Why We Need to Start Talking About Race, Class, and Gender Discrimination With Our Arab Parents

By: Lolwah Salem

Growing up Arab you find yourself in an environment deeply rooted in tradition and a way of life that’s rarely interchangeable. However, as teens in the day and age of technology and social media, we see these ‘traditions’ as absurd, and to us that’s just common sense, which to our parents sounds insane. How bad is it anyway? 

Now, to many onlookers, Arabs being racist doesn’t really make much sense, like a minority hating on other minorities? Sometimes within the same group?? 

So much of our culture includes some form of racial superiority, and we find that people from the Gulf/MENA region perceive themselves as better than those from other regions, and vice versa. Sometimes they’ll even try and pass it on to their children, and raise them with the idea that they’re the best and no one deserves to be treated with respect because of that. As a generation more in touch with the world than previous ones, we’re relatively aware that everyone deserves an equal chance and doesn’t deserve to be discriminated against because of their race. Our parents don’t see it like that. Which is why you’ll probably hear “how are you friends with them? They aren’t (insert race or nationality here)”.

Since we’re young and aren’t in positions of power just yet, we need to let them know our generation will not stand for things we find unjust, in doing so we need to explain how they are so. On top of this, we find that colorism, in particular, has become casual in our culture, we deem white or light-skinned people of ‘x’ nationality more important, or valid as opposed to black or dark-skinned people of the same nationality. We see this in how our parents discuss beauty bloggers in the region, for example, lighter skins are deemed more successful and ‘like-able’ than any of their dark skin counterparts. Whereas we’ve become blind to the difference and simply like them for their content and personality. Much of our society still sees color as a sign of superiority or inferiority, and it is now up to us to change that. 

In Arab culture, we’ve adapted to thinking social class determines a person. We’ve been conditioned too often to be friends with upper-class people “ oh my god you should date him, I heard his parents are loaded.” Or “ why aren’t you talking to her? she can barely afford to be here”. Despite this being rooted in many cultures, Arabs take it one step further, and to me, it’s partly due to them thinking monetary independence is the endgame in life. Which we’ve learned isn’t. Our job, as their kids is to make sure they don’t discriminate against our friends and the people they meet in their day to day lives, just because of how much they’ve got to their name. This way we can ensure the people making the decisions we have to live with don’t make them on their terms, but rather base them off of what the people have to offer and what they’ve been through. 

Honestly, Arab culture over the years tends to victimize women and portray them as overly emotionally damsels in distress as well as idolizing men as emotionless knights in shining armor. We’re aware of the damage this causes us and our friends, but to our parents, it’s all they know. Growing up like that, we have more men than ever that are afraid to show emotion in fear of being called a pussy, a girl – which somehow became an insult – or even worse “not a real man.” On the other hand, we have women who’ve grown afraid to do traditionally masculine things out of fear of being called butch, unfeminine or ‘from the streets’.

We need to help our parents recognize that men are allowed to wear whatever they want and cry on someone’s shoulder, without erasing their masculinity, and that women are allowed to swear and dress in button-ups without erasing their feminine self. Through this discussion we need to emphasize to our parents and older relatives that what they pass off as ‘casual comments’ can really take a toll on this, for example growing up I was told my curly hair made me look messy and unprofessional, and as something I couldn’t change, it took a toll on me mentally.

Furthermore, hearing our parents compare us to other children, male or female, has been such a large part of our lives and weighed us down for many years no doubt. We were always too afraid to tell them how we feel but this is our chance, to educate them that these words go much further than the conversation. 

So now we know that we know how our parents see things, how they’re different, and why now more than ever it’s important to change their outlook. In today’s day and age, where we accept anyone and everyone, there’s no room for discrimination of any sort. So how can we change them, for the better? How can we erase what to us is common sense, but to them, is everything they’ve ever known? Well that’s why we’re here, to start the conversation. Here’s how 

● Ease your parents into the conversation 

● Don’t immediately force change on them 

● Try and explain the situation while correlating it to things they understand and care about; ie; linking the fact that unfair judgement is frowned upon, from a religious POV, etc. 

● Be patient. We’ve lived our whole lives with this mindset, they have to unlearn it. It will take time. 

Changing someone’s point of view is hard, let alone a view they’ve had for 30+ years, so begin by just starting the conversation.

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