What's it like to be a black woman in Egypt? Valentina Primo meets three professionals and hears the harrowing tales of modern day prejudice in every aspect of their lives.
“There's nothing like walking down the street and being called a nigger by someone living here; and this is the second time it happens. Being a black woman, you will experience some of the most ignorant, racist comments you will ever hear. I would never recommend coming to Egypt to any black person. What an irony,” says Jane Smith*, an American teacher who works at an international school in Cairo.
Jane still remembers the giggles she heard at the beauty centre a week earlier, as she was having her nails polished. She had gone to a renowned spa in Cairo to have a relaxing massage, but the experience was tainted by the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the beauty centre’s staff. “I could hear the cleaning lady laughing and saying racist things while looking at me with disgust. Being Black here can be a nightmare,” she says.
Her experience mirrors that of many African and African-American expat women, who come to the Arab world’s most populated city only to be discriminated against. “When we enter salons, there are way too many places that think that we are poor or prostitutes. They will take our money, but do not think that we are worthy or deserving of proper treatment,” says Lauren Clark, who works as a kindergarten teacher in Cairo’s upper-class Zamalek district. Words like nigger, chocolata or abeed (slave) are common thread in the daily ventures of their life as an expatriate; but racist attitudes often take a more subtle – and demeaning - shape.
It was Mother’s Day 2015 at the international school and Laurel Butler set out to open her present. One of her students, following the Egyptian tradition, had brought her a present bought by his mother: whitening cream to make her skin lighter. “When I asked her why she thought it was appropriate to give me the present, she was bluntly said that ‘being white is better,’” she recalls.
In a land where skin pigmentation is as varied as its latitude is vast, it comes as a paradox that racism is so deeply rooted in the collective consciousness. “I understand that some people here have an identity crisis and forget that this country is in Africa, that they are African too; but they disrespect every brown person because of their disillusionment,” Smith says.
Clark is an M.A. student in Migration and Refugee Studies and Gender and Women’s studies, and is now carrying out research on the black female body in Arab and Islamic culture. “Colourism is very real here,” she explains. “There is a lot of internal racism and self-hatred because of the history of slavery and colonialism.” What Clark points out refers to the historical role of Arabs in the slave trade, a chapter of history often downplayed in the Arab world but crucial to understanding the undermining of the race. According to Nigerian Nobel Prize winning novelist Wole Soyinka, Arabs and Islam are as “guilty of the cultural and spiritual savaging of the Continent” as the West.
“The idea that the origin of racism against black people is European is a big misconception,” Clark says. “Everybody likes to point the finger at white people but the first form of slavery against black African people was from Arabs. In the African American community we have this false image of solidarity. Yet, the institution of racism and colourism is strong and more archaic here. Some will smile at us, and some call us abeed (slave) behind our backs.”
Her experience as a teacher in some of New Cairo’s most exclusive international schools has done nothing but to reinforce the strength of her claim. “Matrons burst chaotically into the classroom and go straight to my assistant without acknowledging me, and I often overheard staff use the word abeed when referring to me,” she says. Earlier this year, the American Director and the Chief Educational Officer offered her an administrative position, but she was not given a salary raise or a renewed contract. “I was completely underpaid for what I was doing.”
At work, in the streets, in stores and while sitting in a café, African women endure the daily burden of double-standards in a society who denounces Western racism but “lives in denial,” as writer Mona Eltahawy puts it, and overlooks racist attitudes perpetrated within their own societies. “I have even been followed in stores, and not in a friendly way to make sure I am alright or to assist me as a paying customer. There are numerous occasions I have had when I would be asked rudely: ‘what do you want?’ There have been those incidents of being followed only because people the owner or workers think you are going to steal,” Clark adds.
Her colleague Laurel Butler was publicly ridiculed when a waiter in a café blatantly ignored her. “I was sitting with some expat friends who were blonde Western women, and after taking their order, the waiter ignored me. I tried to ask him again, and he pretended not to hear me and walked away; when I finally went to the counter, I heard them speaking and calling me a 'nigger bitch',” says Butler, who is now starting an awareness raising campaign through a Facebook page named after her.
While racist attitudes span across social classes and urban segments, for African black women the burden is double: “Whenever racism is discussed, it is only the narrative of men. black women are treated worse. And unfortunately, because of society, you have dark-skinned black men who will not want to get in a relationship with a black woman, wherever she may be from, because she is not seen as a woman, as feminine, or as of status as a result of his own internationalisation. Intra-racial racism is real,” the researcher explains.
For Butler, discrimination in the job market still remains the most problematic aspect. “I have lost many opportunities because when they see me at the interview, they turn around. Egyptians treat me like an unwanted immigrant.” Butler is referring to a debate that has recently taken over media outlets at a global scale: why are white people called expats while the rest are called immigrants?
Black African expats are often identified as “immigrants” a term loaded with connotations associated to social class and the ideology of racial supremacy. While some authors have discussed intrinsic differences in the term ‘expat’ – conceived as the temporary workers who move abroad for a brief period of time - and ‘immigrant’ - who relocates permanently from their home country - the use of these words is more related to a global narrative impregnated with the white supremacist ideology than to the length of their stay. “An immigrant is an unwanted job-stealer, while an expat is a foreigner who could be leaving any day now. An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure. Our usage of these words reveals a certain double standard. Whether you’re an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country,” Polish writer Andrew Kureth notes.
But as Clark stresses, in Egypt these dynamics not only refer to race but also to a seemingly Westernised hierarchy of nations that distinguishes African nationals from Black African Americans, associated with Western ideals. “When I walk down the streets and I don’t open my mouth, they think I am Sudanese or Ethiopian. It would not even cross their mind that I am American. Yet, as soon as I speak, they change their attitude towards me, so you see how they think about us here,” says Butler, whose palpable American accent insinuates her nationality.
An activist, a world traveler and a passionate teacher, Smith summarises a pledge that raises to the surface now more than ever in the Arab world. “My point is, you can bleach your skin until it is blue because you think being fair skinned is the only true beauty, but that gives you no right to mistreat those who are proud of their ethnicity or skin colour.”
*In order to preserve the identity of the interviewee, her name has been changed.