Tariq Nelson makes an interesting hypothesis about creating an American Muslim culture through inter-marriage between all the various ethnic groups in his blog He writes:
I am of the controversial opinion that increased interracial/intercultural marriage is one of the ways that will lead to a meshing of a singular American Muslim identity. This would eventually lead to more of a blending in this country, culturally and genetically, of the many Muslim cultures as well as the American one. Intermarriage is one of the ways people that were once even somewhat hostile can become one group.
We are seeing native born Americans, of all religions, intermarrying in ever rising numbers, but when one looks at the numbers, the proportion of overall interracial births is still not growing at the rate one would think. Why is this? It is (at least partially) because of mass immigration. Immigrants are much more likely to marry someone from back home, or arrive already married, and it hinders the continuing merging of America’s ethnicities.
Read the rest of the article here.
African Americans have been dealing with these issues. We’ve worked to debunk the myth of the talented 10th for years, did away with the brown paper bag test, celebrate dark skinned men like Denzel Washinton and Wesley Snipes. Yet there are no female counterparts to Wesley or Denzel. Instead, we have Halle Berry, Beyonce, etc. and studies that show how light skinned Black women have higher rates of marraiage than their darker skinned counterparts. Muslims have not really risen above these trends. It get complex as every ethnic group brings to the table their own cultural baggage and project their desires, insecurities, and resentments on the “Others.”
I found a interesting article “Color Complex In The South Asian Diaspora” by Francis Assisi which seems to point to the cultural norms that preclude African Americans, and especially AA women, from finding willing partners in the great Muslim melting pot:
Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor of government and Afro-American studies believes that skin color, rather than race, may be a better indicator of status in the United States.
In a talk May 6th 2003 at Stanford University entitled “The Politics and Morality of a Skin Tone Ordering,” Hochschild’s “strong” hypothesis was, in her words, that across races “the darker a person’s skin color, the lower he or she is likely to be on any scale of whatever is broadly perceived to be desirable in the United States.”
In other words, in America, one is still better off as a dark-skinned Hispanic than as an African American. And within these minority groups the less dark-skinned you are, the better off you are socially.
Now, according to three different studies conducted by Indian Americans in the U.S., skin color appears to have similar impact.
The Three Studies
Roksana Badruddoja Rahman of Rutgers University has completed an unusually interesting research study: The role of skin color among Hindu Indian women in New Jersey and how it affects their marriage choice. Sarita Sahay has looked into self-esteem and ethnic identity including attitude towards color among South Asian Canadian female students. And Zareena Grewal at the University of Michigan has studied the impact of color in spouse selection among the South Asian American Muslim community.
Rahman has examined the role of skin color in the Indian women’s concept of beauty and what it signifies as a status marker in the marriage market. Her hypothesis: that a larger proportion of lighter skinned women than darker skinned women feel beautiful and attractive. The study is one of the first to attempt to focus explicitly on the relationships between skin color and feelings of attractiveness and skin color and marriage marketability in the immigrant American Hindu Indian context.
Rahman’s conclusion is that “feelings related to beauty and attractiveness and marriage marketability are partially determined by the lightness of their skin.” And though her subjects are “Hindu Indian women” one can imagine that her findings are applicable to all women of Indian or South Asian origin.
The study assumes, first, that beauty and attractiveness are defined by skin color and, second, there is a link between beauty and attractiveness, and thus skin color, to marriage marketability. Rahman observes the wide popularity of hair and complexion lighteners among South Asians (living in and outside of South Asia), predominantly among women, which she says is symbolic of the high value placed on light skin tone.
Rahman cites South Asian magazine advertisements for cosmetics and bleaching creams, such as Fair & Lovely Cream and Vicco Ayurvedic Cream, that are similar to advertisements targeted towards black American women.
In her study, Rahman draws upon literature about the role of skin color in the lives of Hindu Indian women in India and black women in the United States to develop a framework for understanding skin color and its impact on U.S. first generation immigrant Indian American women in the marriage market. She then goes on to conduct extensive interviews with Indian American women in New Jersey – that area being chosen because it has one of the fastest growing South Asian populations.
Rahman argues that the politics and implications of skin color in Indian community and among black Americans are extraordinarily similar, and the strict juxtaposition of black and white works well in understanding the implications of skin color and the definition of beauty among black Americans, Indians in India, and Indians living in the U.S.
Rahman points out in her study: “I find three major commonalties between Indians and black Americans in general. First, both race and caste are systems of social closure. Second, black women in America and Indian women’s bodies are sexualized and racialized in a similar manner. And third, skin color and other facial features play a significant role.”
Thus the message relayed to the women of both cultures is that light skin is more attractive (especially to men) than dark skin, and both, internalizing the “ivory skin model”, go to great lengths to alter their phenotypic features.
Zareen Grewal’s study in Michigan shows that many South Asian Muslim immigrants covet whiteness.
Grewal has noted in her study that ‘particular physical qualities are always fetishized in constructions of beauty. However, in these communities, the stigma attached to dark color intersects with broader racial discourses in the U.S. That’s why a Desi mother of three daughters in their twenties, explicitly refers to dark coloring as a physical abnormality and deficiency.’
In the final study by Sarita Sahay and Niva Piran, authors of Skin-color preferences and body satisfaction among the South Asian-Canadian and European-Canadian female university students, they find that second generation South Asian women (in Canada), like their counterparts in South Asia, equate light skin with beauty.
Skin color is a trait germane to the experience of racism by all minorities. However, in the case of South Asians in America, they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. As perpetrators, their racism is contingent upon a light skin ideal.
True, light skin has implications for social status among both men and women, but nowhere is it of more consequence than in the commodification of female attractiveness. This celebration of fairness as a feminine virtue is not new in South Asia’s patriarchal history, but what is shocking is the extent to which it continues today even in the diaspora.
As many Desis leave their home countries for the US, their intra-racist ideologies emigrate with them and are reinforced and transformed by the racial climate in the U.S. Sultana, an immigrant from India, explains how ideologies of color are reformulated in a society with a white majority: “Most [Desis] are samla, neither dark nor fair. So what is fair over there might be samla over here. Like, in India, you would be very fair, but here you won’t because of the white Americans. So it depends on the comparison.”
Sultana explicitly refers to white Americans as the standard to be measured against. Interestingly, although most Muslim immigrants in these communities construct whites as racially different from them, for some, like Sultana, whites remain the point of reference. For others, the ability to “pass” as white informs their color preferences.
The stigma of dark skin and the preference for light coloring are coded racially as immigrants assess their status as minorities in the U.S. and the benefits of “passing” as whites. The fetishizing of light skin is related to the broader racial climate of the U.S., where minorities from South Asia regularly experience discrimination. In other words, color-coded intra-racism is simultaneously a self-destructive internalization of white supremacy and a strategy for surviving it.
As scholars such as Grewal, Rahman and Sahay do research on their own cultures, it is important not to overlook the role played by color in current power relationships. That’s one way to combat racism from without, and within.
I found another article about the South Asian marriage market, From “Wheatish to Dark”: Globalization, Marriage & Skin Color Commodification” by Maryum Saifee.
I think these articles are fascinating because they describe some of the underlying factors that shape the contours of relations between immigrant Muslims and African Americans. For 14 years, I have heard African American brothers complain about not being able to marry other Muslim ethnicities. Recently, more African American sisters in integrated Muslim communities have begun to talk about how invisible they feel. One could be Muslim for a year or two without a single serious prospect for marriage. This is the case for several African and African American Muslim women that I know. It is striking because American society is fairly open to interracial marriage, but American Muslims seem to maintain clear ethnic lines (except when it comes to marrying White American converts).
Likewise, I have wondered about the this desire for intermarriage on the part of some African American brothers. We have own color complexes and they run deep. One of my North African friends stated, “I know why Black men like us, we look like light skinned Black women.” Some black men desiring South Asian women because they to may look mixed or racially ambiguous. Some look like mixed women who have “Caucasian” features and long straight hair (two measures of beauty within the Black community) in combination with brown skin. I remember reading Zareena Grewal’s paper on “Marriage in Color,” and her study showed how immigrant women and white women had many more advantages when it came to choosing a marriage partner. It is clear that dark skinned African American women face more challenges than their lighter sisters, in both job discrimination and in how this society perceives them. Being in the community is not about competition, but it is frustrating to see women dismissed so easily because of the amount of melanin in their skin. But then again, anyone who cannot see that these sisters are truly beautiful is really beneath those amazing sisters.
African American scholars and intellectuals have been wrestling with colorism and racism for generations. You’d think these issues would get old and that we could move past it. But as Muslims we find out that these issues resurface in very different, but no less complex and troubling ways. As one of my favorite instructors said about racism, “Racism does not just hurt Black people, but it victimizes White people too.” We’re living in a multi-cultural, stratified society; so the victims are not just Black and White. Tribalism, nationalism, cultural chauvanism, classism, and colorism are tools that really undermine our communities and prevents us from moving forward.