In 2008, when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election, it wasn’t just an exceptional event for African Americans. Many in the Arab region, such as African-Iraqis, mistakenly believed that they had an opportunity to rise up and be equal with other citizens.
As time passes, however, events such as the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers make it clear that discrimination against black people still persists in the United States—and, of course, in the Arab world.
In Iraq, many people decline to acknowledge the existence of racial discrimination against African-Iraqis, a community that numbers about 400,000, most of whom live in the Basra province. However, I can confirm, through my contact as a teacher with dozens of young black women and men, that they experience a great deal of racism. I listen daily to their stories of discrimination. Some of their experiences have dug deep inside them, leaving wounds that are difficult to heal, and that waste energy that would be better invested if their confidence in themselves was higher and they could focus on improving their own abilities.
The word “abd”—the Arabic synonym for a slave—is still used by other Iraqis to describe African-Iraqis, despite their rejection of this name and their preference for other labels, such as “black” or “brown.” But there is no broad political movement to fight the discrimination against them, especially in light of the unwillingness of many African-Iraqis to speak publicly about the blatant discrimination they face.
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At the end of 2012, for example, I was conducting interviews during field research with African-Iraqis. I was talking with a professor of African descent at the University of Basra. The professor spoke roughly to me, refusing to talk about a topic he found useless, and that might create problems. So, I told him how I managed to find his office. I asked a student about him, and he said, “Do you mean the abd [slave] professor? You can find his office in that direction.”
This awkward conversation was an example of African-Iraqis’ trying to ignore the reality of discrimination and intimidation.