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Arabs, the N-Word and the A-Word Are the Same

Arabs, the N-Word and the A-Word Are the Same

a-word

Written By: Lina Abdul-Samad.


“Drop the A-word.”*

Abed. Abeed.

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.

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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/

View Comments (8)
  • “White skin is and has always been considered pristine and exemplary, whereas black skin is seen as a burden.”

    While, I agree, that antiblackness is certainly evident in Arab communities, I think you might be simplifying the history of a people by painting over centuries of history like that. Looking into that history of the origins of Arab antiblackness would be very important before making that kind of essentialist statement.

  • By the way, I thought that the “Drop the A’word”- campaign was started by Dawud Walid, an African-American imam, scholar and activist at CAIR. (Center of American Islamic Relations), indeed in Detroit. But it’s a Muslim group, not an Arab American group, or even specifically Arab. https://dawudwalid.wordpress.com/tag/abeed/

  • “This slur is deeply penetrated into everyday Arabic conversations.”

    That’s not surprising since slavery still exists and was only recently made illegal in large parts of the Arab speaking world. For example, slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962 when they yielded to pressure from the West to reform. Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and made it a criminal offense in 2007. One can expect enforcement of anti-slavery laws to be weak in such places, and enforcement of politically correct vocabulary even weaker.

  • I think this is the stupidest article, EVER!

    The language and context is not taken into account in this article.

    1- Negros in Spanish means black. The word “nigger” derives from that word and it’s use in the Anglophone society during slavery deems it inflammatory.

    2- Know that because you have no black Arab friends, it doesn’t mean that Arabs comes in different colours and sizes. For example, Sudan, (the word derives from the word “black”) is an Arab nation who have full respect and admiration throughout Arab world.

    3-
    ‘Abed’ = slave
    ‘Aswad’= black
    ‘Zinji’= is the colloquial term which means “nigger” and it is derived from the Persian word Zanki or the tribe of East Africans that most of the early ‘black’ slaves came from.

    4- Slaves in Arab world were not just black people, they included all sorts under the term ‘sabi’ as part of the booty of war. Something isis is doing now which used to be done by the WHOLE world in the Middle Ages.

    5- Whoever wrote this article clearly has no Arab black friends, nor has any understanding of the fundamentals of the language. She is also a Palestinian origin, where 99% of the population is white.

    6- ‘Ras el-Abed’ is a Palestinian sweet. It has other names like karboosh etc.

    In Arabic ‘Abed’ is a word used as a name. ‘Um el-abed’ (mother of abed) and Abu AlAbed (father of abed) are known names and characters in old Arabic series played by white Syrians.

    The modern association of the word ‘abed’ with ‘black’ is a western concept adopted by westernised and white Arab supremacists of the Mediterranean.

    Therefore, don’t bring your BS here as if all Arabs are racist or that it’s a ‘Arab’ problem. NO! If the word ‘abed’ is used to mean black peoples then It’s a Palestinian-eastern Mediterranean problem of the modern times.

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