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.