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The Issue Of Color & Race In Middle Eastern Society

Submitted by on May 19, 2010 – 10:09 am20 Comments

Some years ago an ex-boyfriend of mine, a member of the Nation of Gods & Earths (a.k.a the Five Percent Nation) had the pivotal work The Book Of The Five Percenters by the Nation’s founder Clarence 13X laying around his apartment. I remember picking it up as soon as I saw it and what stood out the most to me was the frequently used phrase “pale Arab.” To this day I don’t quite understand the complicated theory behind the term, but the description struck a chord with me because technically, that’s what I am—a light-skinned person of Middle-Eastern descent.

I thought about the concept of “pale Arabs” this weekend as I watched (and cheered on) Rima Fakih as she won the Miss USA crown. The olive-skinned, dark-haired beauty stood out from the other four girls (all blond) who rounded out the top five finalists. This article isn’t about Rima being Muslim, her pole-dancing contest fiasco, etc. Instead, I’m focusing on the rarely discussed issue of color within the Middle Eastern community and how it plays out in the wider world.

Rima’s originally from Lebanon (as is my own mother’s family) and with her olive skin and dark, cascading hair she’s very much the Princess Jasmine (from Aladdin) stereotype of what a Middle Eastern woman should look like. You know who else is Lebanese? Ralph Nader, political activist and former contender for President of the United States. Check him out below:

Looks like a regular old “white” guy, right? Both Nader’s parents—Nathra and Rose—are from Lebanon; they immigrated to Connecticut (where Ralph was born) in their early years.

While Ralph is generally considered white (his Lebanese heritage is rarely mentioned in the media; same with current U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood) Rima is being stamped as “Arab-American” in the growing coverage of her achievement. Yet both have the same country of origin.

It’s no secret Americans of Middle-Eastern descent used to (and truthfully, still do) prefer looking like Ralph over Rima so they can (and do) easily assimilate into wider American society. It’s the same in Australia, where I’m from. In contrast to Europe and Canada, Arabs in the United States are actually still classified as “white” by government agencies, despite mainstream America thinking otherwise (and often in a negative light). Unfortunately, skin tone plays a huge role in this perception.

Take DJ Khaled, someone who’s been welcomed by the hip-hop community since the early days of his career. Remember when many rap fans originally thought the man born Khaled bin Abdul Khaled was Puerto Rican, or possibly Dominican? To this day, most aren’t even aware of the DJ/producer/label exec’s Palestinian heritage. All jokes aside, picture Khaled looking like a young Ralph Nader—would his ascent into hip-hop’s inner circle have been so smooth? On a personal level, I’ve been told on more than one (humorous) occasion, “Girl, you don’t look Arab! Now Khaled, he looks Arab; like the guys in the bodegas! You just don’t look like that.”

Back in the day, being a “pale Arab” was (sadly) what people of Middle Eastern descent wanted to be. It made assimilating into wider Western society easier, granting you “under the radar” status. My grandmother (or “Sita” as we call her), to this day, scolds my cousins, my sister and I when we stay in the sun too long. Her memories of when she first moved to Australia from Lebanon as a child, of being verbally and physically abused for being foreign, are still as vivid as the time they happened.

Nowadays, thanks to the number of people of Middle Eastern decent who grew (and continue to grow) up on a steady diet of hip-hop, we’re embracing rather than shunning our exotic looks and fascinating heritage, no matter how “pale” or dark our skin is, how traditional our dress is, how “sinister” our appearance may be to those who choose to judge us unfairly—from Ralph to Rima and beyond.

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