh for engaging with the police, but more broadly the realities of racism among the Arab people—my people. 

It was later revealed that Abumayyaleh was not the one who called the police, but rather one of his employees did. A spokesman for Abumayyaleh emphasized that store protocol mandates employees call the police when counterfeit bills are used. However, it is impossible to excuse his employees’ behavior as mere obedience. How could he not have understood the tragic realities of calling the police on a Black man in America, that exposing an individual to a life-threatening situation over 20 fake dollars is not just an unfair trade—it’s deadly. 

Abumayyaleh has since spoken out in grief over the murder, explaining that his employees were following protocol and justifiably blaming the four policemen who committed the murder. The store owner made his remorse clear: “By simply following procedure we are putting our communities in danger…we must stand together to fight institutional racism.” 

Perhaps Abumayyaleh has known of the risks of law enforcement and systemic racism for a long time, or perhaps he discovered this when his employees called him crying, helpless as those murderers in blue slowly sucked the air out of George Floyd’s windpipe. At some point, Abumayyaleh realized that following state-authorized instructions to police a Black man within a system founded upon shackled and chained Black bodies is not just a bad idea—it’s deadly. 

Conversations surrounding Abumayyaleh extended beyond his shop and began to address some of the ugly racial realities of the Arab world. Many Arabs are anti-Black. Institutionalized racism in the Middle East does not look like its American counterpart, but it exists. This division is ingrained into Arab culture and is one that has seeped into the Arab people. 

I did not see this oppression within my own culture for the longest time, though often it existed right in front me. My privilege as a Arab man allowed me to ignore the realities of racial injustice in my own backyard. However, in the fight for Black freedom, I cannot confront American racial injustice while continuing to ignore the grim racist realities of my own home. The fight must start from within. 

We are the children of a generation whose name for Black people–abd–literally means “slave.” We are the consequences of a government that built the “Kafala” system, which leaves the legal status of migrant workers in the hands of their employer. 

Many white-passing Arabs are conscious of their own racial prejudice toward their darker-skinned counterparts. There’s a reason that the Sudanese revolution of 2018 was, for many Sudanese protesters, an African revolution. Being marginalized for their skin color for decades left those same Sudanese people frustrated at the state of their Arab identity. Sudanese people, in large part due to the color of their skin, have been often pushed aside in the conversation of Arabhood, and treated as second-class citizens among those who even choose to acknowledge the African country at all. So for those Sudanese people who fled their revolting country in search of monetary freedom elsewhere in the Middle East, they were instead met with racial slurs and an economic system that essentially enslaved them.

The outcome then, tragically, for those Black individuals who entered the Middle East was not so different from the stories of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

Alem Dechesa fled her native Ethiopia to my home country, Lebanon, in search of work as a maid. What she found was not a financial haven, but a hellish reality. Severely beaten, verbally berated and consistently abused for months, Dechesa took her own life. For many Ethiopians, Dechesa’s suicide was not a surprise. It was the culmination of the tragic realities that they face everyday—as was Floyd’s murder for many Black people. 

These are the racial intersections that are still ignored and that still need to be faced by those who so easily turn the other cheek. We have a responsibility as people of minority groups to support the battle for justice. Arabs experience our own—very different—set of injustices and discriminations within the United States. Yet when we stand, fists raised, without addressing the racism within our own backgrounds, the validity of our support is compromised.  

This is not an easy reality to swallow. Accepting that you’ve stood idle as institutionalized racism decimated Black bodies around you is difficult to accept. Furthermore, coming to terms with your own racialized and prejudiced roots while simultaneously opposing racism outside your home is perhaps an even more difficult epiphany to have. But if justice is your goal, it is necessary. If we intend to uphold the truth behind our protests, our chants, our actions, then we must bring that energy to fight the systems of racism that exist in our homes, and help elevate the Black bodies who suffered on our soil for so long.

An acknowledgement of not only our privilege but our role in the systemic racism in our own homes is perhaps the most necessary personal action a minority protestor can take. Understanding how racism has benefited you and how it has forced you quiet is the first and most significant step in undoing that silence and freeing our Black brothers and sisters.

We are not for change until we return to the places that raised us, and raise that same clenched fist to those roots that remain corrupted and rotten.

One Comment

  1. Racism is not about black and white only. It is also about stereotyping. Very blonde Russian and Ukrainian girls are automatically classified ad prostitutes, not only in Lebanon but in Europe as well. Another issue is the divide between the richer and the poor which are here to serve them under the Kafka system. Many Lebanese are treated with contempt in the gulf area because”we are paying them and they are under our kafala”. The problem extends far beyond black and white, it lies within the essence of humanity
    Note: to most of our parents, I am old enough to be your mother and I don’t believe she uses this expression, the word Abd designates the color black rather than the meaning of slave, this is why they say ” Aswad abd”.

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