Written By: Lina Abdul-Samad.
“Drop the A-word.”*
The Arab community knows this word all too well; “Abeed” is a derogatory Arabic slang term that is used to refer to Black people. This word is almost synonymous with the N- word. The main difference between these two racist terms is that the N-word is considered to be more pejorative than the word “abed” because “abed” literally translates to slave in proper Arabic.
While the use of this word is downright racist, what bothers me most is the way this slur is used. Unlike the N-word, which is considered to fall under profane language, “abed” is not a trigger word among Arabs. Most painfully, it used as a description. Arabs usually label a Black person as “abed,” not as a person with black skin.
The Arab world suffered from colorism before the vampire of colonialism slurped the Arab veins. tweet
This slur is deeply penetrated into everyday Arabic conversations. You can hear it at the gas station, on your way to work, during family gatherings, and even on social media posts. Just search up the word on Twitter. You’ll get a long list of tweets directing using this term, defending its use, or raising awareness of the snake-like racism slithering in the four lettered slur.
The use of “abed” and “abeed” (plural form) directly reflects the structural issue of racism in the Arab community. The darker you are, the less “fortunate” you are as a person. The Arab world suffered from colorism before the vampire of colonialism slurped the Arab veins. White skin is and has always been considered pristine and exemplary, whereas black skin is seen as a burden.
Why is it so hard to convince others that racism isn’t sweet? tweet
Another example of how this word has sunk its teeth into Arab culture is demonstrated through a popular delicacy called “Ras Al-Abed.” The literal translation of this bonbon is “The Slave’s Head.” This delicacy is a chocolate covered delight with a whipped-cream filling that supposedly resembles the shape of a person’s head. Thankfully, the word has been replaced with the term “tarboosh” which translates to mean a fez.
While the word replacement is appropriate, (as the bonbon resembles a fez far more than it resembles a person’s head and not to mention that it is, well, not racist), the actual exchange of the phrase is not pervasive. You are far more likely to hear someone ask for “Ras Al-Abed” at a supermarket than you are to hear someone asking for a box of “tarboosh.” Why is it so hard to convince others that racism isn’t sweet?
As an Arab, it is difficult to persuade fellow Arabs to “drop the A-word.” While the A-word usually slips off their tongues without second thought, the term is malicious. Arabic-speakers must show offense when the A-word is used. By showing such offense and shedding light on why this term is linguistically violent, awareness is raised. When awareness is raised, breaking the shackles of colorism and racism in our Arab communities becomes slightly more possible.
*Drop the A-word campaign is a 2014 initiative carried out by a Muslim Arab-American group in the Detroit area. This Muslim American group is trying to combat racism in their community with this by urging to stop using the infamous Arabic slur for people of African descent.
Lina Abdul-Samad is a Palestinian-American who often writes essays, poems, and short stories on her blog: https://linasthoughtsandwords.wordpress.com/