Anti-Black Racism: An Arab-American Problem
By: Cirien Saadeh, PhD
A letter to Minnesota’s non-Black American-Arab community:
The time has come for a shift. In the days since the murder of George Floyd I have never been so disappointed and frustrated in so much of the Arab-American community. I love my family. I have a younger brother and younger cousins that I will forever look up to and so many of them this week have spoken out and dedicated themselves to learning more. But, our community as a whole, needs to sit down and do anti-racism work. It’s not just George Floyd’s death that we need to talk about and the role that our community had in his death. We need to have a serious discussion about the role that power and oppression play in our own community. We need to talk about anti-Black racism from non-Black Arabs. We need to spend time listening to those who are trying to talk to us and we need to stop aspiring to whiteness.
I am the daughter of immigrants from Jordan. My family, which makes up a meaningful chunk of Jordan’s Christian minority, has lived in a small village in Jordan for generations. I am the oldest woman of forty or so younger cousins (we stopped counting) whom I love dearly and I am a first-generation Arab-American.
I have a PhD in Sustainability Education, I head a local community news organization, and I teach Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. My work centers on the intersections of social movements, journalism, academic equity, and sustainability. In 10 years of dedicating my life to these intersections, I’ve rarely reported from or organized in Arab communities. The one time I reported on a local Jordanian business-owner’s new venture in North Minneapolis, a local Black neighborhood, he threatened to call my father when he didn’t approve of my reporting. This business owner felt he had authority to usurp my authority as a journalist and go to my father when he disproved of my work, though thankfully my father did not even deign to respond to his request. That’s one reason I’ve not organized or reported on Arab-American issues. It drains me of my energy and it’s a constant battle to be seen as my own person and not just the product of a community. I consciously decided to ignore injustice in my home community, telling myself that I could focus my efforts on the communities who were more impacted by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other injustices.
I’ve always felt that I was better-off ignoring the racism prevalent in my home community if only because I could focus my efforts on the communities who more needed my help. My work has largely been in communities like North Minneapolis and with undocumented communities. I’ve worked with students and I’ve organized around community journalism in historically-marginalized communities. By not reporting or organizing in Arab-American communities, I have had more time to dedicate to my roles as a journalist connecting the work of community organizers to the greater Minneapolis-St.Paul regain, as a teacher guiding students in building skills as organizers, and as a family member who could focus on mentoring my cousins and loving my family without the additional burden of being an outside in my own family.
At this moment, I feel more disconnected from Minnesota’s Arab-American community than ever before. I have too much work to do in my Arab-American community and, because I’m a teacher and an organizer and a cousin, I’m going to start at home.
I feel disconnected from the racist community members who look at the value of a business and the value of a Black man’s life and deem that the business is more valuable.
I feel disconnected from the racist community members who get so angry to be called out on their complicity in racist systems that they prop up those racist systems.
I feel disconnected from the racist community members for whom the protest is the problem and not the racism itself.
I feel disconnected from the racist community members who watch the videos of Black men dying over and over and over again and who refuse to take meaningful action to stop them from dying, even if they recognize the brutality.
I feel disconnected from the racist community members protecting their gentrifying-AF businesses “with their life and their gun.”
I feel disconnected from the racist community members who make jokes about looting in honor of George Floyd.
I’m also cognizant of how much I’ve failed as a daughter of this community, how much I’ve participated in propping up the systems that have led to last week’s protest, and I’m sorry. I’ve stayed quiet with you all because I was sick of feeling like an outsider in this family, but I’m done. Upholding a racist structure that kills people by being quiet to keep the peace in my family is not worth it and will never be worth it for me again.
My brother and my cousins have re-inspired in me the need to make change in my own community, but we are not a massive group. As Black, Indigenous, POC, and immigrant communities across Minnesota fight for justice and fight back white supremacy, too many Arabs have been content to sit on the sidelines. We’ve been content to benefit from the work for justice, but we’ve not been willing to do the work. Too many of you - I take no credit for your racist behavior - have spent too much time this week decrying the protests and the reason for the protests while claiming to be as oppressed as Black Americans.
I reject that notion completely and I am going to shift my work so that I can address the systemic and toxic racism that pervades our community. It is not work I can do alone. I want to invite those of you willing to do this work to join me in this work. We have so much to learn from those doing the work for justice across Minnesota and we have so much anti-racism work to do in our community, but we can do it if we do it together. We need more Arab-American leadership in Minnesota and, specifically, across the Twin Cities and we need to commit to doing this work as individuals, families, and an immigrant community.
For example, as an individual, there are a few anti-racist rules I live by:
I always follow the lead of oppressed people. I always stand with oppressed people and I always look to Black women for leadership first and foremost.
I don’t ask Black people to spend their time and resources educating me unless I’m willing to pay them or invest resources into their work.
I refuse to compare non-Black Arab-American struggles with Black American struggles in the United States. What we’ve faced in this country will never, ever be as traumatizing as what Black Americans have faced.
I refuse to take at face-value the messages we hear from politicians and authorities. As Arabs, we should know better than to believe the politicians at first glance. I do my own research.
I know that, as immigrants and children-of-immigrants, it’s hard to imagine that this place our parents came to can be a place of violence and oppression, but it is and it is so at its roots. To dismantle racism we must include our home in the work, so I’m going to change my relationship with you and I’m going to step up and create the space we need to begin discussing race and racism from a new, more productive space.
If any of that is a problem for you, you’re the problem. If this isn’t but you’re trying to figure out what to do, here’s some tips.
This is where I’m going to start:
I’m no longer going to shut up when the people I love say racist things. I’m going to speak up, I’m going to fight back, and I’m going to try my best to break your arguments down using fact-based logic instead of fear-based irrationality.
On everyone's birthdays, I’m going to donate money in our family’s name.
I’m going to keep educating your kids about racism and I’m going to show them that they don’t need to accept what they hear at face-value.
I’m going to ask you what you’re going to do to protest racist policing every time you tell me that rioting is going too far and I’m going to expect an answer.
I’m going to mentor, love, and support all those who also commit to anti-racist work.
I’ve been told by too many of you that because Arabs are an oppressed minority, surely we cannot be an oppressor.
Arabs and Arab-Americans, you came to the United States and many of you have built your businesses in largely Black neighborhoods, profiting off of Black communities, but I’ve quite literally heard from too many of you that you’re discomforted hiring a Black person. You consume and use Black communities, but you have refused to engage and invest in Black communities. You argue that you have the choice to discriminate in your businesses and lives and then complain when you’re discriminated against.
As Arabs and Arab-Americans we live in this place as POC, sometimes white-passing like myself and other times we strive for whiteness, mimicking and recreating the same systems of oppression that have harmed our own communities.
To truly stand in solidarity with Black Americans we need to do four things to start with:
Show up for other communities. I know too many of you who always prioritize our own comfort and performative activism over justice; we then complain when protest happens or we complain when non-Arabs ignore our issues. If we show up for others, we can build relationships, and the strength of all our movements for justice.
Stop co-opting the message of #BlackLivesMatter and other movements for justice which is a distraction from the work at hand. We can be pro-Palestinian, pro-Syrian, pro-Jordanian, pro-Arab and also love, respect, and work for justice in other communities.
We need to recenter the lives, communities, experiences, and narratives of Afro-Arab, Black Arab, and Africans enslaved by Arab countries and those who have been geopolitically impacted by the colonization of the Middle East and Middle Eastern politics.
Listen to your daughters. So many of the younger women in my life are screaming about this, but we feel ignored and disenchanted and disappointed and angry. Unlike me, my younger cousins haven’t given up on you. Listen to them, they’re wiser than any of us will ever be.