Dear Arab celebrities: Expressing Black Lives Matter solidarity in blackface is racist

Dear Arab celebrities: Expressing Black Lives Matter solidarity in blackface is racist
A new social media trend saw famous Arabs wearing blackface in a tone-deaf attempt to take a stand against racism. Instead, it spoke volumes about the Arab world's anti-blackness problem.
7 min read
09 June, 2020
Blackface cannot be divorced from the Arab world's history of racism and slavery [Getty]
On Tuesday last week, Moroccan actress Jalila posted a series of Snapchat stories of her face, shoulders and arms bronzed multiple shades darker than her complexion.

In the midst of well over a dozen videos in which she poses and pouts in blackface, Jalila delivered a brief speech against racism, topped with the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

Upon receiving criticism, Jalila ended up apologising "for any hurt caused" and scrubbing her profiles of blackface content. However, her apology was followed by a decision to fill her Snapchat story with support messages from fans stating she did "nothing wrong", was "positive and kind" to the black community, and implying her critics actually envy her.

Jalila was one of several Arab celebrities who last week posted photos in blackface to their social media channels in a seemingly tone-deaf attempt to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Protests have erupted across the United States and beyond following the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a police officer in the state of Minnesota.

Also that Tuesday, Moroccan soap opera star Mariam Hussein posted an Instagram photo of herself edited to appear dark-skinned, captioned with an Islamic hadith by the Prophet Muhammad condemning racism.
The use of blackface often features prominently in the Arab world's entertainment industry
After attracting criticism, Hussein replaced the blackface post with the original photo in her natural skin tone, along with the same hadith.

In a series of posts to her Instagram story on Thursday, Hussein publicly refused calls to educate herself on the history of blackface, her reasoning being that she "only sees the present". She also falsely stated that racism is a problem confined to the United States and does not exist in the Arab world.
"Us Arabs, we don't have racism," she said. "Black, white, we are all the same."

In a Friday Instagram story to her 643,000 followers, Hussein doubled-down on her use of blackface by incorrectly saying the Arab world does not have a history of slavery.

Hussein has also shown support for Algerian singer Souhila Ben Lachhab, who came under fire for her own blackface photo last Tuesday.

Ben Lachhab posted an Instagram photo of half her face darkened with make-up, with a caption that read: "Just because we are black on the outside, doesn't mean that we are black on the inside."

Though the post was inevitably met with condemnation, Ben Lacchab did not remove the photo or issue an apology. She did, however, limit the post's comments.

Jalila, Hussein and Ben Lachhab did not respond to The New Arab's requests for comment via email and WhatsApp.

Perhaps the most unapologetic blackface post came from Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, who photoshopped her face onto the picture of a black woman she found on Pinterest and last Monday posted the result across her social media channels.

After extensive backlash, Saleh refused to back down and delete the post.

"I forgive you all for the hate I received today because you made me block the unnecessary evil on this page," she said in a Twitter statement.

The woman whose face Saleh had replaced with her own is Amara La Negra, a Dominican-American singer who is outspoken on race issues - particularly anti-blackness.

Disturbed by Saleh's use of blackface, Beirut-based performer and movement director Lama Amine filmed a widely-shared Instagram video in which she chronicled the racism she faced while growing up black in Lebanon.

"I feel like it's a disgusting post and it's really offensive," Amine told The New Arab. "The funny thing is that she's saying to black people: 'I support you in this way and you have to accept that'."

"If you want to support the people in the States, there are many (other) ways," she added. "But look back, my darlings, there is lots of racism in the Arab world."

When reached for comment on her use of blackface via email, Saleh told The New Arab to "go ask Beyoncé why she straightened her hair and dyed it blonde".
The Arab world's anti-blackness is rooted in legacies of the Middle East's slave trade, which began in medieval years
Unlike blackface, straightening one's hair and dying it blonde is not embedded in a history of racism, dehumanisation or enslavement.

A brief history of blackface, from America to Arabs

In the US, blackface first appeared in nineteenth century minstrel shows, a type of musical comedy during which white actors performed as racist caricatures of black people.

Performers used black grease paint or shoe polish to darken their skin and widen their lips. Their characters commonly exhibited buffoonish traits, such as laziness and stupidity.

Minstrel acts enjoyed success while slavery was still legal in the US. Black people suffered abuse and exploitation as white actors mocked them on stage. Many minstrel performers made jokes out of violence against black people, while others portrayed happy-go-lucky slaves who loved serving their masters.

The popularity of minstrel shows faded during the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. The use of blackface nevertheless lives on to this day, featuring rather prominently in the Arab world's entertainment industry.

According to Houda Mzioudet, research consultant for the University of York's Centre for Applied Human Rights, Arab film and television have featured actors in blackface since the 1950s.

Blackface was featured on screens across the Arab world as recently as last year.

In December 2019, Lebanese comedian Nady Abou Chabke wore blackface to portray a migrant domestic worker during a live television sketch. Chabke's show took place against a backdrop of overworked, abused migrant workers across Lebanon.

In May 2019, Egyptian actress Shaimaa Seif depicted a caricature-esque Sudanese woman for a televised hidden camera prank. During the segment, she rode a minibus in blackface while acting obnoxiously and harassing other riders.

That same month, a Libyan hidden camera show featured actress Monera Blrwen not only wearing blackface, but also pushing a baby carriage occupied by a monkey.

The continuous use of blackface demonstrates the "seething racism" that Arab media has normalised by ridiculing and dehumanising black people, Mzioudet told The New Arab.

Eve M. Troutt Powell, professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Arab world's anti-blackness issue is rooted in legacies of the Middle East's slave trade, which began in medieval years.

Slavery was only abolished in all Arab countries in the late 1990s. Troutt Powell said remnants of the slave trade are still prominent in the Arab world today.

Notable examples include the common use of the Arabic word abeed ('slaves') to refer to dark-skinned people, as well as the kafala sponsorship system present in some Middle Eastern countries. The kafala system excludes migrant workers from labour laws, leaving them vulnerable to rampant abuse and exploitation.

"For so many in the Middle East, racism looks Western, particularly American, and of course the US has earned its reputation," Troutt Powell told The New Arab. "But the experiences of many Africans in Arab countries bear witness to the fact of anti-black racism in those countries."
The continuous use of blackface demonstrates the 'seething racism' that Arab media has normalised by ridiculing and dehumanising black people
Troutt Powell said the influencers who took part in the blackface trend demonstrate no understanding of the "sorrow and terror" taking place in the US.

"These celebrities can wash off their make-up, and obviously have now that it has become inconvenient," she said. "Black people do not have that option."

While Jalila, Hussein, Ben Lachhab and Saleh have come under fire for donning blackface, fans have come to their defence by insisting the women meant well.

"This tells us a lot about the paternalistic attitude towards blacks in the Arab world, who are seen as soft targets to mock, (but also) violent and hyper-sensitive when they protest against racism," Mzioudet told The New Arab.

Some social media users have also attributed the women's behaviour to simple ignorance.

"We are in 2020," said Amine. "If they don't know about blackface... just Google, people."

Danya Hajjaji is a journalist for The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @danyahaj