On Being the black American


I am winding down to the final stretch in this Qatar experience.  It’s had its ups and downs, I will no doubt be reflecting on it for a while after I return, that is if grad school isn’t already kicking my butt ;-0

I don’t know whether I am in an up or down right now, but I’m just thinking and trying to make sense of the people I have met here and various experiences we as a group have had.  I’m still not ready to say that I could live in an Arab country long-term.  I believe and am relieved that I did not choose to stay here.  But some of the Americans in the program are… kudos to them.  Sometimes I feel a disconnect from them in a way because I feel like they just don’t comprehend the words that are coming out of my mouth.

Some know about my harrowing Arab world experiences to varying degrees, but I haven’t decided if it’s lack of empathy, lack of sympathy or just the belief that I should “get over it” that keeps me from really endeavoring to make connections with them.

my previous post is about my research focus— and think this has much to do with it too— or rather it’s just one of the many indications/factors that distinguish me from them.

I think I come with very solid ideas about what I like, don’t like, want and don’t want.  And just so there is no misunderstanding about this, I let people know off the bat.  The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of topics and activities and types of people that  most other Americans interested in the Mideast are engaged with just don’t interest me at all (or if they do, and I have an opinion— which usually try to back  up, they still don’t get /are visibly uncomfortable/ or worse try to encapsulate everything into trite universalisms— this is not “it’s a small world after all!”).  Sometimes I try, but I am always sorely disappointed. Sometimes I feel like I did when I was at my job.  Like I’m supposed to try to be a good “fit.” But ebony ain’t ivory.

I decided a while back that I don’t want to engage in discussions that don’t interest me, activities that bore me and experiences that in the end add nothing to my life and just make me chide myself for thinking this time would be different.

I don’t know if these differences are because of cultural differences between us, or just personality differences.  You click with who you click with, right?

Then why can I click with the white people from Europe, and have real serious convos with them about any number of things?  I suppose it’s because we come from such vastly different backgrounds and cultural frames of reference that we have so much to learn from each other.  One woman told me that she was happy to have met me because for the first time in her life, she has a desire to visit the States (read between the lines— the  white American in our class does not embody/present anything that would make her think America is a place worth visiting… lol.. oh context is everything).


I guess I’m thinking about this more in light of a little epiphany of sorts that I had yesterday.  There’s at least one person in the program that I really don’t click with at all and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.  I just can’t recall an enjoyable experience with this person… (like… ever). There’s no malice, we are just night and day different, well in our worldviews, core and periphery interests and future goals.  It’s funny because on paper you would think we would be closer, but we’re really not.

And sadly I didn’t realize this when I went out with a group to an event that I didn’t have the full scoop about and ended feeling uncomfortable physically because of pervasiveness of the cigarette smoke in the box of a room we were in and metaphorically because as I fanned myself profusely hoping the cigarette smoke would not screw my chances for breathing well that night by making my allergies unbearable I knew deep down, that I should never have come.

It started off awful as I we rode a taxi and the conversation mainly revolved around people, places and events, past present and future that I was not a part of and would not be a part of.  On one hand I think it’s rude to engage in this kind of convo when someone you know isn’t really a part of your click is present, but it’s deeper than that.  I don’t think they really realized what they were doing.  Furthermore, it made me realize the extent to which I never hang out with the particular individual mentioned above—- just how different our Qatar experiences have been— for a variety of reasons. Just how different we are.   and more importantly just how much I don’t really care.

This situation has happened before, but never to such an extent.  The actual event was even worse, and the ride back, although entertaining, was probably what most clearly articulated what I feel.  I think this person said two words to me the entire night and by the end ignored me.  It’s not a surprise and frankly I am relieved by not having to converse with them (does that make me bad?— oh well– I have o tell the truth and let the devil be ashamed)   I don’t know why it took me 7 months to realize this. Sigh.  Live to learn.

The sad part is though, this person probably takes it personal. Like I said, they literally ignored me by the end of the night.  I wonder if they get it, if it’s clicked to them that we are just on two different planes and were never meant to form the bonds of friendship.

Eh. As for that part there’s nothing I am willing to do about it.  There is no need for drama in the final stretch. We will go our separate ways, de-friend off facebook and not have to deal with each other again.


I said to a classmate the other day that there is a certain kind of American ex-pat that chooses to come to Qatar, and unfortunately, that kind is not me.  It’s not a racial thing necessarily  it’s a personal interest and world-view thing.

Sometimes I think that non-black Americans, especially the white ones (not so much East Asians) I encounter abroad don’t fully understand the privileges that come with that combination of blue passport and fair skin.  and so they don’t get why I can sense that a person is more interested in talking to them, or trusts their opinion on something, even something that I probably have more knowledge about, more than they trust me/mine.

I told an American, I don’t remember if they were white or not, but they certainly were not black, that I would never back-pack across Europe.  “Why?” they asked.  My response is simply because a grimy, scrubby looking black woman in Europe (with African features) with only a backpack as her possession can be too easily confused with an illegal alien and I’m not going through that mess.”

They don’t understand when I don’t want to just go to random countries on the fly, because I need to get the scoop on the black population there if it exists, or worse yet because I already know what can happen to a black person there (Egypt, anyone).

They look at my reluctance to do things as, well I don’t know what….but it’s not favorable that’s for sure.   They see themselves forging certain bonds and making certain connections and blame you for both not wanting to, or being hesitant to attempt the same or even trying but not being able to do so.  They don’t always see that their best buddy is a racist prick or that that girl/guy is fascinated with them, initially at least because they fit the stereotype of who an American is.

I understand these things, and try to work around it, and make myself as comfortable as I can.  What else can I do?  I can’t ignore when  a teacher or classmate or random man on the street makes this point painfully obvious.  I have to protect myself or else I will go crazy.

I’m not saying that I don’t talk to people, but the wide-eyed Pollyanna in me died 5 years ago in dirty room in an apartment in Rabat’s old Medina.  If you’re actually interested in speaking to me, communicating and learning and teaching me,  not judging me, and not being a shysty  individual, we can roll (too bad that is a hard combination to come by). But if not, I will not just look past actions and habits and/or customs that I find questionable.  Nor will I attempt to forge a bond with someone with whom I don’t at least have a common interest with… I don’t really know how.

I scrutinize  situations a lot, I know. But if using the rubric above I don’t have a desire to talk to you after the pleasantries are over… then Ma Salama! (goodbye).  Either there is a connection or there isn’t. Full stop.

In short, I can never simply take the phrase “Arab hospitality”  or “insert cultural group here’s hospitality” to heart because although I’ve been treated well here for the most part, I know  a darker side of things, literally and figuratively.  And I know the darker, ignorant side of things in the American context (and have heard Americans here say ignorant stuff too).  But no one hears me when I speak of these things.

That’s their problem I suppose.


10 thoughts on “On Being the black American

  1. Chinyere


    I feel you one what you’ve said…black folks abroad or interested in international affairs are treated soooo differently than white folks! Like, I can’t tell you how many times people are shocked when I speak Spanish and Portuguese. My preceptor for family med is one of them…but the woman herself speaks Spanish, Portuguese and may actually speak Kreyol as well. I’m like, so why are you so impressed with me?

    Oh, wait…it’s because I’m black, right?

    All people are lazy and instead of getting to know people on an individual basis, they assimilate people into really narrow schemas. I feel like, wordwide, people assimilate American blacks into the narrowest of schemas, and I don’t know why…

    I make the most sense in the Americas, I know that right now. I actually don’t aspire to live anywhere outside of the Western Hemisphere …I make the least sense in Nigeria, actually, ironically…

    Anyway, this was a long, self-centered comment. Sorry, but I really liked your post! Thought provoking… 😀

    ws, ~Chinyere

    • gazelledusahara

      No not too self-centered at all. You prove my point, that this mess is in no way all in my head. It’s just that there are so few of us internationally that people get it twisted and think that the one or little group of black folk doesn’t have it together because they’re not a big enough presence to make the problem clear.

  2. The FireBrand

    “I feel like, wordwide, people assimilate American blacks into the narrowest of schemas, and I don’t know why…”

    I know why black Americans are misperceived in other cultural realms: Hip Hop/BET/Booty-flashing/Pimp/Ho caricatures of black people beamed around the world. And I’m looking at you rap “artists”! I live for the day hip hop artists, who make millions of dollars denigrating, hyper-sexualizing, and de-feminizing black women, apologize for the way they have grossly misrepresented us. But I won’t hold my breath.

    I think people generally are unaware that people on an individual level are often the opposite of the stereotype they see in media or whatever. I live in DC (originally from TN), and its a very multicultural place, even though I have lived abroad, speak french reasonably well (sans accent which causes confusion), politically aware, socially conscious, able to talk to anyone from anywhere–and I still feel that whenever I interact with a foreigner I have to raise the level of personal decorum. Composure is really the key, I must be really careful in what I say, how I say it, and be conscious of how it may be understood. It’s like being that one black kid in class of white kids when the lecture is…affirmative action. Thats a fight no one wants when you’re at the receiving end of accusatory stares. (“But HEY! Now we have a Black President!!!”–should be the standard response)

    Ugh Gazelle, I’m going to use up all your comment space, lol! I’m so sorry. I would like to pick your brain some about being “us” in the Sandlands.

    • gazelledusahara

      Please take up all the comment space that you need 🙂

      I think black women in particular have been hyper-sexualized before Hip-hop videos came out. Sometimes I wonder if they are not just a symptom of a longer history of denigration of the dark body. Europeans were exploiting black women way before Rap, and some European men have a sexual curiosity about black women —- not a desire to marry them mind you— but a desire to find out what they are like in “bed.” I remember an extreme case in college that was relayed to me, A German guy who went to Ghana one summer and since then wanted nothing but chocolate and was stalking black women to get it. Or another man who admitted that he just wanted to have sex with a black woman because he’d heard it was different or magical or something like that.

      No doubt it’s disgusting. I feel you on watching your decorum amongst foreigners. But I think Europeans have had a fascination with “blackness” that is all it’s own. Then again, the videos are reinforcing those very deviant, curiosities. Sigh.

      Funnily enough I think rap-hip hop in some contexts and depending on who you are can help you in the Arab world. It’s sort of a damned if you or don’t situation in the Arab context.

      Hiphop actually helps outside the states, that is if you dress in a distinctly urban way, because people can automatically and stereotypically identity you as American and therefore “cool” (it’s a mess). I had a friend in Morocco black woman from Atlanta, and that was what happened with her. Once a guy came up to her and was like “You’re a rapper aren’t you?” and she was like “What!?!” Just because she had on “urban” gear people got it twisted.

      were you ever in France? or some other French speaking country? I am curious to what your perspective on this is. As for blackness in the Gulf, so much to say.

  3. gazelledusahara

    also @ the firebrand

    The Middle East/ North Africa has its own sordid slavery history, that while is not quite as graphic and devastating as the Atlantic still leaves influences on present-day cultures and societies. This is the nuance that white people studying the Middle East can’t seem to get. Before I can even finish a sentence about slavery and it’s legacy here, someone is quick to interrupt with “it was not as bad here as it was in the Atlantic slave trade.” I know it was not AS BAD but it’s not like they became fully integrated.

    This is why you still see slavery’s influence on conflicts like the ones going on in Sudan, and you see it in the color coded way that from what I understand Gulf Arabs in particular marry and do not intermarry. On one hand the culture prioritizes marriage between cousins or at least within the same tribe. On the other even the darker skinned peoples who are obviously descendents of slaves/servants who once belonged to the people in these tribes but are now considered just regular ole tribe members do not marry “white” members. Why?

    (not to say that racial-mixing didn’t happen or doesn’t happen, the variance in hues of the black Qataris is evidence of this, I just don’t know to what extent— I mean it happened a lot in the states, just not in the formal way of marriages— maybe the same thing here?— Many of the black Qataris that I have seen would be just regular ole black folk in the states, the same goes for many Sudanese, Mauritanians, Moroccans etc.—- I guess it’s hard because it’s an issue that is probably pretty geographically and culturally specific— the historicity of black-Arab official intermarriages vs. concubinage)

    Even in the Arab world as a whole, a shared epithet used against blacks/darker skinned peoples in many Arab countries is Abd/a which means slave in Arabic. And the fact that people of African decent in this region are consistently among the poorest/not given some basic human rights— Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Sudan. Race does play a role, but people don’t want to acknowledge it because they afraid/reluctant to do so. The issues related to slavery aren’t non-existent. Although the context is of course different, they just aren’t discussed/acknowledged much at all here.

    That goes for westerners studying the Middle East and for people here. I posted earlier about color based segregation among the Qatari women in my school. Well while trying to get to the bottom of it I had this somewhat frustrating interaction with a non-Qatari Arab woman about the basis for this segregation.

    I said- “the black people are largely the descendants of slaves, right.
    she said “Well the black people came to Qatar as servants”

    I replied- “well, did they have choice to come here? Were they paid?”
    She replied– “Well no but— it’s not the same”

    Denial anyone?

    How this translates into day to day interactions with Arabs is that we in general are not that interesting to them. It’s common in any society to yearn for the exotic, so the white girls especially ones who have features that most Arabs don’t have features like red/blonde hair and colored eyes, get a lot of attention (which is normal because they really stand out). I kind of feel for my friends here who like like this because sometimes they just want to be left alone.

    Depending on what you look like, I mean if you’re not too swarthy and your features aren’t too “negroid” then you might get a serious proposal or two, but not as much in comparison to white women. It’s just that so many people who are considered just black in the U.S. or just light-skinned are not at all black here. If you are a Barack Obama’s Sasha and Malia type or Halle Berry Hued or even a Debbie Allen, Jada Pickett the rules of the game change in many places.

    At any rate, no matter what the skin tone, being a black American is definitely better than being African. So if they can’t tell that you are once it’s confirmed you get treated better and people are more curious about you. This can also be annoying, because sometimes they want to tell you that being black in America must be so hard, but use “Little Rock 9” and March on Selma type descriptions, which I have to set straight. Your Nationality and not your skin color is what’s most important in the Gulf.

    As for other countries however, it’s not so simple. NO ONE in Morocco ever believed that I was from America. and I gave up trying. I was not about to buy a whole new wardrobe so I can look how they THINK black Americans should look like.

    Having a black President means nothing. From conversations with people and programs on TV I get the sense that people are mad at American foreign policy, so he represents America and they could care less about the historical nature of his presidency because for many here, his policy shifts aren’t radical enough

    (to which I say, Um he’s the AMERICAN PRESIDENT NOT THE QATARI EMIR OR HOSNI MUBARAK, but I digress).

    People also don’t make the connection between having a black president and the fact that black people in America exist. depending on how dark you are/facial features people really will ask you stuff like “You’re American, like you have an American passport?” and double check your id to be sure they are seeing what they see. sigh.

    yup, it’s pretty complicated.

  4. The FireBrand

    1.) “I think black women in particular have been hyper-sexualized before Hip-hop videos came out.”

    This is so true, I was referring to a narrower frame of reference using the hip hop example, but its true that the de-feminizing of black women has been done for centuries and I dare to say millennia.

    European men definitely have a taste for chocolate for them it is exoticism, and the mysterious world of “blackness” that is alluring. They also think we’re an “easy”. It really burns me up inside that men, regardless of race, don’t view black women as marriageable. Not all, but the idea that I’ve worked hard my whole life to fulfill my educational and professional goals that at the end of the tunnel there may not be a man waiting. On the other hand, I think sometimes too much emphasis is placed on “why black women can’t get/ keep a man” paradigm too. I’m comfortable being me, and I’ve been alone and secure for a long time. I don’t need a man to validate my success nor my self-worth.

    I lived in Germany as a kid. My parents were in the Army so I’m one of those military brats. When we were there (late 80s early 90s) I was young and my parents had me learn German (which I’ve lost) and we travelled all around Europe. France was my favorite country and it left a big enough impression on me that I started taking French in HS and all though college. I was going to spend a summer in Paris, but I got a fully-funded fellowship…so…I followed the money that summer and it wasn’t to Paris. I was particularly into francophone countries and just dived into what i called “artificial immersion” so music, movies, tv shows…anything I would watch to learn more I did. I haven’t been to France in years and I’ve never been to a francophone country, but I like to keep myself informed.

    SideBar to being a military brat:
    I really didn’t have a concept of “being American” until we moved back to the States. My parents were one of those types that didn’t play around where education was concerned, and so I found it odd when the black kids in elementary school called me “white”. Presumably because I spoke proper English, and liked to read, and could speak another language. There’s something twisted in black American thought where the attainment of education is seen as a betrayal of and/or corruption of blackness. I don’t get that. Never will.

    As for the whole thing about slavery in the M.E.–I have one recommendation that encompasses all you said. You should check out “The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa” by John Alembillah Azumah, it’s about the centuries old Arab Muslim slave trade. It’s fascinating!

    In college I became really good friends with Arabs from the Levant and the Gulf, and I asked them what the arabic word for a black person was. Suprisingly that’s when I first heard the term Abd/abeed. Thankfully my friends were conscious enough to then question the origin of how and why they just use abeed for blacks, so it was a positive experience. One of those friends, a Gulf guy, supposes that its more an unfortunate word choice that no one really thinks twice about. To his credit won’t refer to a black person as abeed and if he hears someone referring to a black person as such he’ll correct them.

    Ok I have more to say that will have to wait till later. I have mountains of work to do!

    • I am sorry for the rough “ish” move back to America, we can be so strident with our ideas of what makes a person authentically “black.”

      I have heard of John Alembillah Azumah’s book, but have been told by critics of his methodology and those who question his ability to objective that It’s no good. I might give it another look though. There might be some nuggets in there.

      Wow, I can’t believe your friends identified it as the default term for black people! No one who cared about my feelings has ever done that. Were they raised in the States? if so, that would be interesting because it would point to the type of language used in homes.

  5. The FireBrand

    I came across Azumah’s book when I was doing preliminary research on Afro-Arab populations in the Gulf and since this was something I didn’t know too much about I found his book stimulating and eye opening. Wow it was a doozie of a read. Hadn’t run into any criticism of his methodology, but I will say that that shouldn’t keep you from reading it and judge for yourself. Hell, this is why were scholars, we find contradictory information and try to correct it or present an alternative. Some version of the truth or a close approximation of the truth will come out. I bet you’d find more wrong with it than I could being new to the subject.

    The abd debate was with two friends of mine, one a girl from the West Bank and the other is from Bahrain. He’s quite western, went to American schools but no he wasn’t raised in the States. He’s a really thoughtful kind of person. It’s considered rude to call a black person abeed to their face, and if they did so then it was a clear insult, but from them explaining it too me it is widely used between Arabs and I guess not always in a derogatory sense. I think the polite term he said was “asmaar”.

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