“Arab Face” incident at Wilfrid Laurier University

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In early March, 2024 a member of the Hillel Waterloo Laurier student group donned a costume that exaggerated Arab features and sparked controversy. This outfit, worn by a student during a Purim event for the Hillel group, included a Palestinian keffiyeh styled to mimic an Arabic headdress, and a type of robe with stuffing to suggest a large belly.  The student also appeared to hold either 1) what seemed to be a dagger, or 2) what appeared to be a trigger for a suicide bomb.  In either case, this costume invoked deeply ingrained and offensive Orientalist stereotypes. After protests, and after first refusing, the Hillel group eventually removed the image from its Instagram account.  The University said it would look into whether this incident violated the student code of conduct.

Unfortunately, such depictions draw on historical prejudices that have long been used to marginalize, vilify, and dehumanize Arab and Muslim communities[i]. This act is seen as part of a broader issue with costumes that utilize blackface, brownface, or caricature Arab appearances, often under the pretext of humor or cultural celebration, which in reality serves to demean and trivialize the experiences of these communities.

Why is this incident considered Anti-Palestinian Racism (APR)?

The portrayal of Palestinians in a negative light, particularly through the use of caricatures, and symbols like the kuffiyeh and knives to suggest links with terrorism, exemplifies anti-Palestinian racism. Such depictions contribute to reinforcing damaging stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, singling out Palestinian identity for dehumanization and vilification.  Of course, this “Arab face” incident also occurred amid Israel’s severe violence and atrocities in Gaza in the months following Oct. 7, 2023. This practice of associating Palestinian symbols with acts of terrorism not only dehumanizes the Palestinians, as described in the ACLA definition of APR[i], but also actively contributes to a narrative that supports their oppression and marginalization.

In the broader context, the dehumanization of Palestinians is reflective of a systemic issue within Canadian society and mirrors global attitudes that diminish Palestinian narratives and rights. This issue is deeply intertwined with state-endorsed policies and public sentiments that favor the Israeli government's discriminatory stance against Palestinians. Such an environment is conducive to the spread of rhetoric that devalues Palestinian lives, evidenced by political leaders' derogatory remarks and the validation of violence against Palestinians[ii]. This pattern extends beyond mere policy, feeding into a historical narrative that denigrates Palestinian men by branding them as threats or terrorists, a rhetoric that serves colonial interests by trivializing the suffering of Palestinians and justifying violence against them on the basis of identity alone. This insidious form of racism not only undermines support for the legitimate human rights struggles of the Palestinian people but also perpetuates their ongoing dehumanization and the disproportionate violence they face.

Additional Background to the Incident

The practice of wearing costumes that appropriate and mock the appearances and cultures of people of color, such as blackface or brownface, is rooted in a legacy of racism and colonialism. This tradition not only trivializes the oppression and exploitation faced by non-white populations historically but also perpetuates stereotypes that uphold whiteness as the normative standard, thereby casting other races as exotic, inferior, or undesirable. Engaging in such acts fails to recognize the rich history, diversity, and dignity of the cultures being mocked, further entrenching racism and discrimination. Experts argue that adopting the culture and appearance of another group as a costume reduces it to a mere caricature, disrespecting and ignoring the real oppression and struggles faced by these communities. Therefore, the act of wearing such costumes is not merely an insensitive jest but a manifestation of deep-seated racism that needs to be actively condemned and avoided.

Over the past, multiple concerns have been raised over the problematic nature of costumes that caricature Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, particularly those depicting stereotypes such as suicide bombers[iii]. These representations, including the portrayal of an overweight Arab man wearing a Kufiah and brandishing a fake trigger during a Purim celebration, are not new in White-North American culture but remain deeply troubling. Ali Karjoo-Ravary, an assistant professor in Islamic studies at Columbia University, points out that these images, from crowds of Arab figures to veiled, grieving women, are entrenched in a long history of dehumanizing these groups[iv].

The choice to adopt such costumes during religious celebrations, where attire plays a significant role for various reasons, only serves to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This issue was raised in a letter sent to the Laurier University’s administration, Jasmine Zine, a professor of Sociology and the Muslim Studies Option, Wilfrid Laurier University, explained: “Jewish Purim tradition where costumes are worn to depict a historical religious event that involves in part  an “evil man who wanted the Jews dead.” It can be assumed that the student wearing Arab dress and cultural markers holding daggers represents this figure. The intentional use of this historical trope as a demonizing, racist Arab stereotype, constitutes an act of Islamophobic hate. ”[v]

Hillel's activities and policies on Canadian campuses, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have sparked significant debate over its role in potentially fostering an environment of anti-Palestinian sentiment[vi]. By framing vocal support for Palestine as inherently antisemitic and an attack on Jewish students, Hillel's approach has been critiqued for equating legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with hate speech[vii]. Its guidelines that prevent collaboration with groups or speakers who challenge Israel's legitimacy, support BDS, or seek to engage in dialogue about Palestinian rights are seen by some as a silencing mechanism[viii]. Moreover, Hillel's involvement in distribution of materials that some interpret as propagandistic or intimidating further exacerbates tensions[ix]. These actions contribute to a campus atmosphere where Palestinian narratives and the complexities of their struggle are overshadowed by a singular narrative that prioritizes Israeli perspectives, thereby sidelining the voices and concerns of those who advocate for Palestinian rights and recognition

This behavior underscores a broader issue of cultural appropriation and stereotyping that spans the rich and diverse histories of Arab countries. By donning an "Arab face" or a suicide bomber costume, individuals are not only mocking and disrespecting Arab people but are also engaging in a form of dehumanization that traces back to colonial and orientalist depictions of Arabs as "savage" or "terrorist." Such actions reinforce the misconception of Arabs as a homogeneous group, ignoring the vast diversity of their cultures, languages, and religions. Furthermore, by trivializing the identities and experiences of Arab individuals to mere caricatures, these costumes contribute to a climate of racism, Islamophobia, and violence against Arabs.


In response to the incident, Jasmin Zine drafted a detailed letter that was sent to senior administrators at Laurier University[x]. Professor Zine's letter called for immediate disciplinary action in line with the university's student codes of ethics and regulations for campus student groups, highlighting the urgency of addressing this racist act to uphold the university's commitment to combating racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism. The letter stresses the impact of such incidents on Muslim and Palestinian students' mental health and sense of safety, urging the university to provide targeted support to those feeling unsafe, marginalized, and vilified.

Last Updated


[i] Gollom, M. “Why wearing blackface or brownface is considered 'reprehensible',” Sep. 19. 2019, CBC News, accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://www.cbc.ca/news/justin-trudeau-brownface-blackface-1.5289259

[ii] Anti-Palestinian Racism: Naming, Framing and Manifestations,” Apr. 25, 2022, Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, accessed Mar. 4, 2024 at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/61db30d12e169a5c45950345/t/627dcf83fa17ad41ff217964/1652412292220/Anti-Palestinian+Racism-+Naming%2C+Framing+and+Manifestations.pdf

[iii] Robson, M & Karadeglija, A., “Trudeau says some Pro-Palestinian protests cross the line into hate, harassment” Mar. 7, 2024, CBC News, accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-palestinian-protests-security-1.7137255 / Clarke, J. “Palestine solidarity under attack in Canada,” Nov. 24, 2023, Counterfire, accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://www.counterfire.org/article/palestine-solidarity-under-attack-in-canada/

[iv] Dolan, T.D., “Decolonizing Dune: Reimagining MENA and the Muslim World,” Dec. 21, 2021, Tropics of Meta, accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://tropicsofmeta.com/2021/12/21/decolonizing-dune-reimagining-mena-and-the-muslim-world/ (For deeper understanding of the topic, you might look for Orientalism by Edward Said, and Joseph Masaad’s book Desiring Arabs.

[v]  Karjo-Ravary, A., “Is Dune a White Savior Narrative?” Oct.26, 2021, Slate, accessed Mar. 7, 2024, at https://slate.com/culture/2021/10/dune-2021-movie-vs-book-white-savior-islam.html

[vi] Waterloo for Palestine, “Tell Laurier University that Islamophobia and Anti-Palestinian Racism will not be Tolerated on Campus,” accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-laurier-university-that-islamophobia-and-anti-palestinian-racism-will-not-be-tolerated-on-campus?source=direct_link

[vii] Clarke, D. “York student unions face major backlash after releasing a statement in support of Palestine,” Oct. 13, 2023, Excalibur, accessed Mar.7, 2024 at https://www.excal.on.ca/news/2023/10/13/york-student-unions-face-major-backlash-after-releasing-a-statement-in-support-of-palestine/ , SPHR McGill & IJV McGill, “SSMU, AUS, and SUS Leaders Offered Free Propaganda Trip by Pro-Israel Organization,” Nov. 13, 2019, the McGill Daily, accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2019/11/ssmu-aus-and-sus-leaders-offered-free-propaganda-trip-by-pro-israel-organization/

[viii] Rothman, J. “York University is giving student unions a deadline to take remedial actions over a statement on Palestine/Israel amid tensions at the school,” Oct. 23, 2023, The CJN, accessed Mar.7, 2024 at https://thecjn.ca/news/york-university-student-unions-and-administration-face-off-over-palestine-israel-statement/

[ix] Fishman, J. “Op-ed: I loved Hillel. I thought it loved me back,” Nov 2023, The daily Tar Heel, accessed Mar 7, 2024 at https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2023/11/opinion-op-ed-hillel-gaza-palestine-war

[x] CBC News, “UBC student group sues Jewish non-profit and former contractor, claiming defamation over pro-Hamas stickers,” Feb. 8, 2024, accessed Mar 7, 2024 at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/ubc-student-group-sues-jewish-non-profit-former-contractor-over-defamation-1.7109363

[xi] Waterloo for Palestine, “Tell Laurier University that Islamophobia and Anti-Palestinian Racism will not be Tolerated on Campus,” accessed Mar. 7, 2024 at https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-laurier-university-that-islamophobia-and-anti-palestinian-racism-will-not-be-tolerated-on-campus?source=direct_link