On Apprehentions about Race(ism) in the Arab world… (and by Arabs in America)


One of the reasons why Egypt did not find a way onto my “been-there, done that list,” is because of my apprehensions about being black in a brown world.

That is, I knew that color  is important and that darker skinned peoples did not always fare too well, and did not know if I could handle being in a place like that so soon after being in Morocco.

Now, it’s not that these fears have evaporated at all.  But Alhamdulilah I am a little older and have had other brushes with being black in a brown world so I can handle it… or can I?

Race relations, or colorism or whatever the heck you want to call it, in the Arab world is a beast all its own.  I am trying to flush this out more and more before I get there…again.

It certainly felt like “White makes right” In Qatar, but that of course was with certain caveats.  Nationality outranked everything. In class, I certainly felt like my white, American counterpart was seen as the strongest, the most interesting, the smartest… even more so than European students in my class.  In fact, some of them even joked about how instructor(s) doted on this individual while they could care less about anyone else.

I of course blogged about how people treated me one way when they thought I was a black African (which technically I am) and completely different way when they found out I am American.  By the end of my stay there, I began to reflect on certain things, and feel  that some of my instructors at least, had an estimation of me as a student that did not match up to the grades I received from the very courses they taught!  Yes, there were student who felt the same way, but them I just ignored.  I won’t go into longer explanations of what

The two incidents that stood out to me were: One instructor in particular, although he tried hard, could not hide his shock at finding out   that I would continue Arabic at the graduate level upon my return to the U.S.  2. the program itself misprinted my final grade on my certificate (an entire letter grade).  On one hand I chocked it up to one of the many randoms that happened in Qatar.  On the other hand, for something as important as this, one would think that they would have taken the time to put the correct information on there.  And then the thought came to me, this program is not that big, everyone pretty much knows each other.  How could this kind of mistake happen?  Was there something working in the subconscious of the instructors that be?

Is this the reason behind my conundrum?

Fast forward to my fall semester here in the U.S. and I am met with a heaping helping of frustration and incompetence.  Not one, but two instructors blatantly insulting my intelligence weekly if not daily.  Instructor A: Egyptian.  He was disorganized and his lessons inherently incoherent.

I could go on and on about the hell that was his class…lol… but the most important thing for the purpose of this post is that He always, always put me down.  The literature that I enjoyed reading was “nonsense”  (he literally told me this).  If I produced a particularly well written piece of work,  I was praised for it, followed by the question “Did you write that yourself, I mean without help from anyone else?”   Honestly, I did not get it.  paperwise, and based upon my performance in the summer, I was/am one of the strongest students in the program… so why was this guy insulting me? There was slew of other problems with this instructor.  He certainly did insult almost everyone in my class…(although not the same intelligence focused, comments that he threw at me).  So I don’t know what was really up with him.  Could have been color, could have been his crappy personality.

Instructor B was even worse.  Instructor A was so horrible (as were/are many other facets of my program) that I almost did not detect his treachery before it was too late.  Instructor B always gave me blank stares when I spoke, you know those  “why tf did you just open your mouth?” type stares.  He never understood me when I spoke… like Ever.  It practically became the job of the native Arab in my class to explain to him what I was saying.  I was perpetually perplexed because my accent while noticable, is not thaaaaat bad.  I would go on to venture that I speak far more clearly than many of the other people in my class that other people, native and non-native alike have remarked at their difficulty in understanding them (people, might I add, whom this instructor never seemed to have problems understanding and who sat further away from him).  But what really irked me, is that the other native speaker understood me just fine.  So what was his problem?

To add insult to injury, when it was my turn to lead class discussions, he actually gave me the questions that I should ask, something that he NEVER did for any other student in my class.  He actually even read each question to me and explained what he wanted to ask… I can read Arabic just fine.  In short, the instructor treated me like I’m slow to the take.   Again, I was perpetually perplexed.

But, I didn’t mind too much because my grades on all of his exams were “excellent” (literally his words, not mine) as a matter of fact, I scored an A- on an exam where the native speaker in our program scored a B., one of the highest in our cohort.   My final paper, he could find no fault with substance wise (to start off with it was on a topic that he has woefully no knowledge of) and it was clear that it was thoroughly researched, well thought out.  I won’t lie, that assignment was probably my favorite one the whole semester, and so I relished reading the sources (English and Arabic ones) that brought my paper to life.  Contrast that with many of my classmates who literally put something on paper the week before. … I am not saying that they are not intelligent, capable individuals, but I put months into my work and it showed.

After quickly praising my work, he slammed it because I did not separate it into sections (something not stipulated before) and because I did not use the word “I”!

My final grade for the course, a  B+ was a kick in the face.  He had no real reason to back himself up. Thankfully I never throw anything away, and prefer correspondence in writing… so I was ready to challenge this nonsense.  I was in the right, and  had all the hw, tests, quizzes and emails to prove it.

The issue was resolved in a compromise of sorts.  But what I leaves me a little bitter about this experience is the question, “why? ”

Why was I being denied the grade that I had earned?  What was it about me that made this man, who did not know me from Adam, evaluate me so low?  At least one conclusion, reached by those other than myself, Arab and non-Arab alike, is that for this man “White makes right.”  It would not be a stretch to believe that he could not look past my skin color and acknowledge my intelligence.

But, I don’t go too far down that road, because I have to ask myself, How much of this is my perception?  How much of this has to do with race(ism)/color(ism) Being at work, I will never know.  But what I can not, unfortunately ignore, is that it is there at all.

I know all too well that it exists in the Arab world.  I have friends and acquaintances that have intimated as much and or blatantly said what I would call racist things.  As well as  people who have been disowned for going “black.”   I have Arab friends and acquaintances who have objected to people calling them racist terms usually reserved fro black people.  Not because they are inherently wrong, but because they aren’t ethnically black.  Yes.  I know all to well that racism exists in Arab societies whether it be Arab country X  or random Arab instructor living in the USA.

And that is what I am thinking about as I go to Egypt. Qatar certificate aside,  before this program, the thought never occurred to me that I could be graded down because of race… unfortunately, that could be the case….sigh.

Some of the Arabs I know certainly seem to think so… Whatever the reason may be, I’m ready to document every interaction and file every piece cw, hw and exams… sigh.

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