If you are Arab, particularly first-generation Arab-American, you have heard the word “Abed” or “Abeed” in your lifetime. It is a derogatory term used to describe blacks, similar to the N-word but directly translated as “slave”. Where does anti-blackness in the Arab-American community stem from, and how can we finally turn the tide?
As a first-generation Palestinian-American growing up in the the Olney area of Philadelphia I can recall how our community tried so hard to establish themselves out of the lower-income, predominately Black, Latinx areas. In that struggle it was deemed necessary to align oneself with whiteness in order to overcome economic hardship. Aligning oneself with whiteness was a ticket out of poverty and a means of acculturation. It was the way to go – you could earn your living from these areas, many people in our community opened businesses, bodegas, pizza shops, grocery stores, etc., etc., and yet, as these businesses flourished, business owners did not live in these communities, but bought out – neither did they reinvest in these spaces in which they were making their small fortunes.
Being 10-11 years old I remember distinctly just how aware I was of race, largely in part of how my Palestinian-immigrant parents sheltered me but also the awareness that the space I lived in was diverse, but each group largely kept to themselves. The 90s didn’t see a lot of mixed-race integration. Our mosque was predominately Arab, there was also somewhere in the suburbs a Southeast Asian mosque, that we didn’t go to. It was some sort of unspoken rule that each community had their own mosque. Saying that to myself out loud sounds so horrible, for lack of an eloquent term. Here I am, nearing 40 years of age and remember vividly understanding that our mosques and communities were separate. Arab, Southeast Asian, Black. I know it is a lot more nuanced than that but in my 11-year old mind, it really wasn’t.
Palestinian-Americans have accustomed themselves to many groups, including the Black Lives Matter movement, showing up against the oppression of Palestinians in occupied lands. And yet, where are the majority of Palestinians when it comes to showing up for other communities, particularly the Black community, now, in 2020? You can not claim to be for the freedom of Palestine, ending the occupation of Palestinian lands, and resolving the conflict when here, in our adopted home (a land stolen from its Indigenous population) and not stand in solidarity with the fight against Black oppression. You can not be for the freedom of Palestine and not acknowledge the irony of living on stolen land.
The injustice all around is numbing and too much to bare. And this is me, a non-Black person, who bares witness to the oppression of an entire community but is not at the brunt of the oppression. Silence is no longer acceptable in our spaces of learning, in our spaces of worship and within our homes. It is not our space to be exhausted, it is our time to show up.
It is an oppressed people partaking in the oppression of another, and we have to come to terms with it because it is not ok. In its essence complacency is one thing, partaking in racist actions is another and our silence is racist. Hearing the term “abed” and not correcting the person you are in conversation with, is racist. Our mosques and our imams’ silence is racist. Our imams not addressing social justice issues in our mosques perpetuates this problem. In the very last sermon of our beloved Prophet (PBUH): “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white – except by piety.”
One of the final messages of our Prophet (PBUH) was anti-racist, yet, here we are silent in our communities on the injustice that continues to plague the systems in which we reside. If we are to stand with the freedom of Palestine, we have to stand with the Black struggle for freedom in America. We have to acknowledge our place on stolen land and we have to reconcile our privilege and our Islam in the role we have in perpetuating these systems.
We are so late to the game. How do we even turn the tide of generations of ingrained racism? It begins with us. It is not our time to be exhausted, it is our time to support. When Marc Lamont Hill spoke at the Palestinian-American Community Center last year, when asked about this relationship between Arabs and the Black community, he mentioned the anti-Black racism that exists and a means of rectifying it includes showing up. Show up to events, and listen – learn from those who are doing the work, and who have been doing the work, show up.