If I got a Euro for every time I’ve been asked if women could drive in my home country, I’d probably be able to afford a car. Being a Lebanese student at the UvA, I’ve experienced a fair share of implicit racism when telling others I have an Arab background. It has put me in difficult situations in which I felt like that aspect of my identity was something of less importance to my White counterparts. While these racist interactions vary, they more or less follow the same story each time: stereotypical Western views and comments on Arab cultures. Many fellow Arab students have encountered similar experiences of everyday racism from their peers at our university. Everyday racism was coined by Philomena Essed and highlights the lived experience in which structural forces of racism are upheld by everyday interactions. Here, I open up a short conversation about everyday Arab racism at the UvA with stories shared by some of its students.
I asked other Arab classmates at the UvA if they had any stories to share regarding their experiences with everyday racism. I reference them anonymously for privacy reasons (names known by editors). One student told me that, on various occasions, other students had mocked her for being Arab. Comments in passing like ‘you’re so pretty for an Arab’ or ‘your English is very good for an Arab’ may sound minor, but racist interactions tend to accumulate. After a while, they don’t feel coincidental or insignificant anymore. Another student explained that there’s always an issue with Arab name pronunciations. We often hear that our names are too foreign or contain strange letters. Some students shared that their White classmates never really made an effort to call their names correctly. I’ve experienced the latter, and it can be quite provoking, especially when other students suddenly make up nicknames for you instead of trying to learn how to say your name right. Another student told me about an experience with her European classmate calling certain Arabic dialects ‘dirty’ or less equal to others. The Arab students I talked to could all relate to being asked stereotypical questions about their home countries. A student explained that most of the racist interactions she’d experienced were implicit or in passing. Even if people are curious and are just trying to understand cultural differences, a question like ‘aren’t you forced to cover up over there?’ can seem very generalising and reductive of the diversity of Arab histories and identities.
When Arab students get together, implicit or everyday racism is a regular topic of conversation because it’s something we’ve all experienced. A student even called this standard behaviour. These stories concern micro-interactions but accumulate enough to spark a flame in many Arab identities at the UvA. But, to try to solve a problem, we must first acknowledge that there is one. With more discussion about decolonisation in universities, I encourage us to tackle all sorts of prejudices surrounding all BIPOC at the UvA. We must not only read about them but listen to their personal experiences as well. I feel as though many Arabs who experience everyday racism don’t talk about it because it concerns small comments and interactions. But these small experiences matter. We must start small and encourage change on a more individual level at the UvA. By having these conversations, it will be easier for students from various cultures to connect instead of letting their differences divide them. And to answer that burning question, yes, women can drive in my home country.