What it means to be black and African in Lebanon

Black Lives Matter protest in the US. Photo by James Eades on Unsplash.

By Claudette Igiraneza, co-founder of @SolaceGirls, fellow at @Resolutionproj, @MCNpartners and @CGIU, and alumnae at @AUBMCF and @AUB_Lebanon.

Racial discrimination against black people is an allegation that no Lebanese wants to be associated with. In fact, the majority of Lebanese think that they are not racist and that there is no racism in Lebanon at all.

However, the experiences of black people who live, visit, or study in Lebanon say otherwise. Over 90% of the 21 black African students testifying here reported facing racial discrimination during their time in Lebanon.

One of the main excuses Lebanese people give for denying to be racist is that Lebanon is a sectarian country and that Lebanese people only discriminate among themselves. Thus, black people should never feel bad for being discriminated against and instead  should be grateful that they are not killed like in other countries.

Moreover, to many Lebanese, Lebanon is still recovering from the effects of the 1975-1990 civil war, so the Lebanese haven’t totally reached a stage of trusting strangers so choosing to discriminate against them instead, is the least of all evils.

Here are stories from twenty-one black African students who have been studying and or graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon.

Their stories prove that racism against black people is prevalent in Lebanon and, as long as the Lebanese community continues to be in denial of its racist behaviors and systems, Lebanon will never become a place where people of all races will ever feel welcomed or accepted.

These stories were compiled in a survey that was administered to Sub-Saharan students at AUB.

In this survey, 91% of students reported experiencing some form of racial discrimination during their time in Lebanon (both on AUB campus and off campus), and 48% reported facing sexual harassment or assault during their time in Lebanon.

Student 1:

I faced racial profiling and harassment by AUB protection officers and cleaners in many instances. I received patronizing tags and statements from some professors who think that because you come from Africa, you should not know anything. I was faced with aggressive sexual demands from a gay taxi driver while on a fully paid-ride because he thinks black males have big penises, attempting to stop the taxi in the middle of the bridge, and taking lonely route, and risking safety to try to touch me. I was randomly called names on the streets, sometimes by little children. Some children were spitting on me from their high rise building with their parents watching and looking away despite my drawing their attention. Taxi drivers routinely stop in the middle of a trip and ask me to leave their vehicles when they find Lebanese passengers. That happens every other day. It was only once that one of the passengers said no, don’t do that to him because he is Black. All other times, the people just enter and start looking at you with so much pity.

Student 2:

One teacher failed me deliberately even after reporting that I was sick, presented all the medical documents but still, she referred to my sickness as a minor issue and just like she earned me a zero in class despite doing everything. I faced her, I pleaded even though it was clear that my late submission of my assignment was justified with my medical forms, she didn’t want to listen. others who missed were pardoned; I wasn’t. She plainly told me, I was old enough to know what the truth was, she compared me with all my classmates and gave me a conclusion that to my age, I couldn’t do that. She treated me in the way that I felt like I didn’t matter, like she could do anything since I was Black. I remember when she gave an example that as Blacks have a low IQ yet I was in class studying. She constantly reminded me of how grateful I should be for being there. Many go through even worse, but they report because it’s the same old story, nothing is done. Another case was with students, especially those that live in dormitories. I was always facing these girls in the elevators, whenever they could see me, they could turn the other way like they had met an animal. it’s bad.

Student 3: 

I remember during my first year at AUB, students would refuse to sit next to me in class. I would sit and the two chairs next to me were always empty and this made me question whether I smelled or there was something else which was wrong with me. This changed when I was doing academically well, and students started befriending me and sitting next to me. Also, students would refuse to work in groups with me and this significantly affected my mental health and academics. Regarding, sexual harassment; I was once kissed by a taxi driver and I was often asked by Lebanese men ” how much”: a question that Lebanese men ask Black women when they want to know how much they should pay to sleep with them. It is a pity that Lebanese men think that all Black women in Lebanon are prostitutes.

Student 4: 

I remember when at the AUB swimming pool I met a guy who was alone in one of the rows. We were supposed to swim with two people in a row and when he saw me, he asked me if I could wait until he was done. I refused to wait for him because I did not have the time.  After that he realized that I was in the swimming pool, he left the pool because I had stepped in the pool where he was swimming. I felt racially discriminated against because the guy refused to swim in the same pool with me because I am Black.  The second incident I was in Burj-hammoud, with my hairdresser and a guy came towards us shouting while touching his private parts he was calling.”Afrikia come, come” while pointing at his horny pointed trousers., I was surprised that people around us were just laughing and they never did anything to stop him from what he was doing.

Student 5: 

My story is a series of things that happened to me in class and they caused me depression.  The first class I had; the professor had asked me to share seats with a fellow student because I did not have a laptop.  The next day when I went to sit with her again, she moved and changed seats. I cried but thank God I got a laptop a few days later.  Secondly, my classmates created a separate WhatsApp group for the class where I wasn’t included as the only Black student in class. Also, sometimes I would present and this girl in class made it her duty to make my life miserable. She turned the class against me. Sometimes I would catch them back biting me. Other times. I would present in class and they intentionally make me look bad. To make it worse is most of the professors were blind to the discrimination. Also, One professor gave me poor grades based on feedback from someone I had never worked with.  Another professor gave me poor grades because I had poor interactions with the rest of the class. I spent the last week of my semester trying to explain to professors what I was going through and fighting for my grades. it took a toll on my mental health. I just thank God I finished and passed. Just know that those days whenever I would think about it I would cry sometimes. Class was very stressful. I was happy when the October Lebanese revolution started because I didn’t have to see my classmates.

Student 6: 

I remember one day I was with my African friends and we went to visit one of our friends at AUB Medical Center and when we reached there, they stopped us. They didn’t let us in while other people with different skin color were passing freely. We talked to them for a while and one security man asked us if we were AUB students and from our answer which was yes they allowed us to go inside. I really felt bad and discriminated against that time.

Student 7:  

My worst moment in Lebanon is during shopping. There is no freedom to move from aisle to aisle because there is always someone behind me to guard me just to make sure I don’t shoplift anything. Just because I’m black 😦

Student 8:

The most recent discrimination case that happened to me was at the airport when I was flying back home for my practicum.  So, I had forgotten my laptop at the house. So, I rush back out after checking in, the security guy tells me I can’t leave unless my madam is there. I have thick skin. I scolded him and left; I am not about that business of letting people put me down.

Student 9: 

When I arrived at AUB, my first roommate was Arab, she was from Egypt. She was not happy that her roommate was Black. She would show signs that she was not happy staying with me to the extent that she had to look for another roommate. Also, in class when doing group works, my classmates did not want to work with me. “Maybe they thought Black people are not intelligent; so they did not want to risk their grades working for me”. One time, I paired up to work on an assignment with a classmate, I could see that she was struggling understanding the material. When I asked her if we could ask for extra time from the professor to finish the work, she asked me: “ do you want me to start teaching you?”. In my heart, I thought I was doing her a favor and instead she thought I was incompetent to work on the assignment with her.

Student 10:  

I was called chocolate frequently off campus. Also, my colleagues and I were often stopped at the AUB gate and in the gym whenever we passed while my White friends were never stopped at the gate and the gym.  I was also frequently ignored by Lebanese students.

Student 11: 

A policeman once grabbed my butt, and this has been my nightmare during my time in Lebanon.

Student 12:

I want to talk about the use of Arabic language in the classrooms at AUB. As an international student I have felt offended several times when professors teach in Arabic and they are aware of my presence and lack of Arabic speaking skills. Although AUB has placed such behaviors under the grey zone it is still a problem.

Student 13:

I faced racial discrimination mostly with my Lebanese classmate, they don’t like working with me whenever we have group work because I am Black.

Student 14:

I went shopping and a Whiteman approached and asked me if I wanted a job as a domestic worker. I replied with a no, but he still tried to convince me. Just because the majority of Black women in Lebanon are migrant domestic workers, it does not mean Black women cannot go to universities.

Student 15:

I went into a mall after church to buy a few items and when I reached the cashier’s desk I was asked, who will pay, where is your madam? I was disappointed because the only thing Lebanese think when they see a Black woman is that she is a migrant domestic worker living at the mercy of their madam. Lebanese don’t think of Black women as women can live freely or afford expensive things.

Student 16:

At the AUB gym, I was groped, stalked, and received inappropriate messages from students and staff.

Student 17:

I faced racial slur, racial profiling, and mild assaults.

Student 18:

I faced black racial biases at the Lebanese General Security While applying for my residence permit.

Student 19:

I frequently get called some Arabic words saying something about my body.

Student 20:

If I think that about the discrimination and racism that I went through in Lebanon, this will bring a traumatic experience to memory. I already completed my studies and moved to my home country and I no longer want to think about it.

Student 21:

When I was hospitalized in AUB medical center, a lady refused to share a room with me because I was Black, and she thought I was a migrant domestic worker.

These stories of these AUB students add to the tragic incidents of racism, homicides, and suicides that hundreds of Sub-Saharan African domestic workers face. Lebanon is home to 250,000 migrant domestic workers who mainly come from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asian countries. In addition to being excluded from the Lebanese labor law (Kafala system) and working under barbarous conditions, these women frequently face racial discrimination, assaults and harassments ranging from physical, psychological to sexual. In fact, Human Right Watch reports that 1-2 migrant domestic workers die every week as results of homicide and suicide prompted by their living and working conditions.

Thus, it’s time that the Lebanese society admits that it has a deep-rooted racism problem against Black people in general if it seeks to move forward to end racism all together. Black people in Lebanon have not been in any way conspirators nor the cause of Lebanese social and political problems that is often reflected in socio-economic and religious mistrust. It is hypocritical of Lebanon and Lebanese to forget that during the civil war, many Lebanese sought haven in many African countries, lived and thrived among Blacks and continue to benefit in trade from the resources of our continent, sometimes sent in form remittances back in Lebanon. Yet, Lebanon has failed to abolish the Kefala system, a sponsorship system that has perpetrated a form of modern slavery and erases the acknowledgement that domestic workers play in upholding the stability of many Lebanese families by raising the next generation. It is in these same families that children are socialized to practice racism on Black maids as part of holding still the affluent Lebanese identity while at the same time, are shown that to achieve social elevation lies practicing with some forms Whiteness and consumerism. These later become the Students, Professors, security guards, cleaners, taxi drivers …and random people these Black African students meet on the streets or certain spaces that manifest into the aforementioned cases as shown in the confessions or stories above. Lebanon and Lebanese need to do better!

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