The not-so-lovely Lebanon: The growing role of racism in this MENA locale

Published March 27th, 2014 - 01:00 GMT

In a country where racial classifications create social hierarchies that assert the superiority of white skin and Caucasian features, and the inferiority of “black” skin and Asian features, interracial and interethnic couples in Lebanon are abhorred, stigmatized and socially ostracised.

“I’m a stranger in my own country,” Saeb Kayali, a Thai-Lebanese, told Al-Akhbar.

“Demeaning gestures, head-shaking, stares, and under-the-breath comments are the most passive of the reactions we get in public,”“I remember once a woman asked my friend, who happened to be right next to me, if I spoke Arabic,” Kayali said, “And I always get questions like ‘Where are you from? Lebanon. No, where are you really from? Ummm, Lebanon. No, like where are your parents originally from?’ And even after I explicitly tell them that I’m Lebanese they just continue asking.” 

As Kayali narrated countless instances of “misunderstandings,” Lebanon’s racial bigotry, whether conscious or unconscious, and the long-ingrained notions of racial inequality, are very clearly present in today’s society.

Power institutions, including the societal body, are not only combating interfaith marriages but also interracial ones. While the need to overcome the former has vigorously surfaced in the last few years, the latter is still to be acknowledged and defied.

“Demeaning gestures, head-shaking, stares, and under-the-breath comments are the most passive of the reactions we get in public,” Pi, a Filipino woman married to a Lebanese man, told Al-Akhbar.

Racial intolerance in Lebanon has caused the alienation of mixed-race couples from family members, who disown them for marrying someone they consider to be ‘inferior.’ People of African or Asian heritage are automatically associated with allegedly ‘inferior’ domestic workers by virtue of their phenotype, and their identity is accordingly erased and replaced by an array of racist stereotypes.

“At first we didn’t even hold hands in public. Then I asked him how is it okay for others to express hatred but not for us to express love?” Pi added, “now we act like any endogamous couple and if someone is disturbed he or she can simply look away.”

“His family didn’t speak to him for five years,” Pi said, “they didn’t even know me, but my Filipino features were more than enough reason for them to disapprove of our marriage.”

According to Rana Boukarim, spokeswoman for the Anti Racism Movement in Lebanon, “Many families eventually come to accept the interracial marriages, which may be seen as a decrease in racism. However, when questioned, these family members, who were initially against the idea, often say ‘but she is different from other Filipinas’.”

Moreover, couples who are driven by love to cross the color line face socially-constructed derision because they, and their mixed-race children, provoke the invisible yet existing laws of racial segregation.

“I remember one time, light-skinned Lebanese students refused to sit next to an Afro-Lebanese kid because they thought his dark skin color was ‘contagious’ and they feared they would turn black.”Mixed-race children face blatant racism at school as their fellow classmates fail to censor their speech. While interracial couples are mentally and psychologically aware of notions of race and the difficulties that might be ahead in ethnically homogenous communities, their children are not.

“Back in preschool, kids used to call me ‘blacky’ or ‘Oreo’ as if my skin color is my name and identity,” Walid Yassine, a 22-year-old Congolese-Lebanese told Al-Akhbar.

“I was called ‘the Chinese kid’,” Kayali said, “even though I’m not half Chinese to begin with.”

Thrust into a world of racial stereotyping, mixed-race children experience disparities in self-esteem, self-degradation, and identity-related struggles. Unless the child is aware of his or her mixed heritage, overcoming the internal turmoil that could result from such confusion could take a lifetime.

“I felt different and I knew I looked different but I didn’t understand why I was treated differently,” Gabi Kheil, a 24-year-old Gabonese-Lebanese told Al-Akhbar.

According to Charles Nasrallah, founder and director of Insan Association, when introducing an Afro-Lebanese to a class full of light-skinned Lebanese children the first reaction has always been very aggressive and abusive.

“We’ve had incidents where the students would spit on the dark-skinned kid, call him names such as ‘chocolate’ or ‘Sri Lanka boy,’ push him around and beat him, throw water at him ‘to wash the dirt off his face,’ and refuse to engage him in playground activities,” Nasrallah said.

“I remember one time, light-skinned Lebanese students refused to sit next to an Afro-Lebanese kid because they thought his dark skin color was ‘contagious’ and they feared they would turn black.”

Ensuring a healthy educational experience for multiracial children by enrolling them in a school that celebrates cultural diversity is not an option in Lebanon. Mixed-race Lebanese experience conflict and periods of maladjustment during their development process, something that the association seeks to address.

“All schools in Lebanon lack racial tolerance,” Nasrallah added, “thats why we founded the Insan school and the Insan program to psychologically support and prepare marginalized students, including biracial ones, for the integration in a Lebanese school.”

“Adaptation and acculturation became easier as I grew up,” Yassine said, “Once my classmates were able to see beyond the color of my skin, making friendships wasn’t a problem anymore.”

“Children can be the meanest, but they are also the first to rise above racist stereotypes and garner acceptance,” Nasrallah declared, “once they get to know each other, the dark skinned student and his classmates tend to become good friends.”

Prejudices and preconceived notions have yet to be dispelled from Lebanon’s society largely because regular and intimate contact with those considered to be racially different is not fostered and encouraged.

The implications of these stereotypes go so far as to affect the social class and job opportunities of biracial Lebanese.

Kheil experienced direct racism when she worked as a flight attendant for Middle East Airlines.

“A Lebanese woman got furious after I accidentally bumped the trolley into her chair,” Kheil said, “ I apologized but she felt offended when a ‘black’ woman like myself dared to address her and tell her to calm down.”

According to Kheil, the woman, who bragged about holding a British passport, called her demeaning names and directly referred to the “inferiority” of her dark skin.

Even though Kheil called security and filed a complaint, nothing happened.

“If we were in Britain this woman would have been detained and the racism wouldn’t have passed unnoticed,” Kheil exclaimed, “but unfortunately we are in Lebanon.”

Kheil quit her job and hasn’t been able to find one since.

“I thought I was being self-conscious but one company manager made it clear that I’m ‘too dark’ for the position,” Kheil added.

“I wasn't accepted in many jobs because they thought my looks would ‘shock’ customers,” Kayali said, “but I learned to take advantage of my unique looks and I applied to Chinese and Japanese restaurants where I was instantly accepted.”

But according to Ahmad Dhayne, an Afro-Lebanese young man, this has not been the case.

“I have never experienced direct racism in the workforce because my confidence and my attitude demand that people respect me,” Dhayne told Al-Akhbar.

Born to an Ivorian mother, Ahmad’s Lebanese father passed away while his mother was still pregnant with him.

“At age two my uncle brought me with him to Lebanon because my mother wanted me to have a better life,” Dhayne said, “due to multiple reasons I lost contact with her for 18 years.”

In 2011, 20-year-old Ahmad decided to go to Africa and reconnect with his mother.

“I feel Lebanese and despite my skin color I have never felt anything but Lebanese,” Dhayne added, “but I also wanted to embrace my African heritage and my Lebanese family supported me in my decision. It was the best decision I have ever made. I feel very blessed and very special.”

While Dhayne was lucky to have a family that tolerated, embraced, and even celebrated his African heritage, others lack this support system.

“A Congolese acquaintance married a Lebanese man and they had a child. When the husband died, the Lebanese family took the child away from the mother so they ‘could raise him to be Lebanese.’ The child grew up hating his African heritage,” Boukarim stated.

“Lack of knowledge and communication make for hostile attitudes,” Nasrallah affirmed.

However, this is starting to slowly but steadily change.

Embracing Lebanese mixed-marriages only if they include European or fair-skinned individuals is an unfortunate characteristic still very much present in Lebanon’s society, deeming those with white skin and Caucasian features as superior to others.In today’s ‘global village’ the opportunity to interact with different races has dramatically expanded. Even though today’s generation care less about racial segmentations, in matters of intimacy mixed-race individuals face challenges similar to the ones their parents confronted in the past.

“I dated a Lebanese girl for two years until her father found out,” Yassine said, “he almost had a heart attack when he saw that I was dark skinned.”

“And do you know what the funny, or perhaps sad, part is? She is half Lebanese half Ukrainian,” Yassine added, “a man in an interracial marriage and has mixed-race children rejected me because I’m mixed-race.”

“One thing that has always bothered me is that my French-Lebanese friend is endorsed by others despite her mixed-race origins just because she is blonde with European features,” Kayali declared.

Embracing Lebanese mixed-marriages only if they include European or fair-skinned individuals is an unfortunate characteristic still very much present in Lebanon’s society, deeming those with white skin and Caucasian features as superior to others.

The history of systematic subjugation in addition to the enclosed patterns of discrimination still at play has left an enduring scar on the psyche of darker-skinned Lebanese that today many tend to use skin bleaching, straighten and dye their hair, and even undergo surgery to get certain European-based phenotypical characteristics that might give them a sense of belonging.

Nasrallah narrated an incident where a Syrian boy and a Lebanese-Gabonese boy were pulled over by the police as they were on their way to the Insan Association. The officers only demanded the papers of the Lebanese-Gabonese because of the color of his skin.

“The officers wanted the papers of the dark-skinned Lebanese and not the light-skinned non-Lebanese,” Nasrallah stated, “how can one expect the citizens not to be racist when even the police, who supposedly represent the government and state, are racist?”

Even though the Lebanese constitution states that “all Lebanese are equal in the eyes of the law,” having a weak government bureaucracy with legal loopholes permits unequal access and little protection of mixed-race Lebanese. National cohesion is almost non-existent because Lebanon lacks national programs that promote multiculturalism and racial tolerance.

A survey of Lebanese resorts conducted by Lebanese NGO IndyAct in 2013 shows that all of the 20 beaches investigated barred domestic workers from Asia and Africa from going into the pool.

“A dark-skinned ambassador’s wife was asked to get out of the swimming pool in one of Lebanon’s resorts because she was mistaken for a maid,” Nasrallah said, “In Lebanon even the elite cannot escape racial discrimination.”

Even though Lebanon's government has warned beach clubs against any internal regulations based on race or nationality, discriminatory acts persist without legal repercussions.

“Neither the constitution nor the judicial system can help you when you experience chronic racism,” Kheil declared, “you need to fight back on your own every time.”

“I realized that one can fight racial hierarchy with social hierarchy. When I go out with my friends for lunch we sometimes pretend that I’m the son of Thailand’s ambassador in Lebanon and suddenly everyone treats me differently… with more respect,” Kayali said.

“I don’t let race over determine my existence,” Dhayne stated, “on the contrary, I make others feel that they are unfortunate for having a single racial heritage.”

By Rana Harbi

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