We are now moving on to Part 3 of our deep dive into colorism. And this time we turn to the Middle East. Catch up on Parts One and Two here.
Part 3: RENNE “Mixed Feelings”
Having finished with South Asia, I detoured to the Middle East.
I’ve detoured here, because not long after Sarah’s Sephora episode, one of our newer subscribers from the UK contacted us while holidaying in Lebanon. She was being spat at in the streets and routinely asked if she was a prostitute – because she was black. She was totally unprepared for the reaction the Lebanese people were having to her FleshTone.
Much has been written on the legacy of the Arab Slave Trade of the 19th century and previous decades. However, I wanted to talk about the slavery/servitude of Africans of today in the Arab world,which some people have a hard time discussing. I wanted to discuss it. So I spoke with Renee Abisaad, who was a finalist in the Miss Africa in Lebanon pageant in 2013, and is part of the ‘Mixed Feelings’ project which challenges social attitudes about race in Lebanon, through photography.
This is Renee’s experience.
“My father is Lebanese and my mother is Nigerian. I was born in Nigeria and I moved back to Lebanon with my mom and dad when I was 11 years old. English is my first language. I speak and understand Arabic but I’m not fluent. I came back to Lebanon to continue my education and get to know my father’s family more. I currently work as a web developer in Beirut.”
Tell me about the ‘Mixed Feelings’ project.
The Mixed Feelings project is a multimedia project on racism in Lebanon told through experiences of Lebanese with African or Asian heritage. The main motivation of the project is to talk about racism, and I’m one of the participants. Racism is an important issue that is rarely directly addressed within and by civil society movements in Lebanon. Yet it’s an issue that definitely needs to be understood and defined within its time and geographic-specific context, and then addressed accordingly. We chose photography to be the medium to use in the Mixed Feelings project because we wanted to confuse people a little bit in the beginning. We wanted to make people wonder who are the people in these photographs – and then to realize and think about it. It is an awareness project, but because all the participants are recognizable, it also becomes intimate and personal.
In your experience, what is the dominant attitude toward people of African/black heritage in Lebanon? What about African/black women in particular?
The dominant attitude toward people of African/black heritage in Lebanon is very racist. Black people are looked down upon, abused, disrespected, and under paid. Black women in particular are seen as sex symbols. Lebanese men rape and abuse their housemaids who are of black heritage – this is very common. Black women are asked in the streets how much will they charge for a one nightstand. When they ignore these men, they’re cussed at and told that they’re nothing.
Do you think the dominant attitude toward black people in Lebanon has historical roots? If so, what are they?
Lebanon is a country where racial classifications create social hierarchies. So yes, the dominant attitude towards black people in Lebanon definitely has historical roots! For example, when the Lebanese see an African woman, the first thing that comes to their mind is “she’s an illiterate or a maid”.
Many swimming pools in Lebanon were historically divided by color because people of color might bother the “high class clients” by being in the same water. It’s not only a class issue, but also a racial one.
Mixed-race children like me face racism at school. They used to ask me that if I keep scrubbing my skin would I be white like them? If they sit next to me, would they turn black? How does my family afford to pay for my education? If I’m truly Lebanese, why is my hair like a sponge? Boys would ask me if I would take a dollar for a night. I would be asked why I didn’t look like a ‘real Lebanese’.
Being asked why I wasn’t a ‘real Lebanese’ is interesting, as to this day, I still don’t know how a “REAL LEBANESE” should look. Growing up, I felt different and I knew I looked different – but I didn’t understand why I was treated differently. My mother would tell me every day to ignore them, that they were just jealous because I’m unique. As a mixed-race child, I experienced low self-esteem, self-degradation, and identity-related struggles.
In your view, are European physical characteristics prized in Lebanon? If so, which ones?
Yes, European physical characteristics are definitely prized in Lebanon. Here in Lebanon, they do a lot of plastic surgery for their noses, lips, cheeks, breasts, brows and solarium tans.
(Source: Al Jazeera)
“Black people are looked down upon, abused, disrespected, and under paid.”
Have you ever felt the pressure to conform to Western ideals of beauty?
Yes. When I was 12 years old in fact, a Lebanese woman told my mother to get me breast surgery because my chest was ‘too flat’. Why would someone in his or her right mind advise a mother to get her 12 year old breast surgery? All these attitudes made me feel insecure about myself when I was young and I’m grateful now that it is all in the past. I now love my “Nigerian hair”, “Flat Chest” and “Unique Skin.”
Do you feel that attitudes toward African/black people in Lebanon are improving or getting worse?
I think things are getting better, and particularly the behavior of the young Lebanese is improving. Sometimes they tell me ‘I love your tan!’ I tell them “That’s my skin color not a tan but yeah thanks.”
We still need to push harder for our next generation to have a better future in Lebanon. There are awareness events every now and then to educate people about racism in Lebanon, to educate kids in school about accepting one another. In a recent awareness event, we used Fashion in Beirut Design week as a call for justice and acceptance. It was a unique way for the Lebanese and Africans in the country to interact and share ideas on a more genuine level. Racism has in some ways ruined Lebanon’s reputation and it needs positive change.
It’s the tip of the iceberg people
So, where to from here?
Believe it or not, after all of that, I’m grateful. I’m so grateful for three amazing, individual perspectives from 3 amazing women. It’s truly opened by eyes about what could happen if I decided to pack up and move to one of these countries. In some ways it’s made me appreciate more where I live and my neighbors.
But my three ladies also really drive home the point that anti-blackness is very real – that it’s global. Skin whitening spam from Sephora is merely a scab above a rancid pustule of gendered colorism that manifests itself in our daily lives. It’s in our daily lives, but as a topic of conversation, it has the privilege of remaining in the shadows. It masquerades as social cohesion, and clothes itself in the arraignments of the established social order.
And I all I did was examine the very tip of the iceberg.The plight of First Nation peoples in their own countries and the appalling racism in the Eastern bloc toward anyone with so much as a tan, has not even been mentioned here. Skin bleaching is at crisis levels across Africa. There’s so much more to this.
Notwithstanding these weighty issues, if you were to search online you would be drawn to believe that melanin is having a modern day resurgence. Blackness is being celebrated (not to mention appropriated) online – particularly it seems,on models and other genetically blessed celebrities. But does online reflect our reality? What about the acceptance of dark skin within black communities? How was I supposed to deal with these questions in a blog about Sephora? How can we overcome? I’ve been searching for answers, both online and on earth. And I’m comforted (but only somewhat) by these words:
“The situation is not hopeless. People can grow and change; we are not condemned to repeat the past. Racist conditioning need not be a permanent state of affairs. It can be examined, analyzed and unlearned. The process of unlearning…must take place on the emotional level as well as on the factual level.”
Call me naïve if you like, but I believe in that. I believe that the abusive denialism of gendered colorism, over time, can’t stand up to logic, facts and the test of reasonableness**. Something will have to give soon, and this time it’s not going to be us.
So thank you Sephora for leading us on this journey. We’ve kept our subscription, but we’re blocking pop up ads from you in our personal spaces. We want a better world for our kids.
**Epilogue: This was written prior to the USA Election results in 2016. Right now, my hopeful outlook is being tested, but I’m hoping to push through. More to come.