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Monday, February 18, 2013

Appearance in Arabia

Since I have been travelling and studying in the Arab world, I've become even more aware of my appearance.  I do not just mean that people here are very beautiful and fashionable and that I'm falling a bit behind, which is still true, but everyday I am reminded by the reactions of the people around me of the benefits I so easily receive, simply by white privilege.

As I write this, there is a maid crawling around my dorm room floor cleaning.  I am very rarely this uncomfortable here in Dubai.  The cleaning women here seem a bit offended if you try and reject their cleaning services, and they don't have enough English knowledge to really understand what I'm saying.  I am very polite and speak to the women when I can and they like me, but I know that most girls find such contact unbecoming and prefer to be rude and harsh.  This bothers me immensely and has incited quite a few comments directed at my less conscious colleagues.  Beyond generally being nice, there are many little things that students can do for the maids and other service people that they rely on, from giving tips to passing along old clothes, but I often think that even if students here aren't completely selfless, they are maybe only generous to people of the same color.

Here's a nifty video of Cameron Russell discussing how she, as a super model, has cashed in on her looks after winning "The Genetic Lottery."   There are a few parallels to her criticisms of image-centric society to the experience of the white woman abroad: we obtain privileges for no 


Living in Dubai makes all inhabitants incredibly conscious of their own skin color.  If this is something you are not aware of, you are likely also privileged, but attributing your success to your own hard work and merit, unaware of how society and genetics have shaped you.  If you are brown, you watch whites an Arabs instantly receive better service from businesses, and you may work in a place where you are spoken to in an incredibly demeaning way.  I, as a white girl, am benefiting from the prejudice of others.  For example, people offer their seats to or places in line in full view of older [or prettier--if that's the motivation] women of other races, which I of course only accept when it seems a social necessity.  In places of business, I am generally treated with more respect, and in class I'm given the benefit of the doubt whereas other students are quickly reprimanded.  I take notes on my laptop, and the professors never question whether I'm on task or spending the period on Facebook, but they will actually take a phone from a student if he or she pulls it out in class (which I don't like on a number of levels).  At the airport in Dubai, but even more so in Saudi Arabia, Americans are treated more courteously and are even allowed in lines meant only for GCC nationals.

When riding in a taxi alone, I ignore what are, to me, silly warnings about talking to the driver for fears of sending him the wrong message.  (These guys are transporting puking party girls with their shoes falling off and underwear showing every night--I'm not too worried about being judged for making some light conversation.)  First, the driver is surprised that I'm even speaking to him.  Apparently, few of his customers care where he comes from or if he misses home or how many languages he speaks.  I believe you can learn a lot from a cab driver.  They work 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, and usually appreciate a conversation to break the monotony.  I've even had some great Arabic conversations with cab drivers from Bangladesh who are also learning FusHa (formal Arabic).  I often leave these discussions depressed, recognizing that if I, as a white American, could speak 5 languages and had such a work ethic, I could walk into any job that interested me.  It is important to get these reality checks every few days to snap me out of the vacation mentality I naturally revert to in Dubai, the Mecca of hedonism.

This blog doesn't even mention instances of truly hateful racism, which I have also seen lately displayed by Arabs toward Africans, as the most prolific example.  I also did not mention some of the hostility many people here instinctively feel now toward me as an American.  I believe that my readers are already aware of these things present in the Arab world, as well as a whole bunch of other places, so I need not rehash stereotypes or present yet another piece filled with inane apologies.  I will only write about prejudices once I feel I have felt them extensively first hand or observed long enough to really understand them.  But at the rate they are coming to light, that may be pretty soon.


  1. Lauren, you are getting an education on so many levels, aren't you? We miss you here in the Writing Center, and we are anxious to see you again. In the meantime, we all enjoy your posts and are learning along with you.
    Love you,
    Mrs. B.

  2. This is totally creepy, but I've been keeping up with your posts and not commenting...UNTIL NOW. However, I am thoroughly enjoying the applied relativism you display in your writing and I honestly look for your blogs/posts whenever I am on FB. You're an exceptional person and I am stoked that you got thie chance to have such unique, life-altering experiences. :)I wish I could hug you and crack nerdy jokes whilst enjoying Dr. Welch's lectures. Oh, and uh, I've got the zip ties. ;>

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About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.