Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black

Posted in Africa, Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive on 2016-01-17 22:31Z by Steven

Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black

Media Diversified

Leena Habiballa, Co-Editor
Qahwa Project

Edited by: Mend Mariwany, Middle East & North Africa Editor

Within every Sudanese diasporan is an unceasing internal dialogue about where we fit in the dominant racial order. Sudan is one of the most ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse places on the African continent. It was also home to some of the most ancient civilisations in African memory. But today it suffers from the brutal legacy of Arab slavery, Ottoman imperialism and British colonialism.

My early childhood was spent living in various Arab countries, where I learnt from a young age that my darker skin tone threatened my claim to Arabness. To be authentically Arab, it wasn’t enough to speak Arabic or have facets of Arab culture syncretised into my own. My Blackness needed to be invisible. My identity as an Arab was, therefore, always contested and fraught, though nevertheless an important part of my being and, ultimately, self-evident. When others denied my Arabness I felt its existence affirmed, for how could something be stripped off if it didn’t exist?

It wasn’t until my mid to late teens that I was forced to see Blackness and Arabness as ontologically separate. This was the result of being introduced to the Western concept of race. Being racialised within this schema gave me a new sense of self, one which was innately linked to my skin colour and its difference to others. I had previously equated ‘Arab’ with Arab culture, and ‘Black’ with skin tone, not an identity. The concept of race, however, meant not only that I now saw Black and Arab as representing very different racial identities but also as invariably competing and mutually exclusive. I came to embody these two irreconcilable racial categories, and my body had become the site of a visceral and daily contradiction.

Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black. This is the daily discourse that I grappled with. I was racially perplexed and traumatised…

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