Check out White Privilege: A Minority’s Perspective before reading part II
We have several family Whatsapp chats going at once. One of them is for paternal cousins. On that group chat, one of my paternal cousins shared a TikTok video on the difference between non-Arabs (meaning white people) and Arabs on how they react to newborns. She sent this with a laughing emoji and a “so true” caption. OK, I’m not a party pooper; it was indeed funny. But it triggered some buried emotions from our past that my sister and I had never addressed. We never addressed it because white privilege was not something that people recognized as an issue in our culture. In fact, the issue was, and is, that we glorify it. Here’s a snippet of the video with my God-awful, paraphrased translation. I wish I knew who to credit, but I don’t have a TikTok account (yet). Just know that I do not take credit for this insightful TikTok.
The context of this video was to show that we Arabs have boundary issues. While non-Arabs tend to leave it at, “Oh my God, congratulations!” we can’t help but spend half an hour advising the new mommy on what to do and how to do it. I daresay, even as a single woman with no children of which to speak whatsoever, I’m guilty of momsplaining to my sister. I justify it by convincing myself that I helped raise my brother and (other) sister and was an 11-year-old certified babysitter with CPR in 2000. Interestingly though, it only took 12 seconds for this video to show us how much Arabs glorify whiteness and how insecure it makes us feel for not having fair skin, blonde hair, and blue (or green) eyes. Besides the advice on carrying and feeding the baby, the “auntie” immediately checks the eyes to make sure they are not brown and hopes the baby’s green eyes don’t change. She then reinforces that whiteness glorification by insisting her kids were once blonde with blue eyes, but out of shame and insecurity for their dark hair and skin, makes up an outrageous claim that her kids’ dark skin is due to sun exposure.
The level of shame we carry for having dark skin, dark eyes, thick, curly hair, and the ability to gain 20 pounds overnight because we were blessed with appetites made for royalty isn’t something we decided to be ashamed of overnight. Mothers who arrange their son’s marriage will knock on doors and specifically ask for eligible bachelorettes who are blonde; families ostracizing their sons for marrying darker, even black women (this happened to a family friend of ours, it was insanely ridiculous); and parents bragging about how their kids all turned blonde with blue eyes, as though life wasn’t worth living if you weren’t white. The examples I share with you are true to this day. I have been privy to some of these incidents, unfortunately. But why? Why do we obsess over it? Where did it all start?
You’re not marriage material because you’re not white enough
My first visit (out of four) to Syria was the summer of 1998 while vacationing in Istanbul, Turkey. We landed in Damascus and were greeted by my eldest paternal uncle. If you’ve been following my blog, you know by now that my dad was born and semi-raised in Syria. On the way to his home, my uncle was bragging about how we were neither permitted to visit the family nor set foot in Syria unless he had approved the visit, which he had. Algerian women are known to be hotheaded comedians and less-than-diplomatic, so you can imagine the passive-aggressive stabs my cool mom was taking (I, too, am blessed with that flaring attitude). This man actually thought he decided who came and went, but in his defence, it is customary in that culture for the oldest in the family to make the calls – especially with no parents around. The argument was that my dad was exiled for ten years when he decided to marry an Algerian woman. However, we’ll touch on Arab nationalism in another blog post.
We arrive at his home and are ushered to the couches as we wait to be greeted by his wife and five children. After the hugs and kisses, and tea was served, he looks at us, smiles and says, “Let’s see, Abu Hazar’s children.” Abu Hazar was what they called my dad; it literally means “Hazar’s dad.” Typically, the first-born son is honoured with that tradition, but everyone thought my parents would only have two kids (at the time) and settled with calling them Abu and Om (mother) Hazar. My mom hates this tradition for the record while my dad almost lives for it – if you ever meet her, please refer to her as Mama Mia. My sister and I stood before him, excited and grinning with our backs straight and our shoulders back. I was nine years old, and Farrah was eight. I was already 5 feet tall, and Farrah was still a measly 4 foot 6. After a few minutes, my uncle looks up at my mother and sighs. Then he says, “Poor Farrah. She has no chance of landing a Syrian husband.” The shock, confusion and level of offence on my mother’s face could have burnt the whole country down. Farrah and I looked at each other feeling completely uncomfortable and perplexed. Marriage? What the f*** is marriage? And why can’t Farrah marry a Syrian man? My mom, ever-so-classy, pursed her lips, let out a tiny smile and asked, “Why would you say that?” He shrugged his shoulders as if not a big deal and said, “Look at her. She’s so dark. No one will want her.” My mom bit back, “Who said anyone wanted to marry a Syrian anyway?” This was my uncle’s wife’s cue to announce awkwardly that dinner was ready.
Is colonial Stockholm Syndrome a thing?
Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response in which the abused or captive/hostage bonds with the abuser or captor (Healthline). It’s a way to control fear over time which eventually leads to one justifying and normalizing (keyword) the captor’s actions and behaviour. One begins to accept their fate and as that acceptance grows with time, so does one’s affection for their captors. Typically, this mental health issue is applied to victims of kidnapping and abuse. But what if I told you that if one person can suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, then so can a whole country by extension? And what if I told you that this response eventually becomes normalized and passed on from one generation to the next if not addressed and treated? Let’s be brutally honest here: the French didn’t leave Algeria in 1962 and say, “Oh by the way, here’s a list of highly recommended psychiatrists and therapists to help your nation heal.” I mean, we’re still waiting on that apology let alone a list of therapists!
The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs.Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, 1377
Arab Scholar, Ibn Khaldun, first introduced this idea in 1377, in his work, Muqaddimah, discussing the relationship between ruler and subjects (colonizer and the colonized). Over time, the desire to fight, the dwindling willpower, the psychological trauma, the abuse, and the constant reinforcement one is savage and uncivilized take a mental and physical toll. The victims eventually are deceived into thinking that their defeat is, in fact, their oppressor’s perfection (Ibn Khaldun). More recently, Magserànguak Rantala, highlights that Stockholm Syndrome extends beyond the nature of micro-level captor-captive relationships, and serves human beings as a defence mechanism to identify with the captor (medium.com). It is possible that these traumatic experiences our ancestors faced developed into a perverse attraction to wanting to be like their captors, white, and passed onto their children and their children’s children and so on. Eventually, this trauma then embeds itself into the culture and no one suspects that it’s abnormal. That white is civilized; white is beauty; white is perfect.
I can’t speak on behalf of all Arabs, but I can tell you that what my sister had experienced is not unusual and completely normalized in Arab countries. Girls are aware that their skin and eye colour will decide their marital fate at an early age. But there is a drawback to being blonde in countries like Syria. The danger of predators is so high that parents will want to marry their daughters off as soon as they come of age. My paternal family told me that my grandmother was married at 13 because she was so beautiful as a blonde with blue eyes (and the family was poor), that they couldn’t risk her safety. Her sister, my great-aunt, was not blessed with the same fate and remains unmarried to this day. Ten years ago, we heard of a woman following one of my cousins to her door and begged her mom if she could look into those dark green eyes because she has a son in the Americas who needs a wife. My cousin was 16ish and walking back from school, terrified to boot. Why are we so obsessed, though?
Watching Farrah struggle through her insecurities overwhelmed me with guilt and anger because I had no idea how to tell her that my uncle was a colourist limited by what he knows of his culture. During my linguistics studies, I decided to focus on the relationship between colonialism and language, and how that affected identity. It led me on an eye-opening journey of how Algeria has and is still suffering from an identity crisis even after France’s departure 59 years ago. I spent a decade observing and researching why we – Arabs – obsess over the need to be white and concluded that this might be a form of Stockholm Syndrome at a macro-level. This is obviously not the fault of our white neighbours, Karen or Chad. We need to address our own insecurities and heal as a people. We need to teach ourselves and our children that it’s ok not to be white, just as it is ok to be white. I’m not saying that white people don’t have a duty to support humankind and equality the way we all do; I’m saying that beyond the blame torch, we need to also learn to love ourselves for who we are and to teach that to our children and future generations. But remember, a day of love does not cure 100 years of hate. Time, patience and perseverance heal everything.
Khaldūn, I., Rosenthal, F., & Dawood, N. J. (2015). The Muqaddimah: An introduction to history. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rantala, M. (2020, February 17). Cats’ superior immunity to Stockholm. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://medium.com/@rantaliation/cats-superior-immunity-to-stockholm-71cc58428b64