Love From the Other Side is a relationship blog geared at helping people find and maintain healthy, happy relationships. But ever so often I feel inclined to write a Perspective piece. Through these pieces I tell my story or give someone else a platform to tell their story. It is my hope that in sharing perspectives we increase our love and understanding for one another. If you enjoy this piece be sure to read more of the Perspective pieces linked at the end of this article.
When I was 8 years old my family moved from the all black Southside of Chicago to the all white South Suburbs. At age 8 I could not distinguish the difference between black and white. I had 1 or 2 white teachers at my school but because of the vast variety in shades of black I assumed these teachers were light skinned black people. It wasn’t until we moved to the all white suburbs that I discovered race. In the summertime white kids wanted to compare their suntanned arms to see if they’d caught up to my brown. Year round their tiny fingers spent time in my hair as they marveled over my course texture. Adults would at least ask, “Can I touch your hair?”. The thing that bothered me the most however was the critiquing of my speech. “Say car, say milk.” Or from the adults it was, “You speak so well” as my proper grammar exceeded their expectations of a child from the ghetto South side. My mother was a teacher, how was I supposed to speak? By 5th grade I’d learned to pronounce “milk” as “melk” and soften my hard r’s in words like “water” or “car”.
By junior high, the population of our all white schools had drastically diversified as black families from both Chicago and Gary, Indiana moved in. By then I’d assimilated quite well into white culture. But as the schools became more black, new problems developed for me. I was too white. I pronounced my words “too white”, liked too many “white things”, and acted “too white”. Being light-skinned didn’t help. White students assumed you were a “safe” black person. Someone they could ask sudo-racist questions to because you weren’t really black. Black students greeted you with the “you think you’re better” because you are light-skinned. In short junior high was cultural torture, filled with bullying, and identity confusion.
Junior year of high school my favorite subject was Honors U.S. history. The black students in my honors classes weren’t as caught up in colorism. We could bond over cultural similarities, laugh or shake our heads at racist BS, and support each other in the subtle struggles of being black in a mostly white high school.
Then came September 11, 2001. I remember the teacher scrambling to roll the TV cart into the classroom just in time for us to watch the twin towers fall. The significance of this took us weeks, maybe months to really comprehend. For me it was the beginning of a new cultural struggle. The same sophisticated black students who weren’t caught up in colorism, the same black students I’d bonded with over the drama of white racism were now the ringleaders of Islamaphobia. There was no longer a place for me at the black lunch table, as conversation there was filled with ignorant slurs and misconceptions about Islam. Adults weren’t better. I remember a high school trip where a black parent chaperone said to me, “You don’t believe the lord Jesus Christ is your holy savior? (head shake) You’re going to hell.” I was 18.
At our small 2% black college common practice was to give a head nod of acknowledgement when you saw another black person. It was also common to sit together in the cafeteria and participate in Black Student Union events. But I fit in better with the West African Immigrants, most of whom were from countries where Muslims made up a good portion of the population. Likewise, my experience attending various mosques had given me exposure to many immigrant cultures. Unlike many of the other students, I knew that Nigeria and Ghana had cities as metropolitan as Chicago. I didn’t ask if they wore deodorant or had lions and giraffes in their backyards.
There was an unspoken divide between the Africans and the African Americans. The African American students thought the Africans thought they were better. The generalization wasn’t routed in nothing. Many West Africans did hold the belief that black Americans were inferior because their only exposure to black Americans had been extreme examples from television shows like Jerry Springer.
After college I got into non profit work teaching GED classes to predominantly Black and Latino students, mainly Christian. Simultaneously I worked as a freelance videographer for a company that filmed church services. For the first time in my life I was in church twice a week. One too many sermons were ripe with Islamophobia. “What’s up with these Ay-RABS, these MOSLEMS? We need to bomb them all to hell!” one preacher shouted as his congregation responded in a resounding “AMEN!”. In the classroom my students loved me. Many of the older women carried pocket Bibles and wore crosses. They were wholesome church going women many of whom had children my age. They adored me enough to be confused and concerned by my religion. I was the only Muslim they knew and I was nothing like the tidbits of Fox News that spouted ideas of Jihad, suicide bombers and honor killings.
Growing up Muslim in the Chicagoland area my family mosque hopped. Most communities in Chicago were naturally segregated, as a result so were the mosques. We’d been to predominantly Arab mosques, predominantly Pakistani mosques, Nigerian and even African American mosques. Often the women asked if we were visitors or “real Muslims”, assuming that our race was an indicator of our visitor status. As a result I always preferred the mosques with black people, most were converts or children of converts and didn’t question the validity of our faith. In Chicago, the Nation of Islam (NOI) is popular. As a result you learn how to identify if a mosques is an Orthodox/Sunni mosques or if it’s a NOI mosques. You also learn to explain how it’s possible to be black and Muslim (Sunni Muslim) but not a “black Muslim” (member of the Nation of Islam). While I was explaining to non Muslims that my race and religion were not intertwined that I was the same kind of Muslim as the ones in China, Indonesia, Senegal, Pakistan or any other heavily populated Muslim country, I was simultaneously explaining to Muslims of these countries that I was a “real Muslim” and not a confused black convert caught up in a fad or political agenda. 10 Things I Want Non-Muslims to Know About Being Muslim
After getting married I moved to Philadelphia. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Philly was the visibility of African American Muslims. On every corner I saw African American women in Burkas & hijab and men in Kufis and red beards. Never before had I seen the red beard, nor had I seen the abundance of the Burka in the African American community. Typically I’d seen only Arab women wearing the Burka. As the weeks went by I paid more attention to the Philly Muslims. I noticed women in their hijabs entering and exiting the liquor store, women in hijab style head scarves wearing short shorts and cleavage revealing tops. I saw groups of women in Burkas pushing their strollers down the street as they yelled loudly to one another streams of “Asalaam a lakum my n*gga, N*gga this, and m”thaf*cka that”. I slowly felt myself discrediting the Philly African American Muslim scene. These weren’t “real Muslims” I found myself thinking. I hated myself for thinking the very thought the Pakistani and Arab women had openly thought about me. But the fad culture of Islam in black Philly made it even more difficult for a black practicing Muslim like myself.
When my 22 yr old Pakistani student faced a particularly challenging Islamic and cultural dilemma I found my ability to counsel her slightly un-welcomed. She didn’t consider me a “real Muslim” because of my race and perhaps because she associated me with the other African American Muslims in Philly caught up in fad culture. I felt pressure to defend myself as a “real Muslim”. Simultaneously, the complexity of my students dilemma was in her inability to differentiate culture from Islam. As she lamented over her situation I felt pressure to defend Islam by explaining to my co-workers and her that the specifics of her Pakistani cultural practices were not indicative of the principals of Islam. Her dilemma was one of culture not religion.
I will never feel 100% welcomed in the African American community because I don’t belong to the black church. So much of black culture is built around the church. If you aren’t apart of it that’s divide #1. Couple that with problems of colorism, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, Homophobia and I’m simply put disappointed. The remnants of American slavery still plagues black Americans centuries later in an unspeakable multitude of ways. Yet our experience of being the underdog, the beaten, the broken, the abused, the massacred doesn’t inherently create resounding empathy or understanding within us for immigrants, Muslims or LGBTQ groups. I was outraged, I was furious, but now I’m disheartened and tired. Likewise, I find it equally difficult to feel welcomed in the Islamic community for exactly the same reasons. I’m equally disheartened.
I hate the term “real Muslim” or “not really black” or “not black enough”. These are statements of judgement based on generalization and assumption. But even I am guilty. When I see the rise of Islam as a fad culture here in Philly I pass judgement. But then I’m upset when an immigrant Muslim assumes my Islam is an ill-informed means to a political agenda or worse yet apart of a fad culture. The solution I suppose is individual assessment. We can’t allow one encounter or even a few to characterize an entire class of people. I can’t assume that my one Lesbian friend represents all Lesbians or Lesbian culture at large. Likewise, if I am the only Muslim woman you know, I can’t embody the idea of what all Muslim women represent. The danger in doing so is either inflated perceptions of an entire group of people or extreme bigotry routed in ignorance and phobias.
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