(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Young Arabs who are keen to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement are taking to social media to express outrage over systemic racism and the death of George Floyd after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Because street protests are strictly prohibited in a number of Arab countries, students have been gathering on social media to express themselves.
Some Arab celebrities, in their efforts to support the protests against racism, have been naïve, off-key or even hurtful on social media. While the global solidarity to support civil rights is a positive step forward, students need the help of educators to put the online discussions and posts in historical context and to think more deeply about where and how they themselves post.
Students in my online summer course, Introduction to Social Media, in the College of Communication and Media Sciences at Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, are expressing some confusion over how to deal with the explosion of discussion on racism. The class is exploring the importance of critical media literacy and the value of ethical and socially inclusive social media campaigns.
Taking note of campus protests in the United States and global demonstrations, students are dismayed by Arab celebrities who are using blackface on Twitter and Instagram to supposedly express sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ignorance of ‘Blackface’ History
Blackface—when a non-black person uses paint, make-up, apps or software to darken their skin—has a history in the United States of being used to reinforce racial prejudices and mock African Americans. It also been a staple of Arab television and film comedies for decades. Just last month an Egyptian actress was criticized for wearing blackface to portray a Sudanese woman on a minibus who was drinking alcohol, attempting to steal phones, and annoying fellow passengers. But cosmopolitan Arabs are less tolerant of overt racism and there is evidence of growing criticism on social media.
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My students voice their concern about Tania Saleh, the Lebanese singer, who photoshopped an image of herself with an afro hairstyle and darkened skin. She posted it on Twitter with the caption, “I wish I was black, today and more than ever. … Sending my love and full support to the people who demand equality and justice for all races anywhere in the world.” Despite, her intentions to show support to the Black Lives Matter movement, most people were appalled by her post and felt it was inappropriate. Yet, regardless of the criticisms and calls to delete the post, Saleh continues to defend her motives and has not taken the post down.
The Moroccan actress Mariam Hussein similarly posted a photoshopped image of herself with darkened skin on Instagram but later deleted it. The original lightened version of the image remains with the addition of a controversial caption in Arabic stating that “there is no credit for an Arab over Ajami, nor for Ajami over an Arab.” Yet, “Ajami” is a pejorative to refer to non-Arabic and/or Persian speakers, indicating deep-seated acceptance, by some in the region, of tacit racism.
Navigating Racism Controversies
Questions and confusion surrounding the appropriateness of different types of social media activism continue to escalate. During the Covid-19 outbreak, people have been in lockdown and social media has become a pressure cooker for spats surrounding intentional or unintentional racism. One of the triggers was Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on a black man watching birds in New York City’s Central Park and who, in the words of the journalist and media studies scholar Ruby Hamad, maliciously attempted to leverage white privilege in calling for his arrest.
Arab students are keen to become more informed about the social and political factors underpinning such incidents, as well as developing strategies for culturally sensitive responses.
Such strategies could help them to navigate controversies such as #BlackOutTuesday, which flooded Instagram with black squares but was criticized for silencing a more robust discussion of ways to fight racism. Students also need to understand why many civil-rights leaders believe the focus at this time should be on #BlackLivesMatter, rather than All Lives Matter, a debate that has been expressed through cartoons, images and memes, and why it is important to be actively against racism and not just to declare yourself “not racist”.
They also need to understand why so little progress has been made against racism in the past few decades.
Despite the challenges, educators can help students become more critically aware of the effects that posts can have on race relations. I want to offer some broad principles for educators who are guiding students posting on racism:
- Who Should Post?
Some Arab celebrities, in their efforts to support the protests against racism, have been naïve, off-key or even hurtful on social media.
Black Lives Matter has become a catalyst for global resistance to racism for a number of reasons, including the capturing of police brutality on camera, the Covid-19 pandemic and rising unemployment. George Floyd’s death is the last straw for many, and protesters across ethnicities are standing with black activists.
Students from wealthy, relatively privileged backgrounds may not feel qualified to post about or discuss racism. But all students should know that supportive posts will be welcomed by civil-rights activists if the students take the time to learn important historical context and inform themselves thoroughly about current events.
In the Arab region, many inhabitants have suffered from colonialism and the slave trade has ingrained negative perceptions of black skin and dark-skinned Arabs. Greater awareness of issues like colorism, which are rarely discussed in the Arab region, could help to inform students about the impacts of assuming identities or perspectives that might give offence according to context.
- Where to Post?
Social media veterans may understand that Twitter is a very different environment than Facebook or Instagram, but students might need some guidance on this. Facebook friends and Instagram followers don’t always want to be deluged with political posts, for instance, while Twitter can be very news driven. Social media platforms can rapidly evolve in political orientation in a short space of time. Dance routines on TikTok that were all the rage at the peak of the coronavirus lockdown have been swiftly overtaken by teen activism in the resurgence of Black Lives Matter.
As meanings circulate across media channels, educators must help learners to explore how different channels may present the same message with varying interpretations of what is being suggested.
- What to Post?
While we all can get swept up in the fever to support an issue we feel passionately about, students should be encouraged to think carefully about what they post. The Moroccan actress Mariam Hussein, who was called out by followers for blackface, said she had no knowledge or interest in history. But learning is about overcoming such ignorance. Students must realize that posts are always underpinned by deeper racial issues and historical circumstance.
Students can learn about the criminalization of blackness and educators also need to look for books about actively fighing racism. Background reading will help learners and educators become more informed and considerate when posting on racism.
Contemporary youth activism is on the rise and social media is playing a vital role in the political imagination and the refusal to accept enduring racism. While radical and systemic change takes time, the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon hoped that the future generation of young Arabs would discover their historical mission and challenge racial tyranny. Educators also cannot turn away from their role in guiding students to develop informed, ethical and non-polarizing uses of social media in the continuing fight against racism.