by Leena Habiballa
Within every Sudanese diasporan is an unceasing internal dialogue about where we fit in the dominant racial order. Sudan is one of the most ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse places on the African continent. It was also home to some of the most ancient civilisations in African memory. But today it suffers from the brutal legacy of Arab slavery, Ottoman imperialism and British colonialism.
My early childhood was spent living in various Arab countries, where I learnt from a young age that my darker skin tone threatened my claim to Arabness. To be authentically Arab, it wasn’t enough to speak Arabic or have facets of Arab culture syncretised into my own. My Blackness needed to be invisible. My identity as an Arab was, therefore, always contested and fraught, though nevertheless an important part of my being and, ultimately, self-evident. When others denied my Arabness I felt its existence affirmed, for how could something be stripped off if it didn’t exist?
It wasn’t until my mid to late teens that I was forced to see Blackness and Arabness as ontologically separate. This was the result of being introduced to the Western concept of race. Being racialised within this schema gave me a new sense of self, one which was innately linked to my skin colour and its difference to others. I had previously equated ‘Arab’ with Arab culture, and ‘Black’ with skin tone, not an identity. The concept of race, however, meant not only that I now saw Black and Arab as representing very different racial identities but also as invariably competing and mutually exclusive. I came to embody these two irreconcilable racial categories, and my body had become the site of a visceral and daily contradiction.
Too Black to be Arab, too Arab to be Black. This is the daily discourse that I grappled with. I was racially perplexed and traumatised.
My internal conflict was mirrored in the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old prodigy who was racially profiled and arrested in Texas, U.S., for bringing an alleged hoax-bomb to school. Ahmed is a Muslim Sudanese-American and has Black African ancestry and Afro-Arab heritage. You would not know this, however, if you listened to the majority of Western voices (including people of colour) who, in the absence of any ethnic subtext, read Ahmed’s body as Brown.
Online, arguments raged about which Western racial category Ahmed truly embodies. In polemical diatribes many continued the policing of Ahmed’s body to define him as either categorically Brown or categorically Black. Lost in all of this is the reality that White racial constructs and racial politics don’t capture the subtleties, complexities, and overlaps of ethnic identities, as with Ahmed.
Being a Sudanese who has fallen victim to this kind of racial policing, I am always curious to see in what ways non-Sudanese react to our racial ambiguity. By racial ambiguity I am not only referring to the colour of one’s skin or the texture of one’s hair. I am also talking about a person’s culture, religious affiliation and heritage. The Sudanese body is a rich and complicated constellation of meaning, a mosaic of identity that is often compromised in its translation into Western racial constructs. The majority of us carry different combinations of African, Arab and Muslim identities, rendering us incoherent to Western racial paradigms. This incoherence makes us suspicious under the globalised racial surveillance of Whiteness. In this sense, Sudanese identities/bodies threaten to harmonise the hierarchical, and therefore irreconcilable, racial dogma that one cannot be more than one thing at a time.
In the past, my Blackness and Arabness shaped my reality in mutually informing, albeit deeply disturbing, ways. The former inspired anti-black racism from non-Black Arabs, who used it as a way of denying me the latter: In non-Black, especially Arab spaces I was read as definitely Black, and in Black spaces I was read as definitely Arab. I was, in spite of myself, forced to embody alien versions of either, always at the expense of the other. So real was this process of racialisation and racial interrogation that I subconsciously internalised racist Western conceptions of what it means to be ‘Arab’ and ‘Black’. I reproduced them in public spaces as if to perform social scripts with racial sincerity. In non-Black Arab spaces I avoided speaking Arabic for fear of spawning confusion. And in Black spaces, I feared that my Arabness undermined my blackness.
Ultimately, Ahmed’s body was racialised as specifically Brown and not Black, and there are two reasons for this. First, in the context of the so-called US-led War on Terror, the term terrorist circumscribes Muslim and Brown bodies. To justify their indiscriminate bombing across the wider Middle East and North Africa, Brown Muslim bodies must be as broadly defined as possible. It’s for that reason that Ahmed, incriminated of terrorism, was profiled by his teachers and the police as a Brown Muslim man, not a Black Muslim boy.
Second, anti-Blackness within Brown and Muslim spaces constructs the victims of Islamophobia as exclusively Brown. To be Black (Muslim) is to be not a real, potential subject of Islamophobia. One ought to ask whether Ahmed’s talents would have been so widely celebrated amongst Brown Muslims if he wasn’t racially ambiguous enough to fit the few model minority tropes afforded to, say, male South Asian Muslims. Would the same numbers of Muslims and South Asians have shown their solidarity and outrage if Ahmed’s Black African heritage were more unambiguously available on his skin?
‘But Ahmed himself adopts the label “Brown” to describe his racial identity!’ I hear you say. Some have chalked this down to internalised anti-blackness. While this undeniably exists in Sudanese communities, we must distinguish between those instances and the struggle to self-narrate one’s body using a social vocabulary that is not one’s own. Being Black and Arab we are expected to communicate the nuances and histories of our bodies through the constraints of a specifically White colonial vocabulary. We fail to traverse the racial landscape because the language available to fuel such a translation is constructed around the White gaze, thereby rendering our attempts at articulation futile. If we do not consider this we risk reifying ‘Black’, decoupling ‘Black’ from social construction and using ‘Black’ in the service of Western cultural imperialism.
In this sense, Ahmed’s self-referential use of Brown reflects the struggle to approximate ‘Black-Arab’ and reconcile Africanness with Arabness. Like all of us, Ahmed has found himself caught trying to navigate a racialised world. The colonial, Western lexicon of race and racism has made it impossible to articulate Black Arab subjectivities. Its vocabulary can’t fathom Black-and-Arab except as a racial transgression, as anti-Black racial betrayal or categorical over-spillage to be mopped up, rubbed out, punished and policed whenever possible. It’s for that reason that our presence as Black and Arab is unsettling. Our identities are invisible, unthought of and unintelligible to the paradigms of Whiteness.
This failure is also strikingly visible in the coverage of the ongoing and everlasting conflict in Darfur, which has seen an unprecedented wave of destruction and organised violence erupt since 2003. Western media regularly paints the conflict as a race war between Black-Africans and non-Black Arabs. This locally non-existent binary has obfuscated the more complex causes behind the crisis, while revealing the hidden anti-Arab and anti-Black bias of the White imaginary. The rhetoric also mirrors trite representations of African wars predicated on primordial identities, in a bid to capitalise on the voyeuristic tendencies of Western populations, including those of non-Whites, who have failed to question this insidious narrative. What makes this process possible is the preexisting assumption that ‘Black’ and ‘Arab’ cannot co-exist in one geographical context, let alone one body.
Non-Black Arabs also operate on and benefit from this separation. They pit their Arabness in direct opposition to Blackness, thereby protecting their claim to Arabness, while gaining proximity to Whiteness.
My experiences and the discussions surrounding Ahmed’s body confirm that race is a Western fantasy maintained by a daily, violent socio-political choreography. In an attempt to comprehend Sudanese identity, Western racial classifications construct us as impossible paradoxes, alienating us from our bodies, histories and ways of being. The ever-shifting space between my estranged self and my legitimate self is where my trauma lies, and I will no longer nurture this space.
I refuse to rehearse the logics of race-making or dance to the imperialist drum of racialisation. I will not become digestible to Westerners and non-Black Arabs alike. I will not dilute myself into something you can understand. My complexity is necessary, and it necessitates the abolition of racial orders. I assert Black-Arabness not as a plea to integrate into the race map or gain recognition from an oppressive institution, but to announce that I am here to rattle, shake and disorient a rigid and dogmatic racial hierarchy. I am Black-Arab and I will not uphold a narrative or politics that does not name my reality. I am Black-Arab and I exist.
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Leena Habiballa is a global soul of Sudanese origin and Co-Editor at Qahwa Project. She graduated with a BSc in (neo-liberal) Genetics from University College London in 2014 and has since been doing social work in Khartoum. Her talents include 7.9 Richter-scale-measuring sneezes, half-reading 10 books simultaneously and playing the drums. Follow her on Tumblr: All Sudan Everything
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