Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

There's still a lot of work to do against racist stereotypes

A nasty remark over an airport loudspeaker demonstrates that racist contempt, and even hatred, are still all too common.

Racism, discrimination and stereotyping have always existed in some form. But today, racist comments have become less acceptable, at least in public. Thanks to the hard work of many, it is now possible to fight back against discrimination and stereotyping to a certain extent.

Browsing through old books and regional newspapers it's easy to see how far we have come in erasing discriminatory phrases from our region's vocabulary.

But there is still a lot to be done.

This week, a blog post by a witness to an ugly incident at the Beirut airport went viral. Abed Shaheen, who works in Dubai and was awaiting a flight to the UAE, overheard an employee of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines announce to the entire airport via loudspeaker, "Filipino people, stop talking." His post triggered online petitions calling for an end to racism, that gives Lebanon and the Lebanese a bad name.

Sadly, it wasn't the first time.

There are regular reports on widespread discrimination and abuse of foreign workers in Lebanon. Besides the airline incident, there was a report this week by Human Rights Watch on the torture and abuse of Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese workers by the Lebanese army. Photos of the victims were posted via Twitter.

Discrimination and hate of "the other" are not new, nor limited to Lebanon. Making any generalisations about any nation is wrong and causes further hate. There are incidents of abuse and mistreatment of foreign workers almost everywhere, including the UAE and the US. And there are many activists in Lebanon working to challenge majority views.

But such visceral hate, the type that would lead someone to think it is OK to berate someone in public, is commonplace Lebanon.

The Lebanese pay close attention to dialect and how people speak, simply to label and categorise. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Beirut once with a Syrian friend, who has a very thick accent, and another friend, from Saudi Arabia. The host was distinctly rude to the Syrian and unbelievable pleasant to my Saudi friend.

Just to shock him, my Saudi friend said her family was originally from Syria 60 years earlier, so would he please mistreat her too?

There is just something ugly about racism, so nasty that even a five-year-old can pick up on it. That, at least, is how old my sister was when she first was discriminated against.

It was a clear day and we were at an amusement park in Poland. I remember her running towards a ride shaped like a pink bear that went up and down and in circles. It was a two-seater, and the ride was crowded. She jumped into a pink bear next to a lone boy.

I was too old for this ride, so I just hung back, watching the commotion of bubbly kids going up and down.

Just then a mother stepped onto the platform and headed towards the pink bear where my sister and the boy sat. I saw her saying something to my sister and then of all things, she started to pull her out of her seat. I stormed over. What happened? I asked my sister later.

"She called me a gypsy and said I must leave now. Then when I said no, she took her son. She didn't want him sitting next to me." I went over to the mother, who was by then standing nearby, and told her off, telling her she was "ugly", her son was "ugly", and she looked like a "farmer".

I was just a teenager. I would reply differently today. But then, angry, I responded to discrimination with another insult.

Gypsies have been stereotyped and hated in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. Anyone slightly dark risked being called a "gypsy". The kid was blond, my sister wasn't. So I called the mother a farmer, a term I'd heard my Polish relatives use as an insult.

Needless to say, the announcer at the Beirut airport was fired. But that accomplished nothing; the whole staff need to be retrained.

To change attitudes, we need to start in homes, schools and workplaces. Lebanon isn't the only nation where ugly views persist, but that is no excuse to stay silent.



On Twitter: @Arabianmau