By Rasha Almulaiki
Mariam Doudi, 24, grew up in Arab-majority Dearborn, raised by a Sudanese father and Tanzanian mother.
The self-described Afro Arab said that it “was a little tough growing up” and she navigated the earlier parts of her life by trying to hide her identity.
The “Forgotten” Arab
“Outwardly, you just see [a] Black [person] and you are not going to see the Arabness,” the financial analyst at Ford Motor Company told the Michigan Chronicle.
MENA is an ethnic category described as Middle Eastern and Northern African groups that federal government standards categorize as white.
Some of the 22 MENA countries include Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. The Arab-majority region of north Sudan is where Doudi’s father hails from.
“Many Blacks in the MENA region today claim their Blackness in North Africa and their Africanness in the Middle East as an important marker of their complex identity and to hope for more visibility in a white society,” according to Mena.fes.de.
“This endeavor has not been easy as many are still struggling with the stigma of anti-Black racism, colorism and discrimination due to their social and economic standing as still belonging in the lower stratum of society,” according to a report from Mena.fes.de. “Some are trying to accommodate themselves to their environment as a homogenized population while rejecting their blackness to fit into Arab society. But many are embracing their difference as Black or of African descent and attempting to reconcile with their white society.”
Doudi, who attended Dearborn Public Schools (and went to a primarily Arab school), can attest to feelings of “otherness” growing up and seeing some racially-motivated attacks (and experiencing microaggressions) from some Arab students toward her and other Black students. As an Afro Arab she navigated these issues looking through a unique lens.
“I grew up with insecurities. … I tried to fit in with other Arabs. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘other,’” she said, adding that even despite difficulties, she “had it easier” because people in her community treated her differently. “People got to know me.”
When attending college, she realized she was also different from many of her Black peers, too.
“I didn’t know some of the cultural significance of [African American culture],” Doudi said, as it relates to her Afro-Arab upbringing, adding that she later grew to embrace her African-based identity.
Doudi attributes her deeper acceptance of herself to the Black people in college she met who helped teach her to love herself and accept her African features. She adds there is hope for greater Black acceptance in her hometown – and she thinks the new mayoral administration is already paving the way.
“I think there is still a solution for the more marginalized people in Dearborn — Black people and Yemenis. I am all for [Mayor] Abdullah Hammoud. I think he is definitely going to make a big difference and probably going to be a solution to racism in this town — he doesn’t stand for it at all,” Doudi said.
Kapilango, a Dearborn resident and chairwoman of the Homage to Black Excellence (H2BE) in Dearborn, and a Ph.D. candidate in Racial Reconciliation and Healing, told the Michigan Chronicle in a live interview that an equity component is needed in the city to continue the work.
“So, in moving forward there has to be an equity component when it comes down to the resources of Dearborn,” she said. “Particularly in the spaces that I talked about — economic development and access to startup capital, as well as real estate. … There has to be action behind the conversation.”
Fox 2 News Anchor Josh Landon told the Michigan Chronicle in a recent live interview that having civil, candid conversations are key.
“This is what is needed to really help bridge the gap, civil candid conversations on the matter,” Landon (who is half Black and Lebanese) said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
Last year, Landon was featured in The Arab American News highlighting his background of growing up on the Eastside of Detroit (raised by a Black mother and primarily absent Lebanese father), which shaped his viewpoint on Black and Arab communities.
“I had a lot of people reach out to me – whether they’re Black or biracial from other communities, other ethnicities, other races. … I knew I affected a lot of people,” he said adding that this wasn’t about him but the broader story of race and conversation that needs to be had. “We need to continue these conversations because it makes people more comfortable expressing who they are and how they feel. And at the end of the day, we can never challenge how someone feels about anything. And if we listen to each other, if we hear each other, that will be the driving force. … and really get some things done within any community.”
Arab and Black Americans Explore Restorative Conversations
The growing push for a Critical Race Theory (CRT) inclusive curriculum in schools and public forums calls for a new approach toward navigating nuanced politics on race and its implications in the U.S. CRT seeks to examine and rectify the complicated issues of race, society and law across different disciplines.
What does this mean for the seemingly calcified anti-Black racism that is slow to repair and erode in our society?
During the era of Jim Crow, intellectual and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois harnessed the ethos of the Black American experience, asking, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
This loaded question both resoundingly identifies the history of Black people fighting a pathologized existence as a societal problem and incites a challenge directed toward the community to act and mobilize against a tyrannized existence.
In recent years, there have been efforts to host restorative and accountable community conversations between Black Americans and Arab Americans in Metro-Detroit.
In 2020, Huffington Post Black Voices ran a story, Arab and Muslim Communities Need To Talk About Anti-Blackness, detailing the long, sordid history of discrimination and the question of how Afro-Arabs contend with this.
In the piece, Maytha Alhassen, a historian of U.S. race, migration and gender who wrote her dissertation on Arab-Black solidarity, shared what is needed for authentic solidarity between both communities of color.
Alhassen said, “There are various ways that non-Black Arabs contribute to the injustice that Black people experience in the U.S. If we don’t acknowledge that, then there is no substantial solidarity that can be made.”
Amidst the national Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the Dearborn Girl podcast hosted the “Amplify Black Voices” series aimed at educating the community about anti-Black racism. The conversations centered on guiding podcast listeners toward “unlearning” the deep harmful patterns of discrimination found within the Arab American community, not unlike other communities of color with the same reconciliation.
Listeners tuned to the co-hosts, Yasmine Kadouh and Rima Fadlallah, break down the tropes and stereotypes that exist in the Arab community and emboldened other Arab Americans to practice a responsibility toward dismantling anti-Black discrimination at home.
The podcast also had a series called, “Own Your Lane,” featuring Black Arabs sharing their experiences in both communities and how they advocate being seen and taking up space. Doudi was also featured on a podcast episode.
How far do these critical discussions go toward tackling the practical reality of anti-Blackness?
Kapilango said, “Talk is good. Action is much better.”
Restorative Action Now
What are the needs of Black residents when contending with the racist history of the city they now live in?
Kapilango said answering those needs comes in the form of resources and representation in the city through an equitable allocation to all communities.
“We know through the way of the pandemic, there have been millions of dollars sent to the city of Dearborn,” said Kapilango, “And that is in the decision-making processes, and the African American community is in no way in that process as far as how it will be impacted from that.”
Kapilango and Hughes both called for a mental health component in the strategies necessary to implement a policy and cultural shift toward healing a hundred years of systemic devastation at the hands of the administration.
“We now have a new mental health director,” said Kapilango. “There need to be programs created to help African Americans release trauma that is still hovering over a large population of not only African Americans in Dearborn but Metro-Detroit.”
Referencing the 2015 and 2016 fatal Dearborn police shootings of Kevin Matthews and Janet Wilson, Hughes added that when it comes to addressing the nature of policing in Dearborn, the mental health impact on accountability for Black people is vital to safeguard their safety.
“We’ve seen in the last five, six years and even last year,” said Hughes, “[that] hose who are Black [and] have mental health disabilities when they [Dearborn police] respond to it, escalates to violence. We’ve seen police officers not be held accountable for harassment.”
Doudi said that the Dearborn youth of today have seen firsthand “all these things coming to light” and the landscape is changing with activated youth who are doing work and believe they are part of the solution for a better future.
“This generation is starting to be more conscious, be more passionate toward each other and tolerant and Dearborn is going to be an amazing place to be in,” she said, adding that she sees a future career where her reality is reflected on the big screen where she works in the entertainment industry. “I want to do content strategy … to work on Netflix trying to help influence content on-screen and help diversify it.”
Doudi said there is a familiarity within all people across cultural and geographic lines.
“Most of the time we [have connections] over food, we are connecting over music and cultural norms and mostly the same between religions,” she said.
Doudi wants to be the person in the room where diverse, fictionalized characters are the norm for Arabs, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the like.
She added that while Michigan and Metro Detroit are full of diversity, if someone never experienced an Arab person before (and only sees them portrayed negatively) then their mindset will never change.
“Media influences the way people think, act and feel,” Doudi said.