Photo: Handout

“Do not judge people without their knowledge; there is no difference between black and white.” For Khadija Ben Hamou, the recently crowned Miss Algeria, there was no better way to say it: Racism hurts.

In January after Khadija, 26, became the second black woman and first southerner to win the national pageant, online trolls attacked her with slurs about her complexion and facial features. Some shared photographs that exaggerated her looks in an attempt to make her appear “ugly.” Apologists for the trolls quickly jumped in to say that in Algeria, like most of North Africa, “beauty” is often defined by the tone of one’s skin – the whiter, it seems, the better.

But this vile logic is not contained to North Africa, of course. Across the Middle East and the South Asian subcontinent, the brisk sale of whitening creams and other similar products attests to the breadth and depth of racial prejudice. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – like the rest of the world – racism persists.

It was only eight years ago that the Saudi-based Gandour food company, which was founded in Lebanon in 1857, gave in to pressure and renamed its popular Ras Al Abed chocolate-marshmallow candy. The original name roughly translates to “head of a slave,” while the new name, Tarboosh, describes a traditional cone-shaped hat. But repackaging confections is one thing. To upend the region’s racial biases truly, we need more than new branding. We need a new outlook. And we need more people like Khadija Ben Hamou, people who are willing to speak up for what’s right.

Beauty is subjective; racism is not. Throughout history, hate and xenophobia have fueled suffering, genocide and war. Knowing the pain that racism inflicts, you would assume people would eventually learn their lesson. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise

Beauty is subjective; racism is not. Throughout history, hate and xenophobia have fueled suffering, genocide and war. Knowing the pain that racism inflicts, you would assume people would eventually learn their lesson. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Consider the case of Sondos Alqattan, a social-media influencer and blogger in Kuwait. Last year, Alqattan came under fire when she criticized a new law giving foreign domestic workers one day off a week and access to their passports. “How can one keep a maid at home and not keep her passport?” she mused. “One has no clue what happens during those days when her passport is in her possession.”

Some brands stopped working with Alqattan immediately, but months later she appears to have survived the incident unscathed. Big brands still sponsor her, and her Instagram account has actually grown by 300,000 followers, to 2.6 million at last count.

To be sure, many in the region are far more enlightened. While migrant workers continue to suffer discrimination, the status quo is being challenged. For instance, a number of new laws – like the one in Kuwait – seek to improve the working conditions for those most at risk of racial targeting. Yet these laws still fall short of international legal conventions, and by themselves will do little to change discriminatory attitudes.

I will never forget the outpouring of support in Lebanon for the manager of a beach resort who, in 2009, kicked out a group of domestic workers when they tried to use a public swimming pool. Western observers and foreign workers were shocked, but many Lebanese were divided in opinion. Fortunately, since then there has been a shift in attitude and understanding due to awareness campaigns in Lebanon, and so the response today to such an incident would be different.

It is never acceptable to discriminate. When Arabs and Muslims find themselves discriminated against in the West, the response from their home countries are outrage, cries of “Islamophobia,” and demands for justice and fair treatment. A similar reaction is needed when the victims of racism are guests of Arabs themselves, and when the perpetrators are our friends, family members and colleagues.

There are learned components to hatred. Surrounding ourselves with racist people, or living in environments that lack diversity, affects how we interpret differences. Research also suggests that once hateful ideologies are embedded, they can be difficult to dislodge. Even with counseling or training, biases can pop up where we least expect them. According to the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders, racism can be classified as a “public health pathogen.” And, like most illnesses, recovery is a long process.

For victims of this disease, people like Khadija Ben Hamou, the symptoms are easier to spot than the cure. But this much is clear: Whether we live in the MENA region or elsewhere, the search for an antidote to racism can only begin with ourselves.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Rym Tina Ghazal

Rym Tina Ghazal, currently based in Saudi Arabia, is editor-in-chief of Ithraeyat Magazine, an art and culture publication.

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