Black Muslim Americans: The Minority Within a Minority
Maria Khwaja Bazi speaks with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative about engaging in racial justice conversations within the American Muslim community.
In 2005, Boston University hosted the largest Muslim prayer of the year for Eid-ul-Adha. As we ushered in members of the community, I noticed, for the first time in my student life, a large number of Black Muslims.
I remember, in particular, a very tall man with very long dreadlocks who smiled at me as he restrained his infant son from squirming out of a stroller.
It never occurred to me to ask what part of the city he had come from with his family, or which mosque they attended normally, or why we had never seen this part of the community before. It is only now, ten years later, that I wonder at my younger self and question my own indifference.
The Rise of Black Lives Matter and Islamophobia
It is clear that America is at a crossroads in its discussions on race. The rise of Black Lives Matter in 2013 and subsequent protests and performances have galvanized many to action. In my own research, I found that the most intriguing part of the Black Lives Matter website is the section entitled “Herstory.” This highlights that three women founded the movement as a “call to action” after the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
“Herstory” meticulously explains the grounding belief: “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” The nuances and complexities of the movement, however, including its emphasis on women’s leadership, are lost in the heated accusations against it by those who claim it creates anti-police sentiment. Anyone watching Twitter after the release of Beyoncé’s Formation video, with its images of a police car, New Orleans and pride in black heritage, could see the immediate, angry reaction.
While the US grapples with these discussions on race, the hot button topic of Muslims and immigration is also on the minds of both Donald Trump and the average American. The San Bernardino shootings catapulted a new, more aggressive form of anti-Muslim prejudice most obvious in the debates around Syrian refugees and the increase in hate crimes.
Again, reactions are mixed, with some denying Islamophobia exists and others fueling the fire with visions of Daesh (Islamic State) combatants and Islamic law implemented in the US. In February 2015, the murder of three young Arab-American Muslims—Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha—over what was termed a “parking dispute” spurred the Muslim community into more action. Bridge-building initiatives such as #YourMuslimNeighbor and #MuslimID declared that American Muslims were just as American as everyone else.
Caught in the Middle
The Muslim community hit a critical juncture when non-Black Muslim Americans reacted to the sudden onslaught on their American identities. Many, including myself, chose to respond by aligning ourselves with what is called “aspirational whiteness.”
We said, without any hesitation, that we were American and did not deserve to be “Otherized” because we live in the suburbs as a model minority and have successfully assimilated into what we see as appropriate, mainstream American culture.
This stance “invalidates,” in the words of Margari Hill from the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, the narrative of Black Muslim Americans. Whether they come from an ancestry of slavery or are African immigrants, Black Muslims contend not only with the seldom-acknowledged racism of many immigrant communities, but also with the erasure of the honest Muslim American narrative, which began with Muslim slaves and encapsulates ongoing social justice struggles.
“The way in which non-Black Muslims have approached Islamophobia has hurt Black Muslims,” Hill says. “It’s as though by challenging that dominant, model minority narrative, we’re somehow complicating anti-Islamophobia efforts by introducing a counter or more complex narrative. But that’s our story.”
It is no accident that the development of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collective began around the same time as Black Lives Matter. It is also no accident that both movements are founded by women, as it speaks to the growing mass of intersectional movements in contemporary America.
Roughly one-third of American Muslims are black and yet they are seldom present on panels, in university events or as more than a token scholar. Mosques are often ethnic enclaves and, as the #BlackinMSA hashtag clearly demonstrates, even student groups sometimes only serve the needs of the South Asian or Arab immigrant majority.
Although every American Muslim has proudly pointed out the requisite Black Muslim role models—Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are favorites—the erasure of the Black Muslim narrative is very evident to those of us who are willing to admit it.
Twitter as a Catalyst
The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative began and still thrives on Twitter. According to their crowdfunding page, the organization was founded after a Twitter campaign, #DroptheAWord, aimed at eliminating the use of an anti-black slur in Arabic.
Soon after, the Muslim ARC catalyzed other conversations highlighting the need for more discourse. Twitter responded—#BeingBlackandMuslim trended and then, in late 2015, the hashtag #BlackinMSA. The incredible number of responses made it clear that the experiences of Black American Muslims, whether they were immigrants or black Americans, were startlingly similar.
According to Namira Islam, the co-founder of Muslim ARC, “Social media has been really instrumental, especially the rise of black Twitter, in what is happening now. Now, we have a space for these discussions.” Islam, Hill and others took the impetus from Twitter to form the Muslim ARC to provide racial justice education to Muslim communities in the US.
“[The issue] is as obvious as the emphasis on having fair skin and that being more beautiful,” Islam says in our Skype conversation. “It was coming up in Twitter conversations, these norms for beauty and skin tone and the statements people make without thinking.”
The latest racism within many immigrant Muslim communities is now, to the discomfort of many, being highlighted both by the reactions to Islamophobia and the increasingly vocal Black Muslim community.
“Black Muslims starting coming out of the woodwork,” says Tariq Touré, Muslim ARC’s programming chair. “I Skyped into a panel and I said, instead of deflecting Black Muslim complaints and concerns, we need to have this conversation. You had some Muslim people saying, ‘We don’t need to have this conversation right now, we’re already under attack because of Islamophobia. You’re being divisive.’”
Touré shakes his head and continues: “We really didn’t think [the conversation] would mushroom like this—people are taking to the streets like never before. You look at mosques and see that they do fundraisers for Syria, for Yemen, but Sudan is never mentioned. Nigeria is never mentioned. That’s what we’re talking about.”
If I am very honest, I can point to that precise moment when I looked at the black community in Boston and failed to ask why I had never seen them before. The selective amnesia of many immigrant children points to our purposeful disregard of the Black Muslim community.
Yet I would never have called myself a racist. Except, of course, racism is something that is much deeper and more endemic than we had chosen to acknowledge. Like many of the white, suburban friends I grew up with, I would never have used a racial slur. This meant, for me, that I was colorblind and, by extension, not a racist.
What I failed to see was that my passiveness made me complicit in allowing both the erasure of entire narratives and actual violence against fellow Americans. Being a careful “not racist,” unfortunately, was not the same as allying in solidarity with a movement to help those who are the most vulnerable, even in what I like to see a “brown-friendly” spaces.
Discussions around the issue using concepts such as aspirational whiteness, intersectional movement, privilege and structural racism sometimes alienate first generation Muslim Americans, however, and elicit this exact heated, dismissive response: “But I’m not a racist!”
The Betrayal of a Model Minority
Part of what frightened us, the children of immigrants, so deeply about the deaths of Deah, Yusor and Razan was that they were so obviously assimilated, so deeply normal, and in every respect represented the American Muslims we were trying to become. I wrote about this in my own work and felt it in my own horrified reaction when I heard about the shooting.
In a sense, the non-Black American Muslim community has benefitted from the privilege of being allowed to come to America without the burden of structural racism.
In essence, our attempts to assimilate and be that model minority left us deeply exposed and betrayed when we realized that we could not, in fact, stop the majority from making us into a bestial Other. Those hurt feelings, however, are problematic for Black Muslim Americans, particularly those who can trace their ancestry back to slavery.
“When there’s an initiative like meet your Muslim neighbor, nobody is going out into the black or Latino community,” Hill says. “They’re going to white churches and white neighborhoods. It’s meet your white neighbor. The idea is if we visit, they will see we are human beings. Black Muslims react to this by saying: ‘Excuse me, they knew we were human beings. We nursed their babies. We took care of them intimately.’”
The fact remains that in the model minority defense—the “I’m just like you” response to anti-Muslim rhetoric—is invalid for Black Muslim Americans and always has been. This comes as a shock to many of us whose parents are immigrants because, in some ways, our American identity is based on successfully navigating the structures and paradigms of white supremacy.
Many of us are carefully not defiant, not audacious, not racist. Namira Islam, who is Bangladeshi-American, points out that, like myself, she used to hesitate in questioning America because of that fear of being seen as un-patriotic.
“We need to be American by making America live up to the ideas that it aspires to,” she says, “versus being ‘socially white’ and aspiring to whiteness as our way of asserting our American-ness.”
In a Huffington Post article, Hill cites Hatem Bazian and refers to the dominant white American narrative as the “city on the hill”: “The ‘city shining upon a hill’ was emptied of the natives by means of genocide while down below in the valley … all the black, brown and yellow faces looking upward in the hope of being called uphill…’”
This, at its core, is the idea of aspirational whiteness. As Hill, herself, states, the alignment of American Muslims with what we see as superior means we visibly ignore the struggles of Native Americans, Black Americans and Latinos. The shock of the American Muslim community after Chapel Hill points to the fact that this stance, as the Black Muslim community says, leave us not only exposed but gives us false hope that, if we can just prove we are well-behaved and white enough, we might be accepted.
“We need to examine our identities—we need to see it as an American thing to do, to critique,” Islam says. “We need to not have a problem with being the outsider; the one who is rebelling and trying to deconstruct what is going on. That is American. That’s what it means to Black American Muslims to be American versus those of us who are immigrants, where our identities are more fragile and we’re still negotiating them in the public space.”
Hill adds: “Trump supporters came to us once with ridiculous questions about ISIS [Islamic State]. There’s no way I’m going to address myself to racist people who are calling me out on ISIS—Black Muslims aren’t going to do something like that, subject ourselves to vitriol and racism by white people.”
She pauses and continues: “There is a whole history of racism that I have experienced, our whole history has been occupation and Jim Crow, rising up for our rights, and our own liberation struggle which has opened the door for many of the people who are now telling us how to better combat discrimination and racism. We know how to combat this stuff better than you do.”
She chuckles and adds: “I mean, I’m not going to hand out flowers to KKK [Ku Klux Klan] members who are rallying around our mosques. Black and Latino members are saying ‘no way’ and older members of the community are standing there telling us we don’t know any better.”
Touré makes a similar point, adding: “The immigrant experience starts with coming to America and that tinge of oppression not being here. It might have been in their home country but here, it is not present in their interactions with white supremacy.”
In a sense, the non-Black American Muslim community has benefitted from the privilege of being allowed to come to America without the burden of structural racism. Our shock and hurt at the abrupt stereotyping and Otherization of who we are, our fears for our children, and our feelings that our livelihood and success might be taken away tie in with our precarious stance on who we are as hyphenated Americans.
Opening the Wound
Admitting this stance, however, and admitting that, as a minority, we are still relatively privileged is easier said than done.
“Look,” Touré states, “recognizing privilege is cutting. Once you realize that you’ve opened that wound, it’s either inspect that wound and do more cutting, if needed, or do the healing needed. You’re not helping anybody pouring salt in the wound. We all have to start to heal from these things. We’ve all been affected. Once we’ve realized, we can all work together.”
Any American Muslim from a non-black immigrant community knows that, culturally and linguistically, we have certain prejudices against darker skin and people of color. Words in Hindi and Arabic make the idea of blackness ugly…
Hashtags like #BeingBlackandMuslim and #BlackinMSA began that conversation on privilege and gave a space to Black American Muslims to express their feelings of alienation, isolation and hurt in largely immigrant spaces. The “wound” appeared in reactions from other Muslims, which ranged from supportive and empathetic to dismissive and defensive.
“It’s very hard to convince people who feel very uncomfortable with it—if people are committed to trying to silence me, then they’re just going to be bitter when I articulate my individual experience,” Hill says. “They’ll tell me they don’t like how I brought it up.”
Islam agrees, and Hill continues: “You’re characterized as divisive or outliers. It’s just all these people that are convinced that bringing up race is destructive. Honestly, because of the difficulty of the subject matter and given my position, we really try to address issues very diplomatically. We provide evidence, we don’t do character assassinations, we don’t call out or slander people. We practice nonviolent communication. Still people don’t like the subject.”
When I ask her why she thinks this is, she sighs and responds: “I don’t know for sure, there are a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they’d have to indict themselves—people won’t admit [that] others may not have had the same opportunity or there is an assumption that [the] black community doesn’t have high aspirations. It’s a consistent pattern, you know, to position yourself in a better place, to say, ‘At least we’re not black, we work really hard and don’t complain.’”
“When somebody points out privilege,” Hill continues, “there’s all these things that have nothing to do with you that made it that much easier for you to be successful, to get a job—there may have been a black person that somebody may have said they’re not professional because of their accent. We like to think that it was us and our accomplishments and our education but, in truth, the cards are stacked against certain people. If we admit that we’re winning, it makes us feel bad.”
She pauses and says: “Sometimes it’s almost, ‘I was able to make it. Why can’t black people make it?’”
“The other thing,” she continues when Islam agrees, “is the fragility of the non-black community from a former colonized background. They don’t like the language and they really push back against Black Muslims saying, ‘Hey, you can’t speak for all of us.’ They feel it’s a personal attack on their legitimacy as American Muslims.”
Any American Muslim from a non-black immigrant community knows that, culturally and linguistically, we have certain prejudices against darker skin and people of color. Words in Hindi and Arabic make the idea of blackness ugly, and we all know many of our parents would react with horror if we decided to marry a Black Muslim.
This is something that we are reluctant to admit, often trotting out a few token Black Muslims to support our claim that we are colorblind and adamantly not racist. However, the refusal to admit to the prejudice in our own communities means we are hypocritical on two fronts. First, we refuse to confront our own structural issues and become more inclusive as a community. Second, we refuse to align ourselves with a minority while expecting to be recognized and appreciated as a minority.
Touré sums it up in his typically eloquent prose: “I told these guys on the panel, ‘Look, America does not want to have the race conversation, point blank, period. White people will say it’s over with. If we call ourselves Muslim, we need to be on the side of the oppressed.’”
Moving Forward Collectively
The key words I hear from Touré, Islam and Hill are all the same: collaboration, inclusiveness, diversity, nuance.
Touré sums it up, again: “Black folks in America are trying to get everybody’s attention in saying listen, we have this issue that everybody’s got, whether you want to admit it or not. We are raising hell about it, this is your opportunity to get on board. If the Congo is still having its rubber extracted by rubber manufacturing, that is the same intersection as unemployment in Chicago, it’s the same ideology and ethos.”
“Globally,” he continues, “for the Muslim world on over, heeding the calls of Black Muslims who are affected by the injustices worldwide that go on, specifically in the United States, it advances the Muslim world, period.”
He sounds very much like the Black Lives Matter website which, again, is not an accident. The ethos behind the movement is the idea that by uplifting those who struggle the most, we will all benefit.
The fact that women are key in both movements and the fact that both movements embrace not one, but several minority issues, including gender and race, speaks to their firm stance on intersectionalism. As Audre Lorde said: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issues lives.”
Islam adds: “People go on journeys to consciousness. We are trying to bottle that and sell it. This radicalization experience—for Black Muslims, they’ve lived in a society where it’s undeniable. It presents a very jaded, cynical view of the world in some people’s opinions. You can sometimes feel hopeless rather than empowered by it. Some of our parents want us to stay away from it, but we’re coming at it from a place of empathy.”
When I ask Islam and Hill if they see it as a positive conflict, Hill agrees: “It is, it’s a positive conflict. There’s been an attempt to work on it and to build bridges that people need. National organizations are seeing the conversation is needed—people see it as important, people are committing to action to address it and really work on it. Our communities are under a lot of internal and external pressure. There’s a lot of forces and it’s challenging to build sustainable communities, but we are doing the work.”
For me, the need to not only acknowledge, but actively address both cultural and structural racism comes from my own paradigm shift. It is the understanding that we as a Muslim community have actively ignored the struggles of our own and, therefore, need to address the issue so we can work through it, collectively. Defensive anger does little to reconcile different parts of the community so we can all move forward positively and, as Namira Islam says, with active empathy.
Islam also highlights the importance of standing in solidarity: “When it comes to Islamophobia and this kind of violence that we are dealing with, this is really important. There’s a need for it right now, more honesty, need for these kinds of conversations.”
Touré is, as always, the one who manages to distill everything into a single idea.
“I’m optimistic,” he grins. “We’re in a good spot. We get a lot of collective power from the immigrant and the black community. We can do this together.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.