Niggas in Palestine: Addressing the Global Construction of Racism
It was my first full day by myself in Ramallah after a two week-long delegation around Palestine with Interfaith Peace Builders, and after some anxiety about making my way outside with such little Arabic skills, went to meet up with one of my IFPB friends in Manara Square. When I got to her, a man was talking to her and very soon he started talking to me. He was trying to figure out where she was from and where I was from (Somalia? Nigeria?). She presents as a white person; I’m a medium-skinned African American. It’s generally hard to figure out what aspects of our appearances garner attention in the street - our foreign tourist look, our clothing, our respective complexions, my hair, etc. Frequent calls of “hello!” or “welcome!”, “how are you?” or “where you from?” have greeted me and other IFPB friends wherever we’ve been and that was nothing new. What was new was walking through the fruit market downtown and the level of attention directed at us (me?): applause from one vendor, pointing and laughing from two young boys, and the usual round of English greetings. I’d asked my friend what emotions she went through once we exited the market. “Mostly anger,” she said, commenting that she did not expect people to act the way they did in the market when they saw me, given the rainbow of complexions within Palestinian society. While I had been bewildered, bemused, and confused (among other things), I hadn’t been angry. But hearing this comment made me think about other racial experiences I have had in Palestine, like a conversation I had with a lifeguard at the Dead Sea, who casually showed off his knowledge of the phrase “my nigga” a couple of times and as we were saying goodbye, asked if I could “pose like a nigga.”
I told my friend about this encounter and she asked what I did about it and whether the experience changed how I think or care about Palestine and my solidarity work. I didn’t say anything, I told her - we were having a friendly conversation and the way he looked to me for a response while saying the phrase suggested he was showing off how much he knew about the US and wanted some affirmation. I felt no harm intended and didn’t know how to even begin educating someone about the history of race in the US who obviously had no interaction with it beyond what the (white, money-controlled) media about black people and gangsta rap make it to Palestine and Israel. The encounter didn’t shift how I felt about Palestine, Palestinians or my work, but just gave me more to think about, I told my friend. She asked what I would do if it happened again and I said I didn’t know, as we rounded our way back to Manara.
Less than two minutes later, when we ran into my friend’s roommate on the sidewalk, a sports car with some bros pulls up and the driver yells to me, “What’s up my nigger?!” The difference between “nigger” and “nigga” is a big one to me, and I immediately felt vulnerable. “New York,” I answered in two words and without looking at the car when the guys asked where I was from. “California, yanni we’re Palestinian-Americans. WEST SIDDDEE!” one of them yelled back. I ignored them and turned to my friends. The driver called the shop owner standing behind me gay (which elicited a “fuck you!”) before driving away. We decided to keep walking. I couldn’t tell whether my friend or her roommate heard the “my nigger” greeting, but I suddenly wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible. And just as I wanted to hide, I started to feel everyone around me stare a second or two longer. I had grown used to this from traveling earlier this year—in Cape Town, people were surprised at my Americanness (and my hair); in Istanbul, people were surprised by my blackness (and my hair again—lots of thumbs up, or “I like your hair” comments). But based on these two experiences in Ramallah, the stares started to feel different.
Walking towards the Old City, we passed the bro and his friends on the sidewalk. He said hi again and I said hello back before realizing who he was. Eventually, we sat on a thin fence in the middle of a pedestrian island between three roads. I wrote in my journal trying to decompress the experience as my friend and her roommate spoke to each other. But instead of feeling better, I started feeling paranoid. We were three foreigners, and in mixed gender company, sitting in the middle of a pedestrian island on a fence that was not meant for sitting, but I was the only one noticing the looks and felt like all the stares were directed at me—and for longer than one or two seconds. Some people would comment to each other—what they said I couldn’t understand—and others would just continue to glance at us/me long after they walked by. I noticed the bros once more and completely avoided eye contact as I overheard “Look! There’s my nigger!”
My friend’s roommate left to buy some gum and I started to experience thoughts and feelings that I never have before. The world felt incredibly far away from me. I felt like every person who walked by was staring at me. Every glance suddenly became one of malice or hatred and I suddenly felt frightened. I couldn’t tell how many people were staring out of curiosity and how many were making fun/jest in some manner, but i felt like everyone was in the latter group. I couldn’t open my mouth to talk to my friend. And much as I really wanted to hop in the next taxi and teleport home, I felt glued to my seat.
I wanted to fly home immediately. I wanted never wanted to talk about Palestine again. And I couldn’t figure out how to tell this story. To ignore it would not only violate my integrity as a journalist, but also as someone in solidarity with the people of Palestine. I wrote my best friend from home for advice: never writing publicly about it seems (ironically) racist, I told her.
In other words, it would be racist of me to cover up and pretend that some Palestinians also don’t practice anti-black racism because they are a people under occupation.But I didn’t how to process it sociologically was this a result of the occupation/settler colonialism? or would it have occurred in a free palestine that exists in a world of global white supremacy/anti-blackness, in some cases). An how could I write about it honestly in ways that wouldn’t calcify any pre-existing islamophobia/fear/hatred of Arabs that people in the United States have?
My friend’s response was that we should be critical of everything - our friends most of all, and that there was no reason for me to feel guilty about describing life in Palestine in all of its complexity.
I was aware before coming to Palestine, of my tendency to characterize the whole place as one of pure oppression—all Palestinians live under occupation or discrimination (even though this varies by wealth and location). But as my friend mentioned, like all people in all other oppressed groups, some people can themselves be oppressors of others when given the chance.
Having had a night to sleep on all of this and to process through writing, I am content to share these experiences as I have just now. I do want to leave an explicit note - especially to American friends and family who read this post: this is not a story for anyone to use and say (to themselves or anyone else), “I knew those Arabs were [stereotype of your choice]! I knew there was a reason I wasn’t following what’s going on in Palestine…”
While it felt yesterday in my moment of vulnerability that everyone was staring and their glances were of contempt, this perception was triggered by the actions of two kids and a car full of bros. Bros are everywhere, as are ignorant and/or hateful people. To take the actions of a few individuals and characterize an entire society, culture, religion, ethnicity as ignorant, hateful or racist is itself ignorant, hateful and racist.
We need to recognize that just as the history of the ongoing suffering of Palestinians and the whitewashing of their oppression by the state of Israel do not make it into mainstream narratives in the United States, neither does the history of the ongoing suffering of African Americans - and other ethnic groups - or the willful ignorance of our oppression by the United States make its way into mainstream narratives in Palestine or Israel. And we have to ask ourselves why that is in each case.
Why would a West Bank Palestinian who has never been outside of the walls Israel built around him see an African American and excitedly ask him to “pose like a nigga?” What media and information went into his association of “black man” with “nigga” (or “gangsta”)? Who controls that media and what information aren’t they sharing about black people? And why would an American who has not been outside the walls the US build around them read this post think any of the number of things they think about Palestinians, or Arab people generally? What media and information go into our associations? Who controls that media and what information aren’t they sharing about people in Palestine? (Hint: if it’s not the same corporations, interests and individuals in both cases, it’s very similar corporations, interests and people.)
The only way to truly address these issues within and between our communities is to recognize that the enemy is not the person or people closest to us, it is the entities and interests that keep us under occupation - behind the walls of a state or behind the walls of a ghetto (or a gated community). The images that we internalize about other cultures, and the images that we internalize about our own, are used to distract our attention from larger questions of justice and liberation. Through providing an honest, open, and experience-based lens into my own life and life in Palestine, I hope to get us back on track.
Follow Kristian’s travels at PostcardsfromPalestine.com.