BEING AN Egyptian living abroad has always made me a minority, which has put me on the receiving end of some form of racial or regional discrimination. It’s happened often enough that I began to observe and classify different types of racism, from its extreme form like prejudice to its milder one like ignorance depending on the situation.
Racism as a casual joke
A few years back, I was having a casual hang out with a friend and the first thing he said to me when we sat down was, “Dude! I just saw a hobo who looks exactly like you!” At first, I thought he was kidding but he seemed serious regardless of his comic approach. When I asked him to explain what features that charming hobo possessed that might have resembled mine, he said only three words: “He was Indian.”
I didn’t know whether I should have thought about it more, but I dismissed it as a friendly but slightly racist joke. When I did actually see the hobo who looked like me, I stopped and stared, wondering if I should take a picture of my Indian doppelganger.
All the way home, I thought about my friend’s response when I asked what the man he saw looked like, because even though the situation was pretty funny, it was still racist to describe someone purely based on race.
Ignorance from being in a different hemisphere and too much TV
While I was walking home with a group of friends in Malaysia from university, somehow a conversation started about pets. The ones with pets talked about theirs and since my mum back in Egypt had eleven cats and three dogs, I was excited to pitch in too. But when my turn came, one of the guys asked me a strange question. He thought that since I was Egyptian, I must have had a horse as a pet or something. I didn’t think that was really racist because a lot of people around the world do have horses as pets. It wasn’t until another friend responded that it turned racist, “Of course he must have had a pet horse, but Fox, what about camels?”
My only reply was pure sarcasm.
Have you ever heard of something so racist that you couldn’t believe what just you’d just heard?
When I was studying medicine in Russia, we had to do a demonstration of a chemical reaction in biochemistry lab that would combust if the mixture was unstable.
Since I was the group representative, I would always assist the professor in demonstration, so I automatically went and started to prepare the chemicals. The professor asked me to sit back down and he chose another student, Asian, to assist instead.
Naturally, I assumed that he wanted to give someone else a chance. I was still curious though so I asked him after the lab why he picked someone else. He answered: “You Arabs have a propensity towards explosives, the reaction is more likely to be stable if done by an Asian.”
He was not kidding.
Another time while I was studying in university in Malaysia, a random conversation about relationships and soul-mates came up while I was hanging out with my group of friends. The guys were describing their perfect girls and the girls were describing their perfect guys, but when my turn came the question wasn’t to describe my soul mate, it was if my parents would allow me to pick my own wife.
It was an outdated tradition that is stuck with the stereotype so all I said was “I won’t even let my mum pick my clothes, let alone my wife!” they all laughed.
Embracing your racial stereotype
Most people from different races don’t always have the right idea about each other for the lack of exposure or knowledge, and that’s why most misunderstanding happens.
For me, I find it suitable to deal with situations regarding race in a humorous view because it serves two purposes: One being that not taking any comment or situation entirely seriously excuses the person lacking knowledge, allowing them to learn more about other cultures in a friendly way. The other being that the exact same approach can lessen the tension if the comment or situation leaned towards aggression.
On my way to Malaysia from Russia, a Russian man who sat next to me on the flight asked me about my experience in Russia. I mistakenly or inappropriately stated a negative comment about Russians and how they treated foreigners, which made him agitated. Once I noticed that I thought about lightening the mood with a joke.
I told him how people viewed Arabs was not always bad. Granted, I can never accidently leave my bag anywhere in the airport, but I can fly not worrying about any terrorist attacks. I paused for effect, and when he asked me why, I continued: “Arabs make the worst bargaining chips. If a terrorist decided to hijack a our plane and ask for money in return for releasing Arab hostages, we’d all be dead 10 seconds into that threatening call. Terrorists may be reckless but they are not stupid!” The rest of the conversations went better after that.
These are examples of funny race-related situations I have had. Of course some race-related situations can only invoke negative feelings (like parents disapproving their daughter for having an interracial relationship, or extreme parents who prevent their kids from mixing with other races).
Stereotypes did not appear out of thin air, there are either misunderstood truths, or a lack of knowledge.
An astrophysicist can look up at the night sky and see a beautiful constellation of stars and name them, and I can look up and only see a pattern of a donkey in them. Every race practices and views their traditions based on many sources of knowledge and habits and as outsiders we can only observe. The level of understanding the habits and traditions of another race would be proportionate to how much we know about them.
Over time racism has evolved without many people realising it. Cultures evolve and new generations practice traditions their own way, perhaps out of formality rather than belief. But people don’t observe other races or cultures based on their new traditions or even characteristics in general, but rather by old and almost outdated stereotypes that the media still projects.
When dealing with other races, especially ones we lack full knowledge of, we need to be color blind. We need to be aware of the old stereotypes imprinted in our minds as they can make us presumptuous, and can lead to misunderstandings.
Fouad Alaa (also known as ‘Fox’) is a writer who brings fresh perspective to everyday life issues. A young Egyptian who has lived in several parts of the world, he now resides in Sarawak, Malaysia. With a medical background and a working knowledge of psychology, he plays therapist to his peers and aspires to be a world renowned surgeon.