Ethnic Discrimination in Qatar
Treatment of people from different countries (specifically Israel, Egypt, and the U.S.)
Brief overview of the Arab slave trade
The relationship between Arabs and whiteness
Colorism in Qatar
Racism in Qatar
Political correctness in Qatar
Being black in Qatar (and the Arab world as a whole)
My experience with being the only black person in the room, Black Panther, and being asked to tone down my blackness
The experience of being both black and American in Qatar: The way strangers treated me, the way black people treated me, and what it was like to not know my ethnic heritage
*Viewer discretion is advised, my friends. There’s gonna be an F-bomb dropped in all caps pretty soon. I also use the N-word later, if that make you uncomfortable. Generally speaking, I swear more than usual in this post.
Doha skyline from a dhow boat on the Corniche
The discrimination I grew up with in the U.S. for two decades was different than the discrimination in Qatar because the two countries have two very different histories and contemporary statuses. There were a lot of differences I noticed when it came to discrimination and marginalized communities in Qatar, however, there were also some things that rang familiar.
That’s what we’re going to talk about today. Well, we’re not going to talk about every marginalized group, we’re just going to talk about nationality and race. However, if you want to hear about my experiences some of those other communities I mentioned, you can check out my other posts:
Peace in the Middle East (Safety Part II) – Discusses legal right for LGBT+ people
Being a Woman in Qatar – My experience as a woman in Qatar
A New Definition of Diverse – My observations about Qatar’s incredibly diverse population
Beauty & Blackness in Qatar – About beauty standards and dark skin in Qatar
Ah, but here’s the thing, my friends: This is my lengthiest post to date. I’m not surprised, just look at the topic, it’s a doozy (and by “doozy” I mean filled with centuries of historical events, contemporary nuances, and massive intersections that make it one whopper of a conversation). I thought I could make it a two-part post, but everything I’m about to talk about is so intertwined I couldn’t get a clean split. However, to make life easier I’ve separated this bad boy into three main sections:
To Be Both Black and American in Qatar
So, with that said, grab a snack, get comfortable, get your Ctrl+F fingers ready, and prepare yourself for a lot of food for thought.
Treatment of Americans
A map of color-coded travel advisories from the U.S. travel website from summer 2019. Mandarin red is “don’t go there”, pear green is “be hella careful”, striped beige is “be mindful”, and regular beige is “relax, man, you good.” The warnings for the red & green countries warn Americans about being jailed, kidnapped, or becoming targets of terrorism, which makes Qatar (in all its beige glory) a civil and political safe haven for Americans in contrast to nearly all of its neighbors.
Sometimes travel warnings—from both the government and measly little blogs—are issued based on the fact certain countries are dangerous for humans, regardless of nationality. Other times, though, specifically being American puts a target on your back, raising the risk of being subjected to petty crimes (like pickpocketing and insults) and sometimes the major stuff (like kidnapping and sexual harassment). This is because the U.S. has a variety of different histories and contemporary relationships with certain countries, and those relationships often effect the way U.S. citizens are treated (even though us humdrum normies most likely had nothing to do with the current state of U.S. global relations).
That said, some of the travel warnings Americans get cautioned about aren’t as cut & dry as “these things happen to Americans because they are American.” I know, that sounds like a direct contraction to what I just said, but with some issues you’ve got to take into consideration other things like race, gender, and how touristy you look in addition (i.e. a white American man with a camera around his neck may be treated differently than a black American woman with RBF, and so forth). You’ve also got to consider the history and social climate of the country you’re visiting outside of its relationship to the U.S. (as in to say, the citizenship status of a man visiting Themyscira won’t even be a contributing factor to the locals’ dislike of him).
Yeah, bringing intersectionality and other countries’ individual histories into the conversation can make things complicated, but for now I will do my best to pare it down and answer this straightforward question: What was it like to be American in Qatar?
Being American (the good stuff)
I’ll cut to the chase: As of 2018, Qatar and the U.S. were friends. We had been friends for decades, which is how we came to have U.S. military bases and six U.S. universities chillin’ in the Qatari desert.
Generally speaking, U.S. citizens in Qatar are either in the military, have well-paying white-collar jobs, or they’re university students (which implies they’ve got enough money to attend uni and are probably planning for a white-collar career that requires higher education). That said, like anywhere in the world, things like education, career, and economic status effect social dynamics and U.S. expatriates in Qatar tend to linger on the higher ends of all those things. With all the overlap between U.S. expatriates and perceived well-to-do-ness (and the decades of friendliness between our two countries), I’m not surprised that I was always treated with respect.
But here’s the thing: At least half the people I encountered didn’t automatically assume I was American because I didn’t “look” American. Of course, being from the U.S. I’m thoroughly aware of the fact that there’s no one way to “look” American; after all, that whole “melting pot” thing has been our shtick for a good 200 years. However, many of the images that the U.S. shares with the world tend to imply that Americans look white, that Americans are white. The heroines in our rom coms and TV dramas, our documentaries about serial killers, our superheroes, our news anchors, our celebrities, our models, our politicians—The vast majority of people featured in any of those roles, real or fictionalized, are white.
Thus, if white is what American looks like, and if you just so happen be an American who isn’t white, many people abroad aren’t going to assume you’re American. If people don’t assume you’re American, then they probably won’t treat you as an American (for better or worse). I’ll talk more about this later—I’ve got a whole section devoted to being both black and American, remember—but for now, it’s just something to keep in mind.
Being American (the bad stuff)
I was never “attacked” for being American by any stretch of the imagination. My worst experience when it came to my status as a U.S. citizen was when my Uber driver kept asking me why I voted for Trump (and all the while I’m thinking, Dude . . . that wasn’t even me). However, that interaction was at best annoying, not dangerous or disrespectful; it wasn’t enough to warrant a national warning on a color-coded map, you know?
Although, there was that weird interaction I had with a Nigerian student. He said he was Yoruba, he said I looked Yoruba, he asked where I was from, I said “The U.S., Richmond, Virginia”, to which he said, smiling, “Oh yeah, it’s a dump right?” That’s when I stared for a moment, then shrugged in agreement because I thought maybe I had heard him wrong, or maybe something had somehow gotten lost in translation. Was he saying that about Richmond, Virginia, or the U.S.? Had he been there before? Did I hear him wrong? After all, that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone you just met two minutes ago in the coffee line. It was an odd conversation, but I didn’t take it to heart; in fact, I had forgotten about it until I started writing this post. There were some other interactions I had that really did stick with me, though . . . let’s talk about those.
But hey, you know what’s interesting about intersectionality? The environment you’re in will usually determine what aspect of you is emphasized: The black part? The American part? The fact you’re a woman? Your economic status? I noticed that in certain environments, usually the ones where I was surrounded by black people who weren’t American (but had been to the U.S.), they seemed to forget that I was American. It was like my blackness, and sometimes my femininity, overrode my nationality.
That in mind, it was bizarre to have people express their occasional insults and blanketed assumptions about Americans to me, an American. Even stranger, I—the American—was usually the one who inspired these comments from them.
It was usually little things, like, for example, when I tried to drink a hot beverage only to find it was too hot for me to drink, I had someone say, “Oh, that’s right, Americans can’t drink hot tea”. Or when I rolled the window down in a hot car, I’d got “Oh my gosh, Americans cannot take the heat!” Sometimes I’d get flat out statements like, “American bathroom habits are disgusting, no offense,” immediately after I come out of the bathroom. I even got some stuff that just seemed made up, like patronizing comments about how “funny” it is that Americans stop eating when someone is talking to them.
It felt like every move I made—eating, drinking, cooling myself off, and cleaning my ass—was somehow proof that all Americans were or were not this or that.
Alright, wait, I need to go on a mini tirade because do you hear how bizarre some of those comments are? Nationality doesn’t affect someone not wanting to burn their mouth on hot tea, nor does it affect their desire to roll down the windows in a car with no air conditioning on a 70° F day. I also can’t help the fact I was raised on American bathroom habits—the fact that we use toilet paper instead of handheld bidets—and I don’t see why it should matter what I do in the inherent privacy of a bathroom as long as my damn hands are clean when I come out. Oh, and Lord forgive me for developing the habit of not crunching on chips, or shoving salad into my mouth, or talking while chewing in order to listen to what someone is saying to me.
Listen, I’m quite of aware of how often America seems to forget that women, people of color, and peeps in the LGBT+ community should be entitled to the same rights and treatment as everyone else; stuff like that tends to put a damper on that whole “proud to be an American” thing. However, I’m also very aware that not all Americans are like that, despite the issues we’ve had (and continue to have) in the country. Hell, the whole reason there’s a dialogue about all those topics in the U.S. is specifically because there are people on both sides of any given issue, which by definition implies that not all Americans are one way or think the same thing.
And so, listening to their comments tossed casually into regular conversation didn’t make me feel good and it made me question the company I was in. Granted, at the time I would just laugh, agree, shrug it off, and move on because I didn’t quite know how to address what had just been said. After all, I was usually in the company of other black women who had received prejudice based on their race, gender, and the countries they hailed from, and yet they were cool with negatively commenting on the country I hailed from. I had never encountered this relationship dynamic before, where someone is fully aware of the problematic nature of a comment from experience, yet they willingly choose to keep spreading the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, the stuff they said was very inconsequential, not the kind of issues you need to rally the troops for; I wasn’t deeply hurt by their comments and I didn’t feel attacked, but it did make me wonder how far their insults would go and who else was on their stereotype hit list. I wondered if this was something specific to the individuals I was spending time with, or if this was a larger problem in Qatar. Replace “American” with . . . anything—Israeli, Filipino, Sudanese, gay, trans, black, Latino, women, Muslims—and replace stupid comments about eating and drinking with adjectives like “dangerous”, “sexist”, “evil”, “unholy”, “xenophobic”, “untrustworthy”, etc. Thoughts like that further gaps in understanding instead of bridging them, which worsens the problems the world is dealing with right now.
Treatment of other nationalities
By “other” I mean people from countries that aren’t Qatar. I noticed an uncomfortable amount of casual discrimination against people from certain countries, which was different than what I was used to in the U.S. See, in the U.S. we often seem to generalize our hatred, disliking—for example—all Middle Easterners because Middle East = Islam and Islam = Scary. We aren’t too picky when it comes to what country the people we discriminate against hail from (although, we used to be quite picky; here’s a high school history essay from the 90’s. I know, not the most scholarly reference, but it is a very simple introduction to America’s history of discrimination against people from specific countries.
In Qatar, though, I noticed that a lot of people seemed to have beef with others from specific countries. Sure, there was that one guy who low-key seemed racist as hell in his convoluted explanation of how my Visa worked (explaining that my Visa was somehow similar to the reasons why Americans shouldn’t want Mexicans in their country), but the two nationalities that really stood out to me when it came to discrimination were Egyptians and Israelis.
I had people repeatedly tell me things like “never trust an Egyptian” and I had Uber drivers make jokes about running over Egyptians with their cars. I don’t know what their issue was with Egyptians, but I do know that Egypt has had plenty of racist incidents toward dark-skinned people, especially expatriates, and all the people who expressed animosity toward Egyptians were dark-skinned expatriates. It doesn’t make their comments any less discriminatory, but it does add another layer of understanding to the issue as a whole (and if you’re curiosity is piqued, check out this article about the topic of racism in Egypt: “‘Black Panther’ and the anti-black racism of Egyptians”, The Washington Post).
When it came to discrimination against Israelis, whew, that’s one monster of a conversation. Most of it has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that had been going on since 1948, an issue that is complicated, at times violent, and laced with a ton of discrimination within the dispute itself. As of 2019, this had resulted in 30 countries—including Qatar—not recognizing Israel as a country. However, each of those 30 countries approached the “Israel is not a country” thing differently. Most boycotted Israel economically, politically, and culturally in any way they could, and some went so far as to not accept Israeli passports or people with Israeli passport stamps (the argument being that if you visit Israel, you obviously support Israel, but really it was probably just a slick way of lessening tourism in Israel, a major source of income for the country).
When it came to Qatar, I kept finding varying evidence over just how severe their boycott of Israel was. Some sources said Israelis could come to Qatar with a visa, some sources said Israelis couldn’t come to Qatar at all, and some sources said Israelis could only come to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. It’s safe to assume, though, that whatever circumstance, Israelis weren’t welcome in Qatar, if only based on the social climate.
Most people I met from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries were not fans of Israel in any way, shape, or form. I remember casually referring to Israel as a country, the sort of statement that went something like, “What country is Dome of the Rock in? I think it’s Israel—" and in response I got, “ISRAEL IS NOT A FUCKING COUNTRY, DON’T EVER SAY THAT!” After that came some very charged accusations of murder, war, and theft that went way over my head at the time. And do you remember when Wonder Woman came out? About a week before it was set to premier in Qatar, the movie was suddenly banned in the country because Gal Gadot—the titular leading lady—served in the Israeli military during one of many battles fought throughout the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Further still, it seemed like no one in Qatar knew any other Israelis despite Qatar hosting expatriates from roughly 100 different countries. The odds of there coincidentally being no Israelis around felt . . . purposeful. Something similar can be said about the Jewish presence in Qatar, which was seemingly nonexistent and possibly unwelcome. You see, not only is Judaism tied in with the whole “Israel sucks” mentality, but there’s also a history of antisemitism in the Arab world which geared up in the late 19th century (in part due to European influence in the Arab world). Discrimination against Jews might be the reason why I didn’t notice a single synagogue in Doha (in contrast to the many houses of worship available for every other major religion, including lots of churches devoted to various individual sects of Christianity).
It was uncomfortable, to say the least, but you know what was even more uncomfortable?
It always strikes me to see only two black faces in my graduating class, but I promise there was a good amount of diversity up in there . . . even though the regalia makes us look like a collection of higher education Barbie dolls lined up in the Walmart toy aisle.
Let’s talk about the Arab slave trade for a minute
You know what’s freaky? How Arab expansion and the spread of Islam never came up in any of my history classes for all sixteen years of education, not even when we were talking about world history, or slavery, or that one brief chapter about the Muslim world that teachers usually speed through.
I mean, I can’t say I’m surprised; it makes sense that even when talking about something as problematic as slavery or colonization that the focus was still wholly on Europeans and the Western world. It was odd to realize that I knew exactly why Central & South America were keen on Catholicism, and why Western European languages were dominant in Africa and the Americas, and how black people ended up in essentially every country Europeans infiltrated, but then to realize I hadn’t been taught why so many African countries spoke Arabic or why they were predominantly Muslim was . . . striking. Even in the conversation about slavery, we always talk about slaves being charted from the West African coast without even acknowledging what was happening in East Africa. Well, that’s where the Muslim conquests, the Arab slave trade, and general Arabization comes in. All those things make up centuries of history—which, again, makes it super awkward that no educator thought to bring any of this up—but for now I’m going to just talk about the slave trade.
Slavery in the Arab world (vibe and timeline)
It started around the 9th century and lasted until the early 20th. Instead of sending slaves to the New World, over the years the slaves captured (an estimated 17 million) were sold to places like India, Persia, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and European colonies in the Far East. All that said, though, the Arab slave trade was just business as usual for a very long time and it didn’t start getting blaringly racist until the 18th & 19th centuries (which is also when it started getting super racially charged within the European slave trade).
Throughout the 1920s, many countries in the Muslim world abolished slavery, but a few that were tardy to the party include Qatar (1952), Yemen (1962), Saudi Arabia (1962), Oman (1970), and Mauritania outlawed it in 1905, 1981, and 2007 (the first time under French West Africa, then under self-governing Mauritania, but that abolition didn’t criminalize it, meaning that even though slavery was illegal, slaveowners & traders didn’t run the risk of punishment until ’07).
The slavery museum
Something I thought was cool, though, is that Doha had a slavery museum, the Bin Jelmood House (part of the Msheireb Museums complex). It opened in 2015 under the belief that Qatar has progressed so well so fast, that it would be irresponsible to ignore their history (including the crappy parts), especially as they open their country up to more of the world. Here is a link to an article about it, but can I just linger on this for a minute?
The United States is super good at moving pass issues without actually confronting them. Consider it like having a fight with your friend, and your friend is the United States. Meanwhile, you are people of color, women, LGBT+ community, people caught in the welfare cycle, convicts on trumped up charges, veterans on the street, people struggling with overpriced medical care, anyone who cares about global warming, anyone concerned with gun violence, etc.
Now, imagine you’re having a fight with your friend because they were mean to you. Your friend, the U.S., is like “I don’t want to fight anymore, I’ve already moved on, you should too.” Next, you say, “The conversation can’t be over, we haven’t talked about what our fight is about and why we’re fighting in the first place.” That’s when your friend says, “It’s fine, I told you I’m finished with the conversation.”
All the while, your friend is happily trying to pursue a super awesome future atop all the problematic unacknowledged issues they’re refusing to talk to you about. Compare it to building a block tower atop the broken crayons, leftover cheese curls, and Barbie doll heads you swept under the carpet instead of actually cleaning your room. That tower you’re trying to build, that future, is going to be terribly unstable and the more you ignore the rocky foundation you built it on, the worse off it’s going to be.
When it comes to Qatar, sure, the cynical part of me wanted to believe that the premise of the slavery museum in Qatar was nothing more than excellent PR, a good tourist trap, and all part of Qatar’s emphasis on national identity. However, I later realized that the country as a whole really was passionate about building a sustainable future (economically, environmentally, and socially), and even thought they’re still working through some shit, they’re on the right track and the slavery museum was just one aspect of that.
Then, of course, I couldn’t help but compare this to the U.S. We’ve got a substantial amount of museums about African-Americans, and through extension, slavery becomes a sub-topic. However, the key word is “sub-topic”; the U.S. hasn’t got any sort of national institution that acknowledges slavery for what it was, the incredibly impactful aspect of our past that lasted for 250 years and effected everything in our present, from race relations to capitalism. No matter how thorough the slavery wing of a larger museum may be, it simply isn’t the same as a museum that highlights slavery as a defining aspect of American history, not just African-American history.
We did try at to put a slavery museum in Virginia, though, first in Fredericksburg and then in Richmond, but neither of them panned out. Now that Qatar is on my mind, I wonder if the U.S. will ever get around to it.
Alright, with all that said, let’s get back to the main topic at hand; let’s keep talking about race in Qatar.
Are Arabs considered white?
I remember being surprised to hear someone in Qatar refer to a Turkish person as white. I suppose there’s no reason for them not to be considered white, but I had never really thought about it before (but I’m sure if I had thought about it, I still probably wouldn’t have immediately declared them white). I realized this was because my concept of white was strictly based on U.S. and Western European whiteness when it came to appearance, language, social customs, and even food. After this realization, though, I began to wonder what defines whiteness and who else could be considered white. Could Arabs be considered white too?
Well, I can’t answer that, not even a little bit. I’ve got about as much authority over someone else’s racial identity as a checkbox on a U.S. job application. What I can tell you is that this topic seems to be a debate that’s been going on for decades, flipping and flopping as politics, economics, and social views shift.
Listen, I’m going to give you a link to a 2015 AJ article so you can read more about the topic, but here are just a few quotes to give you a rough idea of what the conversation is like. Spoiler alert, it mentions the 2020 census:
“Although designated white by law, Arabs in the US are not extended the array of privileges associated with whiteness.”
“A social and political currency like no other, to be white in the US is to be free from the presumption that you are foreign or inferior. Whites are simply “American”, unfettered by the qualified or hyphenated identities compelled upon Asian, African, Latino, or Arab Americans.”
“Betwixt and between legal whiteness and sociopolitical subordination, the experience of Arabs in the US highlights the flawed and fluid nature of race in the US. Racial categories are thought to be objective and fixed, but are in fact an imperfect science shaped and reshaped by prevailing political interests and structural powers.”
“Early Arab immigrants desperately pursued whiteness and performed it in immigration proceedings. The law officially mandated whiteness as a prerequisite for US citizenship until 1952. Key judicial decisions in 1915 and later 1944, solidified the legal designation that Arabs were white by law.”
“However, the US Census Bureau has proposed a new stand-alone classification – ‘Middle East or North African [MENA]’ – which if adopted on the 2020 Census, may formally end more than 70 years of formal whiteness, and the ‘racial Catch-22’ that perplexes the Arab American identity.”
“Since the 1980s, Arab Americans have lobbied the government to change their racial classification. The efforts were driven by a desire for the government to acknowledge the distinct identity and experience of Arabs in the US, and the range of existential, economic, legal, and political interests that come with minority status. However, the US government continuously rebuffed community demands for a distinct “Arab American” or stand-alone ‘MENA’ classification. Until today.”
Spoiler alert #2, the U.S. decided against the use of the MENA box on the census. Here is a 2019 article from the Los Angeles Times, which gives some varying perspectives on the idea of the MENA box, the concept whiteness in the U.S., and the University of California’s decision to add another ethnicity option to their admissions application.
But what about outside of the U.S.?
Everything I’ve just referenced pertaining to Arabs and whiteness is just from the U.S. conversation, but you’ve got to remember that there’s a whole world out there full of different politics and social dynamics that this conversation extends to. What’s interesting, though, is that many other places in the world aren’t as obsessed with race as the U.S. is; many of these places still notice it—it’s why the conversation about racial discrimination is worldwide—but the relevance of race varies depending on where you are.
I will say, though, that in Qatar the socioracial dynamic between people of color and Arabs was similar to the U.S. dynamic between people of color and whites. Now, I know that Arabs could be considered people of color depending on where they fall within the greater “Arabs & whiteness” conversation, but what I mean is that the privileges that come with being white in the U.S. rang similar to the privileges that came with being Arab in Qatar. There’s definitely some nuance to that, but I noticed that race contributed to assumptions about career, education, and economic status, as well as beauty standards . . . Which is actually a good segue into the next section.
Ever seen half an aisle devoted to skin whitening products? I sure hadn’t. The middle two shelves are all skin whitening lotions & creams, and that advertisement to the far right is an ad for said products.
When I was in Morocco, I made a friend. That friend was a recent graduate of VCUQ and for her senior thesis, she created cosmetic boxes commenting on colorism. The project was badass, and if I had photographs or a link you’d best believe I’d drop it in, but for now you’re just going to have to take my word for it. I decided to mention it, though, because it was incredibly cool to see art that referenced the way colorism functioned in communities outside the U.S. After all, the only exposure I’d had to colorism came from my life in the U.S. where I had observed it on a public level (like the lack of dark-skinned people in advertisements) and a personal level (family drama). Then, of course, I’d seen plenty of references to the way colorism had functioned in days long since passed, like the way it was intertwined with slavery or skin bleaching ads from the first half of the 20th century.
However, by 2018 the U.S. was in the midst of shifting from “light skin = awesome” to “maybe dark skin might be sort of cool too” (at least when it comes to marketing, television, and a teeny bit of Hollywood). Socially, that shift has been considerably slower, but no matter what it still felt like colorism just wasn’t as big of an issue as it had been in decades and centuries prior. It wasn’t like I was seeing grand advertisements for skin bleaching creams or hearing blatant comments about dark skin being “bad”.
Well, I later learned that the U.S. definitely still sells skin whitening products because we definitely still have plenty of issues with colorism, we’re just not as overt about it as we used to be. For example, when it comes to the products themselves, the U.S. shies away from literal images of models transitioning form dark to light and they use vague wording like “promotes even tone” or “fade cream”.
Think of it this way: In the 21st century, the United States’ skin bleaching culture hides in plain sight, whereas in Qatar (and many other places in the world) their skin bleaching culture doesn’t hide at all.
The first time I noticed skin lightening products in Qatar was in the on-campus mini mart my first week in Education City. It struck me because I had never seen anything remotely similar to what I was looking at, three different brands of skin whitening cream in shiny boxes with models’ faces split in half displaying their seemingly glorious “before & after” images. I thought that perhaps these were the kinds of products the mini-mart just had to keep in stock; after all, it was a smaller version of a larger grocery chain, I thought that maybe they were required to sell a fraction of everything their big store sold.
But then I started seeing more and more products and advertisements encouraging me to lighten my skin. Sitting on shelves in an otherwise sparse store on the outskirts of the city? Front and center in the beauty aisle of a 3-story hypermarket? Commercials advertising it in the middle of Magnificent Century reruns? Skin bleaching cream, lotion, sunscreen, soap, face masks, and pills were so commonplace, so normalized, and they all sat there unapologetically waiting to be bought.
Hold on, let’s zoom in on what one of those packages says, the ones I saw on that store shelf in Doha:
... SkinWhite® PowerWhitening® Line that uses an exclusive Advanced Tripower Technology®. Wow, fancy schmancy! But what it does is it safely combats the three stages of melanin production and helps achieve your whitest white skin with continuous use.
Here’s how it works:
1. Helps suppress excessive melanin production
2. Prevents the resurfacing of dark pigmentation
3. Screens the harmful UV rays from entering your skin
Cheers to your brightest – ever!
Here’s how you should use it:
Use twice daily all over your hands and body. If needed, re-apply. But for best results, use with SkinWhite® PowerWhitening Glutathione + Vitamin C Soap.
Not to be used for children under 3 years of age.
The moment I picked that bottle up, I felt . . . charged. I was hyperaware of the fact I was a dark-skinned black woman standing in the beauty aisle reading about how a bleaching product would work on my skin. I was aware of the fact it looked like I was comparing brands, and I started to wonder if the people around me were thinking anything from “Oh what is she doing, she must hate herself” to “That’s exactly what someone like her should be doing”. I started thinking about the relationship between whiteness and beauty (and intelligence, and opportunity, and wealth, and sophistication). I started thinking about slavery and the brutal origin of many of the fair-skinned, mixed race children that came out of that.
I started thinking about old racial terms turned slurs, like “mulatto” and all that it implied. I started thinking about the history of skin whitening, how it goes back far into the past to places like ancient Japan and Queen Elizabeth I, and how it’s evolved into something so much more complicated. I started thinking about colonization and the way that changed the game everywhere. I started thinking about the prevalence of skin whitening in other parts of the world, I started thinking about how I was treated in Morocco for being black, I began to wonder how I’d be treated in Qatar for being black, and I wondered how deeply my blackness would be stigmatized depending on the country I was in. And I started thinking about all the hurt related to colorism just in the history of my family alone.
Like I said, I felt charged. A little plastic bottle of chemicals inspired so much thought in such a small amount of time.
I go into some more detail about colorism and skin whitening products this in the post Beauty and Blackness in Qatar, so for now let’s keep working through this post.
Straight up racism
Have you ever come across a racist statement and the intelligent part of you recognizes the heavy stuff (the historical nuances that inspired that statement, the way it reflects the state of the world, the intersectionality at play, etc.)? Meanwhile the tired part of you—the part that’s eternally exhausted from your existence constantly being a catalyst for racist acts— is simply like, Woowoo! All aboard the Stupid Train! Can’t wait to see what unoriginal use of the N-word comes out of their mouth next!
Racism in Qatar
No ifs, ands, buts, or inklings of nuance, some stuff I observed or experienced in Qatar was straight up racist. Thing is, a lot of the racism in Qatar wasn’t exclusive to Qatar; what little I did notice were the sorts of things found in the greater Arab world, across all 22 countries. Thing is, if we were to rank Qatar on a list of “most blatantly racist Arab countries”, truth be told they’d probably fall low on the list. They didn’t come anywhere close to countries like Egypt, which has a clear problem when it comes to racism and for some reason just can’t stop doing blackface.
Other black expatriates told me stories of being called “abed”—the Arabic for “slave” and a common racial slur—but in most of those stories they were abroad in a different Arabic-speaking country (note I said most of those stories; it still happened in Qatar too). What I can say for certain, though, is that the racism in Qatar is intertwined with the migrant workers. Workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa tended to get discriminated against more often than Arab and white expats (be they from Europe, the U.S., Australia, or another Arab country).
A story I thought was interesting, though, was that of a Filipino man in a nice clothing store. He was 5’6, cleanshaven with a combed head of hair, dressed like a casual millennial in Western clothes and toting around a shopping bag. My point is that he looked like just a guy in a mall, he looked like any of us on a casual Saturday afternoon, and yet, someone asked him if he worked in the store. There was nothing about him to suggest he worked in that store; he wasn’t wearing a uniform, he didn’t have a nametag, he wasn’t folding clothes—he literally had his own shopping bag—but he was Filipino. He was part of an ethnic group that usually performed unskilled blue- & pink-collar jobs, so the automatic assumption on the part of the stranger was that he wasn’t a patron of the store.
That incident reminded me so much of the assumptions made about black people in the U.S. From what I understand, it doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but in the fairly recent past the image of a black person shopping in a nice store (as opposed to working there for minimum wage) simply did not compute. It somewhat falls into the same vein of black people walking around a store and being followed, under the assumption that they’re thieves instead of patrons. I remember being a kid in a store with my mom and having my hands full, so I stuffed whatever we were buying under my arm, only to have my mom say, “Stop, don’t do that, it looks like you’re stealing,” to which I replied, “But I’m not stealing.” My mother said, “But it looks like you are,” and she took the things from me and went to get a shopping cart.
At the time I didn’t understand, but as I grew up within the context of Americanized racism, what she meant became clear. I’ll never forget moments like that, just like I’ll never forget all the times I was followed around stores as an adult, and to hear some similar stuff happening in Qatar really resonated with me.
Ah, but see, issues in Qatar like the one I just described was a situation of assuming nationality based on race, which then led to an assumption about career, and by extent, education and economic status as well. That said, incidents like that don’t stop at random strangers in malls; they also extend to, well, everything, including hospital care and the sorts of punishment one gets for committing a crime (as in to say, your race may determine whether you get jailed, deported, or slapped on the wrist). I haven’t got any firsthand stories about that, but there have been more than a few reported incidents regarding the relationship between race, nationality, and punishment (not unlike the U.S. in that regard).
For now, though, I’m going to leave you with this link to another exchange student’s account with racism in Qatar. It’s from 2011, but I think it still helps shape the idea of what racism in Qatar felt like when I was there in 2018.
Racism by a white, male, European expatriate student
I don’t know what the hell was up with this, and I’d like to believe it was a one-of-a-kind incident that doesn’t happen often, however, because it did happen, I’ve got to talk about it, even if it’s only to vent and further my own head scratching.
Picture this: It was the early evening and I was sitting around with some other black students outside the student center. When I got there, they were already engaged in a mildly heated conversation with a white Albanian guy somewhere around his 30’s. The debate boiled down to the white guy saying, verbatim, “white people are the superior race” and the black people collectively saying, “that’s some top-notch racist bullshit”. This was my first interaction with the white guy, another student at VCUQ, but something just felt off about the conversation. It didn’t seem like a real debate—where two people adamantly believe contradictory ideas and are trying to prove their point—but it also didn’t seem like a mock debate, a charged but innocent exploration into a complicated topic. So, I just kept quiet and observed.
At the time, I was waiting for another friend to arrive, a friend who just so happened to be Filipino, and when he got there the white man said something to the effect of, we don’t need any more colors in this conversation. At that, my friend and I officially knew it was our cue to leave and we departed. I later asked the black students what was up with that guy, and they all straight up called him a racist, explaining that this wasn’t the first time he’d said stuff like that unapologetically. However, I was later put in a situation where I had to travel with the guy and I asked someone who knew him better what his deal was. This “someone” was another black woman, a faculty member, and they were surprised to learn he’d spouted such racist shit out of his mouth.
At this point I really didn’t know what was up with this guy, but what I did know is that I had no interest in conversing with him or being in his company more than necessary. Interestingly, though, he later confronted me and acknowledged that my first impression of him was probably not so great, and he apologized . . . sort of. He explained that it was not only a joke, but a joke that the black guy started, to which I said, “Even if it was a joke, and even if he did start it, that doesn’t mean you have to further it if you recognize it’s racist.” The words “I’m sorry” never actually came out of his mouth, and I wasn’t convinced that the vibe of that conversation had been an inappropriate joke between friends. Jokes, even terribly inappropriate 20-minute long inside jokes, are supposed to be funny and if literally no one is laughing then I’m not sure it still counts as a joke.
I later learned that this guy was . . . well, he was an extreme work in progress. During our trip, he looked at a Muslim woman and her kid on the metro and said, “A few years ago I would have thought they were terrorists, but now I know they’re not.” The comment came out of the blue and I think I responded, “Oh yeah? Well, that’s good, good for you . . .” I didn’t quite know what to say, but after that interaction I got the feeling that this guy transitioning from a racist xenophobic idiot to a tolerable human being. That would explain why that debate/joke conversation didn’t sit right, and it would possibly explain why people were surprised to hear he’d said some hella racist things in the past. Perhaps he was just trying to explore and exercise his own thoughts, perhaps he was purposefully putting himself in situations to be challenged so that he could get some new perspectives on subjects he had begun to reconsider.
Or maybe he was just racist.
It could go either way, especially because I didn’t know the guy very well and wasn’t interested in getting to know him. What I do know, though, is that seeing the topic of white supremacy—especially white supremacy targeted at black people—follow me in a roundabout way from the U.S. to Qatar was a terrible feeling, whether it was genuine racism or a dumb joke made in poor taste. There I was, in a place that wasn’t predominantly white, a place that didn’t have the same history as the U.S., and the rhetoric of people of color being inferior to whites was still front and center (and led by possibly the only Albanian guy in neighborhood). It was unfortunate, and even though it didn’t necessarily set the tone of my stay in Qatar, it did get me to thinking more about my stigmatized place in the world as black person and the concept of political correctness. After all, in the U.S. most people have the common sense not to make jokes asserting white supremacy, at least when among a group of black strangers, but I began to wonder what the PC standards in Qatar were like.
Let’s talk about that for a minute: Political correctness
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” right? Unless you call that rose a racial slur, then I think the rose may begin to smell a little . . . offended. Yes, that flower would smell offended and you’d probably see some thorns.
I talk a bit more about this in the post A New Definition of Diverse, so for now I’d like to leave you with some bullet points.
Generally speaking, Qatar was less concerned with political correctness than the U.S. It’s not like Qatar was the wild west when it came to political incorrectness; most people still had the common sense not to use derogatory terms in casual conversation, when speaking publicly, or in written text. However, people in Qatar were more comfortable and straightforward when it came to acknowledging specific people or communities. A statement about “the Desi community in Qatar” was never exchanged for “the people of color in Qatar”, and people understood that calling a black guy a “black guy” was in no way insensitive.
I thought it was nice to be in a place where people were less stressed about being politically correct because it allowed for a better understanding of other communities, both their plights and the fun stuff. The language that sometimes emerges as a result of someone trying to be as politically correct as possible can sometimes be vague; that vagueness is detrimental because it can beat around the bush and keep people at a distance, which doesn’t benefit whatever is trying to be communicated. Qatar didn’t seem to have that problem.
However, there were times when I wondered if the lack of concern with political correctness was also detrimental
Alright, let me tell you a story:
A Qatari student went to the spa and got a massage done by a Filipino woman. The Qatari student, talking to some American students, said that there must have been something in the Filipino woman’s blood that made her so good at what she does.
Alright, on one hand that sounded reminiscent of those old timey arguments of scientific racism. You know, like when scientists argued that black people were perfect suited for slavery and rampant baby-making based on our biology and primitive psychological makeup, essentially stating that there was something in our genes—in our proverbial blood—that made us the perfect creatures for performing certain tasks.
However, after that split second of wondering, What the hell did she mean by that? it was clear that the Qatari student wasn’t implying anything racially charged in her comment about the masseuse; she was just trying to compliment the woman on her skill.
Well, even though the student didn’t mean any harm, it was still a statement that could have been—and was—interpreted two ways, one way being innocent, and one way being awkwardly wrapped up in racial stigma. However, the surprise the student expressed when all the American students gave her the cold shoulder made me believe that she was totally ignorant to the racially charged potential her statement had.
Now, I’m not blaming the student for not considering the racist potential of her statement because, after all, you don’t know what you don’t know until someone tells you (and Qatar as a whole wasn’t terribly uptight about political correctness, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she had never before been called out on the racist capacity of a statement). That in mind, though, her comment—and that experience with the Albanian guy—is really what made me think about how political correctness functioned in other countries. I know that Americans can be oversensitive when it comes to political correctness, to the point where it can be problematic (leading to a lot of vagueness, confusion, defensiveness, and plenty of people rolling their eyes). But my experience overseas made me wonder even more where the line was and what defined it.
Ah, but all that aside, let’s talk about one of the biggest definers when it came to my experience in Qatar . . .
Being black in Qatar
Haha, wanna guess where I am in line?
Nearly every black person I got to know in Qatar had something to say when it came to living as a black person in the country. Everything from racial slurs to beauty standards were relevant in conversation about being black, and I found both the similarities and differences interesting when it came to the black experience in Qatar.
Blackness in the Arab world
I’ve got some bullet points for yah, just to give you a rough idea of the general climate when it comes to being black in the Middle East.
As of 2019, racism against black people was still definitely present in the Middle East. Some countries were more openly racist than others, and some countries tolerated it more than others, but generally speaking no matter where you went there was always some brand of negativity in the air when it came to blackness
To be fair, though, there are few places in the world where blackness isn’t stigmatized. It’s just that different countries & cultures express that stigma in different ways and to different severities.
A lot of black people in the Middle East are expatriates, usually laborers, and that tends to get tied in with race.
A Sudanese woman who identified as Afro-Arab told me about how Arabs have dismissed both aspects of her culture. A mentality of, You don’t look Arab and thus we will laugh and place you at the bottom of our community, despite similarities in culture, religion, language, and even genetics. This comes coupled with the general disdain for blackness, which is why the “Afro” aspect of her identity also got dismissed.
Speaking to black people who grew up in Qatar, I learned that they were bullied for the same reasons black kids in the U.S. get bullied when they’re in a predominantly non-black environment. For example, both of us were bullied for having natural black hair, but there were some interesting differences in how we were bullied.
I went to a predominantly white & Desi middle school, but I was only ever bullied by the other handful of black kids. They would do things like stick pencils and coins in my 4C afro alongside some slick verbal insults here and there. The girl in Qatar went to a school that was predominantly Arab and those were the kids who would straight up referred to her braids and 3A curls as “nigger hair”.
Alright, with those things established, next I’m going to talk about some of my experience in Qatar when it came to being black. Like the point I made about bullying, much of my experience being black in Qatar compared to the U.S. had a sense of “same, but different” in the most uneasy way imaginable, like an episode of Black Mirror.
Being the only black person in the room
I’ve been in predominantly white schools, programs, clubs, and majors since I was nine years-old and it was never a surprise when I’d wind up being the only black person in the room. Whenever that would happen, though, there was always an unspoken explanation about why I was the only black person in the room, and that answer could get really deep really fast, spiraling into a racialized cesspool of realization.
Take, for example, being the only black person on the school swim team. Suddenly you start making connections between the lack of access to pools in predominantly black neighborhood, the way that ties in to how local governments allocate funds to improve particular neighborhoods over others, and even the fact black slaves were purposefully not taught to swim because it would’ve made it a lot easier for them to escape. And what about the school you go to? Is that your local school or do you go there because it’s a magnet school, or a gifted program, or because you got a really dope scholarship? What are the implications of that? Did you get there by doing the whole “be twice as good, work twice as hard” thing that black people have always had to do in the U.S. if they want to be on-par with their privileged peers?
Do you see how quickly that snowballed? And do you see how many racially charged branches one topic can have? Anything—sports, music, hobbies, fashion, tech, academics, economics, careers, healthcare—it can all lead to conversations about slavery, which splinters into conversations about disenfranchisement, access to resources, respect & attentiveness . . . it feels endless sometimes, and it can make something as simple as sitting at your desk in a classroom where you’re the only one of your kind feel charged.
All that said, I was always the only black person in all my classes at VCUQ. Thing is, in Qatar I didn’t feel suffocated in the same way I’d felt in the U.S. as the only black person in an environment; I didn’t feel smothered by history, I didn’t feel the same sort of oppression. For the first time I felt like I was able to exist in a space as a person, a woman, a student, or an artist, not the black student or the black artist. Don’t get me wrong, being black will always be a very relevant part of my identity and existence, but it was extremely freeing to feel as though being black wasn’t the only thing defining my art, my achievements, and my presence in a space, and it made functioning in those environments so much easier.
It was a global phenomenon.
Theaters were being bought out so underprivileged (predominantly black) communities could see the movie for free. It became one of the top grossing movies of all time, appealing to nerds, fans of the star-studded cast, and evidently every black person on the planet. You remember that, right? Black people were rolling up to the theaters like every man was Prince Akeem and every woman was his queen to be, black people showed their pride and excitement like they were from Wakanda. As both a black woman, a storyteller, and a super nerd, it was incredible to be a part of such a breathtaking experience.
Thing is, I was in Doha when Black Panther came out and I didn’t expect any overt expressions of black pride. In the month I had been in the city, Doha seemed like a pretty chill town; there weren’t any dense crowds, people didn’t raise their voice, the market was quiet—everywhere was quiet—and everyone dressed conservatively (in both color and style). Heck, I didn’t even see any movie trailers during commercial breaks on TV, so I couldn’t even say for certain that people in Qatar were avid movie-goers. Most notably, though, Doha didn’t have a high population of black people, so I figured that any celebrating that would occur within the black community would happen in small pockets amongst friends, not huge dramatic displays.
Well, boy, was I wrong.
Somebody hosted a Black Panther red carpet event at Novo Cinemas in The Pearl. I don’t know who the host was, but I do know that my friend invited me to go and it seemed to be a well-organized, very popular, and hella legit event. Thing is, my friend group was unsurprisingly late to the premiere and by the time we got there, the movie had already started. However, when the movie was over, everyone poured out into the lobby and wow, #WakandaForever was in full force.
I had never seen so many beautiful, elegant, prideful black people in one space. Headwraps, kente cloth, cowry shells, dashikis, adire, ankara, African gold—people turned up—but the feelings I felt in that moment weren’t solely inspired by what people were wearing. There was a vibe, you see, an incredible feeling that we had all gathered in the same place at the same time to celebrate the same thing in the best way we knew how. There were so many different forms of black representation in the room: African guests wearing bits and pieces of the traditional garb of their home countries, graduates of HBCU’s, members of NHCP Greek organizations, and even just the small things like seeing black people with natural hair, it was all striking, both visually and emotionally.
Which is why the stuff in this next section caught me off guard . . .
Being asked to tone down blackness
Braids, earrings, necklace . . . I vibe with a certain aesthetic, you feel?
I like loud prints, bold colors, big earrings, long braids, curly afros, cowry shells, head wraps, and various combinations of red, green, & black when the mood strikes me. Some of those things are not inherent to black culture—lots of cultures wear big earrings and colorful patterns—but it must be noted that some stylistic choices have a distinctly African or African-American look, especially when emphasized by a black wearer.
Well, in Qatar—and much to my surprise—some of my black peers kept offerings suggestions that seemed to have an underlying goal of toning down my “blackest” qualities. I was told to do things like straighten my hair, get light colored contacts, calm down my color palette, wear quieter patterns, and remove my head scarves. I go into more detail about this—the requests, the odd relationship dynamic, and the possible reasons why they would ask these things of me—in the post Beauty and Blackness in Qatar, but I thought it was still worth mentioning here. After all, it contributed to my black experience in Qatar and it made me wonder about the bigger picture. As in to say, I believe that they truly didn’t mean any harm and that they wanted me to dress in a way that they thought would make me look awesome, but I wondered what was informing their thought process? I wondered if they themselves as black women had been influenced by Arab beauty standards, I wondered if they wanted me to look good for myself or to attract a man, I wondered if they hadn’t fully considered my culture—my identity as an African-American woman—and how that influenced the way I chose to present myself.
Huh, I suppose this is a good segway into the next section . . .
To Be Both Black and American in Qatar
Not only am I black and American, but I’m also Chickahominy Native American. I’m a woman too, if you hadn’t yet picked up on that. Yeah, I was born with enough intersections and side streets to make maneuvering in the world an uphill battle.
Don’t you just love intersectionality? It keeps fun things like discrimination fresh & exciting! You never know what aspect of your identity or circumstance is going to dominate a particular environment or interaction! Keep you on your toes, am I right?
I referenced this section earlier and now we’re finally here! So, let’s get to the heart of it: What was it like being both black and American in Qatar?
Remember, I don’t “look” American
I mentioned this early-on in the post, but I thought a refresher would be of value.
When it came to others openly trying to guess my nationality, I only ever got that from:
1) other black people (who always hailed from a specific African country themselves) and
2) A flirty Indian guy at a club
The top two guesses I received were always Nigerian or Sudanese, if you’re curious.
Other times, though, people silently assumed I was from an African country—an experience other black U.S. expatriates in Qatar could attest to, I learned—and that informed the way they’d initially treat me. The act of someone treating a black person with disdain, dismissiveness, disrespect, etc. would suddenly dissipate when they’d find out they’re American. It’s like I said earlier, being American in Qatar essentially comes with certain perks and one of those perks, come to find out, was having your race erased . . . to an extent.
For example, when that Indian guy at the club was trying to slide into my real-world DMs, he lit up upon learning I was American. Upon continuing through the conversation, I started to get a vibe that I was a bit on the exotic side, as in to say, I was American (which essentially whitewashed me), but I had the body of a black woman (a 200 year-old fetish) because I was black (which had its own stigma) and I was dark-skinned (an extra layer of stigma), but I wasn’t actually white (which meant my ancestors never aggressively colonized most of the world in the way Europeans did), and even though I was black I (theoretically) had money because I was American, and because I was American I was probably an easy lay . . . it just continued, alternating back and forth in the strangest of ways.
Don’t worry, I never saw the guy again.
Not knowing your heritage
All my life, this is what I’d been told:
I’m somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 Chickahominy Native American
My ancestors came from North Carolina and Virginia, and before that, England
I safely assume most of my ancestors were slaves
And I’ve got a creepy feeling they’re somehow connected to William Campbell, a Revolutionary War hero and the namesake of Campbell County. Here’s two links if you’re curious, one Master’s thesis and one Wikipedia article.
And . . . that’s it.
I know that a lot of people from the U.S. don’t know the nitty gritty details of their heritage because of the whole melting pot thing, but I also know that black Americans have a huge and obvious obstacle when it comes to learning about our ancestry: Slavery. We didn’t just forget our heritage over time or lose track of government records or change our name to sound more American, most our ancestors had their identities forcibly squeezed out over the course of two and a half centuries. Slavery is like 250 years’ worth of solid concrete when it comes to researching ancestry, and even if you do get through the concrete, the ancestral severance caused by the trans-Atlantic slave trade can leave you with only fragments of information.
I bring this up because people in Qatar kept asking me where I was from, where I was “really from”. My immediate answers of “The United States”, “Virginia”, and “Richmond” didn’t suffice because they wanted to know where I was from “before”.
“Oh, you mean, like, Africa?” I’d ask, a little surprised. After all, no one had ever asked me that before, because everyone in the U.S. safely assumes that a black person probably doesn’t know their heritage beyond a certain point, and to ask about it is to inevitably fall into a conversation about slavery (which can get really charged really fast).
It’s why I always had no choice but to answer, “I don’t know,” whenever they asked, but sometimes that only prompted them to rephrase the question. They’d say things like, “My grandmother is from Sudan, but my grandfather and father were from Palestine, so where are you from?” And I’d have to say, “I don’t know. West Africa?” tossing them my best regional guess based on an infographic I saw in a library textbook. They would accept the answer, but then the conversation would lull and I'd be left feeling, well, awkward.
I felt awkward existing in an environment where it was seemingly commonplace to know your ethnic heritage.
What made it worse was that the people who asked me were exclusively African, as in to say, they and their ancestors were from specific countries or ethnic groups. North Sudanese, Cameroonian, Nigerian Yoruba, etc. It was cool to meet people from these places—places that perhaps my own ancestors had lived—but it was also uncomfortable to be hyperaware of that fact . . . the fact that our ancestors could overlap, but they just so happened to wind up in different places.
I also couldn't help but be curious about why they were asking me where I was "really" from. My first instinct was that they saw I was black, assumed I was African, and simply wanted to know where in Africa I (or my people) were from in the name of solidarity. After all, the black population in Qatar was so small; I thought that their questioning was perhaps a gesture of positivity and togetherness. Yet, at the same time, it felt problematic that they looked at me, saw a black person, assumed I was African, and after inquiring about my place of origin, dismissed my assertion of "I'm American".
Do you get what I mean?
Let's pretend these people weren't African; let's pretend they were white or Arab. Now imagine them asking a black American person where they were from, only to clarify and ask where they were really from because being both black and American simply does not compute (because in a lot of places, a true American is white). It's a close-minded and disrespectful presumption, and even though the people I talked to were of African descent just like me, that doesn't give them the right to perpetuate ignorant presumptions when it comes to another person of color's identity.
Thing is, another part of me thought that maybe they were just curious and wanted to know my ethnicity. There's no harm in asking someone their ethnicity; in fact, it can widen one's perspective and prevent ignorance from spewing out their mouth. However, the way you ask it and your reason for asking it is what can make a conversation sticky, charged, aggressive, or just uncomfortable. You don't ask where someone is "really" from, or even where their grandparents are from, you ask what their ethnicity is. Yeah, I think it's really that simple, especially if you aren't asking the question with ill-intent.
All in all, of course there is an inherent solidarity when it comes to specific groups of people, especially when they're the minority, but it's wrong to dismiss the "other" parts of someone's identity in favor for the part that fits within whatever group someone else seeks to place you in. Even if my DNA is damn near identical to someone raised in Nigeria with a ton of Yoruba ancestors, it doesn't change the fact that I'm always going to be American too; I am just as American as I am of African descent.
I did eventually get my DNA tested with AncestryDNA, though. Among a few other estimates, I am almost definitively 25% Beninese, possibly 34% Cameroonian, about 9% Ghanaian (which can probably be grouped in with my Beninese ancestry), and 8% English (which honestly has me a little concerned as to exactly how that got into my ancestors' bloodline).
All that said, though, let's talk about this:
The way other black people treated me
Sometimes it felt like I got more respect from the little wooden black woman in my earring than some of her real-world counterparts in Doha.
There weren’t many black people in Qatar, and because of that, it always felt like finding another black person automatically launched a mini friendship. It didn’t matter what country they were from, what language they spoke, how old they were, or what they did for a living, because there was an immediate connection. However, sometimes it felt like my different friend-groups werent looking at me as black and American, but instead as black or American.
Do you remember earlier when I mentioned the weird insults toward Americans I’d sometimes receive from my black friends (who seemed to forget that I was an American myself)? And do you remember when I said that it felt like some of the black girls were asking me to style myself in a way that veered away from both my blackness and my identity as an African-American? That was already bizarre, slightly contradictory treatment, but I’m about to make it even weirder.
Well, get this, sometimes it felt like my blackness was overridden by the fact I was American, the fact I was a “Western girl”. It was as though I was some awkward & obscure “black but not really black” product of Western regurgitation, or that I somehow wasn’t black enough. My interest in “white people shit”—like alternative music and fantasy games—was suddenly highlighted and garnered the harshest judgement I’d ever received for it. The sort of storytelling I was interested in was dismissed because it was presumed too far from the black experience and thus unrelatable. And, I was suddenly treated as though I didn’t fully understand the struggle of being black because I had always had the privilege of being American. Of course, it’s true that being American undeniably has its privileges—both at home and abroad—but being back tends to poke holes in that privilege fairly often.
Listen, I haven’t got much else to elaborate on when it comes to this topic; I just wanted to let it be known that it was a bizarre experience to have people pick and choose which parts of my identity they wanted to focus on and how much respect that identity ultimately received.
The way strangers treated me
I’ve touched on this briefly, perhaps beating around the bush at times, but here’s the tea straight up: I felt more respected as a black U.S. citizen in Qatar than as a black U.S. citizen in the U.S.
Qatar made me hyperaware of the power my sleek blue & gold eagle-stamped passport held, a power so great that it sometimes overrode my race, but damn! In Qatar, once people knew I was American, I was treated . . . well, I was treated well.
See, in the U.S. it often feels as though black people don’t get treated with the same American privileges as some other Americans because they’re black. Legal rights to carry firearms, the concept of stand your ground, the way kids are disciplined in schools, the way criminals are punished in court, the way policemen handle suspects, even getting taken seriously at the doctor’s office—all those experiences are meant to be the same for all Americans in their respective environments, and yet black people statistically get treated worse in every circumstance.
I say all this because in Qatar it felt my blackness should have been used against me in some of the racist ways I described earlier, but my status as American sort of realigned where I fit on the social hierarchy, and thus how I was treated. Sometimes it felt like my race was erased entirely and, no joke, when I began to realize how different my interactions with others were in Qatar vs. the U.S. my first thought was, Wow, is this how white people feel all the time?
Now, I know there can be a substantial amount of nuance when it comes to privilege; all the intersections at play make privilege something that isn’t cut and dry. Race, gender, economic status, age, education, nationality, sexual orientation—there can be a lot of moving parts—but I won’t get too deep into that right now. I am, though, going to leave you with a 4-minute clip from The Daily Show where Trevor Noah compares the difference between white Americans and black Americans when it comes to privilege (and reparations). Don’t worry, it won’t give you a headache and it won’t make you mad; it’s a good watch.
One point I can make, though, is that everyone experiences different types of privilege in different environments for an array of different reasons, and everyone who is underprivileged doesn’t experience the same struggles. That said, in Qatar it felt like some of the struggles I was accustomed to dealing with in the U.S. as a black woman had vanished. There suddenly weren’t nearly as many obstacles in my way when it came to accomplishing truly anything, from having my inquiries & explanations listened to, to walking around in a store without being followed.
Hey, but don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t every stranger in Qatar that treated me better because they replaced my blackness with my nationality; a lot of people just treated well up front in the way you’re supposed to treat all humans, regardless of what intersections they inhabit. The ones who didn’t were usually shopkeepers and taxi drivers, but other black people in Qatar told stories of traffic cops and doctors. Either way, though, it was definitely something present in the country and thus something to keep in mind.
Alright, let’s wrap this all up
No matter what the discrimination vibes were like in Qatar, it wasn’t an oppressive chokehold.
Americans consider discrimination differently
I couldn’t help but carry around my American understanding of discrimination to every environment I find myself in, even if in another country, because it’s all I knew after spending two decades in the U.S. So, sometimes I had to check myself, remembering that certain interactions that seemed discriminatory from a U.S. perspective weren’t necessarily discriminatory in Qatar. Other times I had to do a double-take and question if what I just saw or experienced was truly the blatant act of discrimination it seemed to be.
In the end, though, I’d say that discrimination in Qatar was mostly just different—not always better, not always worse—but different, like a flash sideways. I think that is what stood out to me the most, and it’s probably why this post wound up being so long.
So, whether you read through this entire thing or Ctrl+F’d til your fingers went numb, I hope it brought you something. Some insight, some food for thought, something to discuss, something to prepare for, something to ease your worries, or maybe just some fun facts. It’s one helluva topic we just went through and everything I experienced in Qatar pertaining to it ranged from worrying, to confusing, to aggressive, to surprising, and sometimes even comforting. My experience with race & ethnicity in Qatar was . . . dynamic.