Racism: Beyond black and white

February 21st, 2007

By Michelle Strucke

The young man stood, his face staring calmly at Dr. Fateh Azzam, director of the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Department at the American University in Cairo. “What are they going to do with all the bodies?” The auditorium fell silent as he asked again. “Your report is fine, but tell me, what are they going to do with the bodies?”

He went on to explain, earnestly and in broken English, that the Egyptian government had promised that the bodies of the victims of what was being called a refugee massacre would be allowed to return to Sudan for burial. And yet when he and the other bereaved family members had tried to claim them, they were denied. His question rang in our ears as the gravity of the situation filled the room: “What are they going to do with all the bodies?”

On December 30, 2005 a group of nearly 2,500 Sudanese refugees (up to 4,000 by some estimates) and asylum seekers were forcibly removed from Mostafa Mahmoud park in Cairo, Egypt. Two months later, the bodies of the 27 victims killed in the removal were still withheld from their families by the Egyptian government.

The refugees and asylum-seekers had been protesting the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees’ continued suspension of refugee status determination procedure and unbearable living conditions for asylum seekers in Cairo. Approximately 4,000 Egyptian riot police had surrounded the black refugees after they had peacefully protested for three months and fruitlessly attempted negotiations with UNHCR. The police sprayed water cannons and beat the Sudanese protestors, killing 27 and injuring hundreds more.

The protest massacre was not the first time refugees or blacks were mistreated in Egypt. Racism is widely reported by Africans and African-Americans as a significant problem in Egypt, albeit one that is denied by many Egyptians. Blacks from countries as close as Sudan and as far away as Liberia or even the United States endure verbal and sometimes physical attacks, reporting being propositioned, spat upon, sexually assaulted and injured in public. Many attribute this to widespread racism against black African refugees, most specifically Sudanese refugees, that is generalized to include all people with darker skin.

Racism in Egypt, like racism everywhere, is complex. Devaluing darker skin and privileging lighter skin is not traditional in Egypt. In fact, Egyptians consider themselves sumr, or “dark” and traditionally praised the beauty and value of dark skin in popular music. Songs such as “Asmar ya asmarani” (Dark one, oh dark one) and “Asmar, asmar tayeb malu, walla samaru sirr gamalu” (So what if he is dark, that is the secret of his beauty) are now considered classics in Egypt. Even the word samara, or “darkie,” was traditionally regarded as a term of endearment.

Yet in today’s Egypt this appreciation for darker skin has been largely replaced by disdain. The term samara has begun to be used pejoratively, yelled at blacks on the street. Fareed Abdullah, a former State Department fellow who has lived in the Middle East for much of his life, compares its usage to “the whole nigga vs. nigger thing [in the United States]” – except backwards. Rather than a racial slur becoming an empowering term when used by the group it marginalized, the once-positive term samara has become one of many slurs against blacks.

Being harassed on the street because of one’s skin color is a common phenomenon for black Africans in Cairo. Gissella Montenegro, a senior economics and political science double major at Fordham University, studied abroad in Cairo for a year and speaks about an incident she’ll never forget. While walking down the street with two friends, one Sudanese and one Caucasian American, a passerby yelled out a comment. Her Sudanese friend seemed disturbed and when eventually convinced to translate it, he said, “The man yelled, ‘Hey monkey, why are you walking down the street with two gazelles?’”

“I was just shocked,” said Montenegro. “I didn’t know how to respond.”

As darker skin has become stigmatized, lighter skin has become more desirable. White wedding dresses, not traditional in Egypt, have become increasingly popular, and pale-skinned models and even blondes fill advertisements for beauty. Despite a host of side effects, including skin blistering, itching, burning, discoloration, kidney failure and skin cancer, skin lightening or skin bleaching creams line the shelves of pharmacies and beauty stores. The ads for these products are telling: commercials for “Fair and Lovely,” the most popular of the creams, a female is unsuccessful in her job – until the cream makes her skin several shades lighter.

Racism in Egypt is complicated by more factors than simply skin color. Abdullah views the issue on a spectrum: “There are degrees of [racism], from bad service to the refugee crisis.”

The degree to which a person experiences racism can depend upon many factors, including nationality, one’s perceived economic status and gender. Aneesah Akbar Uqdah, a student at Bryn Mawr College, found gender an extremely important factor in her experience in Egypt and was sexually harassed and even assaulted in Cairo.

“Many men thought they could take advantage of me because I was a BLACK female,” she wrote in an email. “One night I went to the pyramids to ride horses, and one of the owners tried to persuade me to have sex with him because, ‘Black women are the best in bed. I once fucked this Asian woman. But black women are the best. Do you want to give me some?’”

Nationality and the perceived economic status that accompany certain nationalities (poorer or richer) were other factors that contributed to one’s experience in Cairo. Many African-American students studying in Cairo felt that the racism directed at them was not as bad as the racism directed at African refugees, because they were American.

As an African-American, Abdullah often was forced to provide identification or had to argue with club bouncers in order to be allowed entry into the premises, while Egyptian or white students walked by with ease. Yet he did not experience the physical violence or constant harassment that his African friend Boris experienced.

“Boris got it way worse than I did. He was from Africa, Cote d’Ivoire. Cab drivers, police, everyone treated him horribly, everywhere.” Abdullah attributed this difference to class. Americans in Egypt are assumed to be wealthy. As a university official told him, ”They see money in Egypt for everything.”

In contrast with the more positive experiences of many Americans, African refugees were widely regarded negatively. This is made apparent by the Egyptian reaction to the refugees’ deaths. Marwa El-Turky, an Egyptian-American graduate student at the University of London who has lived in Egypt every other summer her whole life, recalls her family’s reaction to the event: “They felt that it was ignorant of [the protesters] and they had no right to protest.”

The blogosphere in Egypt yielded similar reactions. According to one blogger, many Egyptians reacted to the deaths of 27 refugees with comments like, “They were making a mess of Mohandisseen,” “Begging was spreading” and “It didn’t look nice.” This was exacerbated by Egyptian and international media coverage of the event, which was filled with charges of abuse of Egyptian hospitality by “drunken” and “disease-ridden” refugees. The FMRS report described much of the coverage as “xenophobic.”

Nora Younis in her blog provides an eye-witness account of the refugee sit-in break-up, describing the violence and the Egyptian reaction in more detail:

“The street lights were cut off. Screams never stopped; the most acute were children’s. My eyes couldn’t follow where to look. It was cold. It was dark. … Soldiers were brutal. They were just beating anyone anywhere, stepping over anyone and anything. … The most horrible was the EGYPTIANS! Civilians who cheered as if they are cheering for the ‘army forces’ freeing Palestine! As forces advanced in battle, the audience cheered, whistled and clapped. They were amused.”

The Egyptian reaction to the protest, though overwhelmingly full of misinformation and biased against the refugees, was not one-sided and does not indicate that all Egyptians are racist. Egyptian NGOs issued a joint statement condemning the violent break-up of the sit-in. Many Egyptians, such as Nora Younis and other bloggers covered the events in all of their atrocious detail, and many individuals were outraged.

Racism in Egypt is not discussed openly, at least not when it comes to Egyptians’ own racism. This has been attributed by some to the emphasis in higher education on Western-style education among the wealthy. The most prestigious institution of higher education in Egypt is the American University in Cairo. All courses are taught in English, and most sociology courses discussing race focus on racism in its historical context – mainly the history of slavery and racism in the United States. Because of this, racism is seen as exclusively occurring between blacks and whites.

Kerry McIntosh, a security studies major at Georgetown University noticed this tendency when she was studying abroad at AUC. During a race discussion in a course called Social Problems of the Middle East, Egyptian students were eager to discuss racism in the United States between whites and blacks. Yet when it came to their own country, both the professor and the students agreed that “there is no racism in Egypt.”

Monsurat Ottun, a human development major at Boston College, generalizes this phenomenon to include most countries outside the United States. In her experience, people in other countries feel that if one is not white and is not discriminating against a black person as a white person, then he is not considered racist.

The silence within Egypt regarding Egyptian or Arab racism against blacks is exacerbated by a silence outside of Egypt. Some fear the consequences of accusing any Arabs or Muslims – groups that are themselves marginalized – of racism.

In the United States particularly, where Arabs and Muslims experience racial profiling and discrimination, Arab racism is also difficult to bring up.

Ithaca College Associate Professor of Politics Peyi Soyinka-Airewele describes the phenomenon as “strategic amnesia.” Different standards are applied to different situations based on political or social considerations.

Issues met with strategic amnesia are by nature difficult to talk about.

“Liberals get mad at you, blacks get mad at you, Arabs get mad at you. It disturbs the binary,” says Soyinka-Airewele. “Yet human rights is not divided. They play a game where we can’t criticize the Arab world because they are under siege.”

But regardless of anxiety in the United States and denial in Egypt, Egypt’s place as a leader both in Africa and the Arab world makes addressing racism all the more significant.

“The hardest part about racism is admitting it exists,” said Ottun. “Once admitted steps can be taken to discuss the forms in which it exists.”

Michelle Strucke is a senior sociology major who enjoys disrupting the binary. Email her at mstruck1[at]ithaca.edu.

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