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Are Arabs Black or White?

Iman Kurdi / 8 February 2010

Disney has just released its first animated feature starring a black heroine. Princess Tiana is beautiful, wears a tiara and a big flowing dress like every Disney princess and is most definitely black. So what? Iíve heard. Others have been irritated by yet another example of tokenism or political correctness.

Is Disney’s drawing of Princess Tiana, the heroine of the Princess and the Frog, as black not just another gimmick?

We all know the story of the Princess and the Frog, it has become part of common folklore. But here is the question, when you first heard this story how did you picture the princess? White is the most likely answer.

By challenging the assumption that all fairy-tale princesses are white Disney is making a pretty big step in the right direction. We all need role models, we all need to know that people of any skin colour can make it in the world, but young children need it the most. By growing up exposed to an entertainment industry — be this through cartoons, feature films, fairy-tales or any other media children are exposed to —  where the vast majority of heroes share the same white features, children learn that being white is a key requirement to success in life.

Giving children role models that are representative of the full diversity of the human race not only educates and inspires them but helps dismantle prejudice.

Lilian Thuram, the French footballer, makes a similar point in a book he has just published. ‘Mes Etoiles Noires’ —  my Black Stars —  is a book of portraits of black people who have inspired him. He relates that at school he was not shown any black heroes, the first time black people made it to the text-books was through the history of slavery.

This led to the association of black with slave and white with slave master, whereas both whites and blacks have been slaves in history. The book is an answer to this legacy, an attempt to educate the wider public into understanding that black history is rich and includes not just great stars in sport and music, but also famous writers, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and so on.

It’s a sad indictment of the world in which we live that Lilian Thuram feels such a book is necessary.

The USA may have elected its first ‘black’ president but we are still a long way away from erasing racism. The sheer fact that Barack Obama who is half-white should be automatically labelled ‘black’ confirms the prejudice of the one drop rule. And that is partly my problem with Thuram’s book. 

For instance he includes Alexander Pushkin in his list of black heroes. Pushkin had a black great-grandfather, all his other parents were white. Does that make him black? Thuram argues yes because Pushkin thought himself part-African and because he was taunted for his ‘monkey-like’ looks.

To a large extent he is right. Race is a social construct. You cannot be categorised as black or white by your genes or by biology. Genetically speaking race does not exist. Yes there are genes that give you darker skin or kinkier hair and so on but there is nothing that can categorise someone as black or white (or any other so-called race).

Having darker skin is a geographic marker, it simply means your ancestors came from a country that had a hot climate. Genes evolved to give darker skin to inhabitants of such climates in order to protect them better from the sizzling sun.

When I was a small child at school in Switzerland, I was taught that there exists four human races. Since this was a time before political correctness these four branches of the human tree were colour coded into black, white, red and yellow.

In our more colour sensitive times, this outdated categorisation would be labelled African, European, Native American and East Asian. Since it was labelled by colour, as a child I had no trouble identifying myself: I was white. And for years I categorised myself as white until one day a friend saw me tick the ‘white’ box on a form I was filling and raised her eye-brows at me.

Am-I not white, I asked her. No, you’re Arab, she answered. What would you tick, I asked. She looked at the short list on the form, Arab was not on the list. Black —  other, she answered. But you’re not black, I pointed out. I’m not white, she replied.

Are Arabs black? The question sounds ludicrous to me. Some of us have light skin, some of us have dark skin. Some of us would be defined as black by South Africa’s infamous pencil test, whilst others have hair so straight and silky smooth the pencil would slide straight through. It is meaningless except that it proves that to a large extent race, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And in the case of race, the economic, social and psychological consequences of being labelled one or the other are significant.

I dislike the idea of defining people only by race. I cannot lose the idea that the more you emphasise the existence of race, the more you emphasise difference. The opposite of racism is racial blindness.

Though Thuram’s argument is valid and admirable, there is something a little desperate in creating a book where the only point linking the characters is their skin colour.

How would I feel about reading a book called ‘my Arab stars’? Would it make me reassess my views of what it means to be an Arab, would it inspire me to have a set of role models laid out for me?

Or would it on the contrary make me feel more aware of the chasm that exists between Arab and non-Arab? It would be the same as Disney creating a film where all the characters are black, not just the princess, instead of promoting diversity it ends up emphasising difference.

Nevertheless books like Lilian Thuram’s latest book are important. They prove Thuram’s essential point that children should be taught the life stories of personalities such as the Angolan Queen Anne Zingha, or Alexander Pushkin’s great grandfather General Abraham Petrovitch Hannibal, alongside the life stories of those who happen to have been born with a lighter skin.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

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