On race, ethnicity and colorism

Christine Alhalabi - Senegal


December 16, 2019

*Vocab*

Nar: Wolof word for Arab/North African/Middle Eastern
Toubab: Wolof word for a foreigner of European descent 
_____________________________________________

At the beginning of my experience in Senegal, I would get mad why people didn’t recognize me as a nar. In the streets everyone would yell "toubab toubab" and treat me as if I was a special creature. People touching my hair, kids overly touching me and even kissing my hand once.

It made me so awkward, I hated the attention and I just wished people would recognise me as an Arab, who’s not that different from them culturally, just treat me as an equal, an individual like them, not as a faceless toubab.
I look at the fellow nars in my city and I feel jealous by how they were just blended in, as different but somehow normal, walking reassured, nobody yells, nobody follows.
Later I remembered where my deeply rooted and almost intuitive anger came from.
I remembered in Germany how once my host mom told me "you could pass as Spanish or South French" meaning it with good intentions but I couldn’t help but feel a sort of reassuring tone in her words, as if she’s telling me: "it’s okay, you look European, like us" erasing my identity, expecting me to take it as a compliment as if being an Arab is not something to be proud of, or not even proud of, just, accepted. 
And I know that, many Syrians take it as a compliment when people tell them "you look Greek or Italian" reiterating the idea that west is best, which is why I was annoyed by the statement.
In addition to that, in school I wasn’t seen as a Spanish or South French, I was clearly the Ausländer -literally outlander/foreigner in German.
Just glancing at my school friends you could see that there was a clear divide between the Ausländers and the Germans. 
My mom is definetly an Ausländer, in her job interviews that never lead to hiring, the housing applications that don’t even get back to us.
I just wanted to feel fully something, and as childish as it sounds, I didn’t want to be mistaken for a European, I wanted to irritate the people who didn’t want Arabs there and looked down on us, and I wanted them to see I am unapologetic about my identity- I just wished all these things would be visible on my face!
Many times after moving to Germany, I wished my hair was curlier, I wished I inherited my grandfather’s complexion so I could just look like a typical Arab and not have to explain myself all the time. 
But then in Senegal I realized that- as obvious as it sounds, identity is so intersectional, and as much as I felt different in Germany, my difference didn’t come from my skin color, It came from my cultural difference, my language barrier and the fact that people know I am a refugee and have a package of associations with that identity.
Later I learned that being a light skinned Arab doesn’t mean I am not Arab, and that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone (It sounds so stupid but man, this has been a journey for me to believe it)
I realized that, yes, I could pass as Spanish or Greek or whatever cause guess what? We’re all Middeteranean countries? So obviously you’ll find similarities in our looks, and this hypothesis was confirmed in Madrid Airport when people just spoke Spanish to me. 
It’s true, I have a light skin, and even though I experienced prejudice and different treatment, my skin color wasn’t the reason. 
HERE, in Senegal, my skin color is the reason.
I come from a colorist society too, to a far lesser extent than Senegal but it’s still colorist.
My aunt who was darkest amongst her siblings was always told she’s less beautiful than her siblings who were fair and had green eyes, and my cousin was referred to as "burned like a beetle" when she came back from her grandparents’ village and had tanned.
I was in the middle, I wasn’t brown like my aunt but I wasn’t blonde like my sister, I was an observer and this made me think that somehow I understand what it means to be discriminated against because of skin color, but in fact I don’t, I never experienced it even though I am from a society of color.
So when I am here in Senegal, and I am mad, why do people idolize whiteness so much? Why do they want to change themselves? they bleach their skin, they want to have long hair, and it doesn’t help that the celebrities are covering up their natural hair with wigs which confirm to the beauty standard, that only long curly or straight hair is beautiful.
 They want to be more white -more similar to the French clonisers be it in looks or in choice of language, while me I wanted to escape being classified as white and rather celebrate my heritage and wanted it to be seen on my face and got mad why people couldn’t see it. Why? Why weren’t they doing the same?
 While I expected racisim to be in predominantly white communities now I see colorism-something I heard stories about but never thought was so deeply rooted, with my own eyes.
I see it in the TV shows where only "yellow" women are in leading roles, only yellow women are viewed as beautiful by my host family, and that there’s very little representation of dark skinned women who are portrayed as beautiful. 
The dark skinned women are present, but they’re in ads about cooking oil or spices or whatever, never in beauty related areas. 
So to my initial reaction of being mad, and the feeling that I have it all figured out, that it’s so simple, "people should just love themselves man!" I would like to say: you’re thinking too simplistic ideal Christine, you yourself wanted to change yourself at some point too. 
Context is a huge thing, and all of the people I am meeting and I am wishing they believed they were beautiful, are a part of a bigger bigger picture which is hard to break free from.
Just like I can’t convince my aunt to wear a foundation that emphasizes her olive skin, or convince my mom not to burn her hair by making it blonde and straight all the time cause she thinks she looks like a "cave woman" with curly hair, there’s no reason why I should expect people here to believe they’re beautiful even though they truly are, when a whole society tells them they’re not.
Self-love is not easy, and it’s even harder if you’re in a society that internalizes colonialism so much that you think colonialists are better than you. 
My wisdom from this is; don’t judge or look down on people for doing what they’re doing, be it hating themselves, or hating you, cause you represent all the things they want to have but can’t have. Rather than judging, try to understand why they do what they do, and accept them.
Here I learned that feeling empowered to be comfortable in your own skin is not a given, it’s a privilege that many people don’t have. The awareness that you can be unapologetically you and that the world should deal with it, is not a given either, and I was just lucky to meet people who empowered me.
Maybe we can’t change huge things, and maybe the best thing we can do at this point is understand.

Also, just remember, a word after a word is power. Don’t hestitate to recognise the beauty in the world around you, the uniqueness of each human around you, and tell it to them, empower if you can, and do it with your full heart.

Christine Alhalabi