I believe the term person of colour is another way of saying that white is humanity’s default skin colour, which is an extremely racist thing to say.
White is not the default; it is not the centre of the universe, and as such the whole premise that colour is an attribute that can be attached to anyone who is not white, should fall apart.
I’m olive skinned. I can never imagine living my whole life being defined by the colour of my skin. It’s just too much oppression! I can never really understand how people who face racism on a daily basis can cope with such tremendous pressure. My heart breaks for you!
The heroine of this Illustrated Women Who Can post is a woman whose skin colour was never an identifier, never an identity. Um Mustafa popped up in my head very recently only because I came to realise how racist the Western world was. I also realised it was my responsibility, as a citizen of the world, to spread awareness about the places on our planet earth where terms like people of colour, or black, did not exist.
In America in particular, the term person of colour is thrown around as if it’s the most natural term to describe people with non-white skin tones. Any non-white immigrant, or even a student with a temporary visa, who arrives in the US will immediately be catalogued under this term, even though in their native homeland they were never identified or defined by their skin colour.
Let me share with you this powerful quote by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who now lives in America:
“I wasn’t black until I moved to the US.”
In an NPR piece about Adichie, the following words resonate deeply with the point I’m trying to make in this post:
“When the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was growing up in Nigeria she was not used to being identified by the color of her skin. That changed when she arrived in the United States for college.”
Likewise, Um Mustafa in my context and where I grew up, was never and will never be black or a person of colour!
Um Mustafa is a strong-willed lady I met around 10 years ago when I first moved out of my parents’ orbit into my own flat.
Um Mustafa came highly recommended by two of my feminist friends. My friends hired Um Mustafa once a week to look after their houses. I needed this kind of support with house chores since I had a demanding corporate job in public relations.
She wore a head cover; we didn’t. She came from a rural background; we were three young women who each lived independently in a country were non of this was the norm. She didn’t judge us. She was supportive and hard working.
Um Mustafa had impeccable work ethic, and having her around was very important, at least to me. She helped me figure out how to live on my own. She helped me with my shopping lists and told me there should always be a tin of tea in the cupboard for me to feel at home.
It offends me that if Um Mustafa were to move to America, her identity would be altered in ways that were very hurtful to the soul. That she would endure oppressions she wasn’t privy to here in the Middle East. It is also very ironic that America refers to itself as the “free world,” and often accuses developing and third world countries of being the homelands of oppression, when someone like Um Mustafa is more free in the Middle Eastern context than she will ever be in America, because of her skin tone!
Not a Person of Colour: When Identity has nothing to do with Skin Colour
Let me just say that before this moment, it never occurred to me that the 4 of us mentioned in this story (Um Mustafa, my two friends, and I) are actually 4 people with drastically varying skin colours that cover the human spectrum.
Up until this moment, skin colour was never even an issue that either one of us ever noticed or discussed. I’m only noticing it now because Twitter has opened up a world of racism to me, one that was offered to me through the accounts of liberal (and conservative) personalities and media.
I have worked with American colleagues in the Mediterranean before, and I don’t think I have ever gotten the full extent of American racism from dealing with them. Some were occasionally condescending towards non-American personnel, but that was nothing compared to the deeply ingrained racism of the American media (including liberal media like the New Yorker and beyond). A media that liked to emphasise skin colour at every turn.
Asmar Ya Asmarani: The Endearing North African & Middle Eastern Term about the Beauty of being ‘Tanned’
There was this one time when I was trying to remind my mother of who Um Mustafa was. That’s when she asked: “Is she the Samra (tanned) woman who used to tidy up your home?”
Samra is the female version of Asmar. And that, my friends, is a term of endearment that carries a positive connotation in the North African and Middle Eastern culture!
Following the music and arts renaissance that was brought about by King Farouq of Egypt (who was later abdicated in the mid 50s), a song that erased the last traces of racism from the last century was born.
In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, a young singer and heart throb by the name Abdel Halim Hafez, performed a song titled, “Asmar Ya Asmarani” (which roughly translates into “Oh, you tanned beloved, my tanned beloved”).
This song was one of many that attached attributes of beauty and attractiveness to darker skin colours, bringing back to the public consciousness memories of old Arabic poetry that hails back to 500 AD about tortured lovers longing for their tanned and nomadic beloveds.
But this wasn’t always the case. Two generations ago, affluent families from the Eastern Mediterranean used to refer to someone with a dark skin as Abed Asmar (tanned slave). Luckily, this became obsolete with my mother’s generation in the most organic of ways. There was no civil rights movement, or anything like that, to abolish the term. I believe it was the natural result of empathy, with the help of Arabic songs that flourished in the Egyptian renaissance.
This being said, I think this piece of history should be made available to Americans who have their history with slavery as the only point of view. The West in general needs to open itself up to other cultures to be able to embrace perspectives that can liberate it from being stuck in one single narrative. A narrative that keeps on being recycled in schools, the media and history books.
In closing and on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, let us work towards using better words to describe people from all cultures and walks of life. Let us try as hard as possible to understand what it is like to call someone by the colour of their skin for the rest of their lives. And let us remember that women suffer two layers of oppression in this scenario; one for their gender, and another for their skin tone!
I do pray that in my lifetime I will be one of many to witness a future where we stop labelling each other, or ourselves, by the colour of our skin. That young girls and boys whose parents and grandparents were once labelled as people of colour or black people will one day roam the earth free from these labels. Free to breathe and live on their own merit. Free at last from this oppression.
The women illustration, people illustration & post are part of the Illustrated Women Who Can blog series by illustrator and artist Yaansoon
This post also appeared in WordPress.com’s The Daily Post challenge, under the buzzword: