I’m a few hours into 2008, on the eve before New Year’s eve, I ran across Umm Zaid’s blog. She has a lot to say, and like all of us, her viewpoint on issues is shaped by her background and experiences.** I always find it interesting to hear what Muslims who are not Black American have to say about race and privilege in the Muslim community. This particular blog entry highlighted major events and trends in 2007. She wrote:
In addition, sore points finally rose to the surface: the divide between immigrant Muslims and indigenous Muslims, especially Blackamericans. It’s always been there, but this seemed to be the year when everyone started talking about it. A lot of issues have been raised, and a lot of feelings have been hurt. Again, it’s a question of whether or not we’re going to move forward or if we’re going to hash and rehash every wrong, every slight, every issue of alienation between us. We have work to do.
While I agree with the overall sentiment–we can’t just be hung up on bitching and moaning–I am more than ambivalent with this message. Yes there is work to do. And many of us who are exploring the ways race, class, and gender intersect in the Muslim world are community activists. We are thinking, we are talking, we are writing, and we are doing work.
First, as Umm Zaid stated Muslims have finally began to really talk about the racial divide in the American Muslim community? How are you going to tell folks to move on from a topic when they’ve only just begun to explore it. I’ve been Muslim 14 years and only recently have a few writers and thinkers finally gave voice to what I have experienced and observed. When I began to observe patterns of discrimination in my immigrant dominated community, a lot of Muslims were in denial. Some even went so far as to claim that I was paranoid or making things up. Maybe it is convenient to want to dismiss the grievances I had. Then as I met more and more people, we began to discover that we were struggling. I was very happy to see a number of issues that are endemic to the Black American Muslim community addressed at the 2007 MANA conference. These conversations are beneficial because 1. they help individuals realize they are not crazy and 2. recognizing our realities we can begin to come up with some solutions. But if we follow this injunction we might be in trouble and lose another generation.
There is a need for a deeper exploration of the racial perceptions that immigrant Muslim bring to the American community, as well as American Muslim perceptions of immigrants. We need to examine the patterns of discrimination that perpetuate inequality in the American Muslim community. Without proper understanding of the issues we face, we will never be able to bridge the rifts that are dividing us. While there are scholars studying various religious and ethnic communities in America, American Musilms have been under-studied. That means there is little knowledge about our social, cultural, and political patterns. We don’t even have solid statistics of our marriage and divorce rates. We can’t even produce numbers on the patterns of intermarriage between communities. But because of the internet, through forums and blogs, a long silenced voices are beginning to speak of the realities that are in stark contrast with the ideals that we believe in. While these stories are anecdotes, we can glean that there are some broader patterns.
Secondly, the thing that makes this statement troubling is that reflects a general sentiment in America.The popular notion that we are living in a color blind society and that Muslims are especially color blind has been used to silence the people who are the most discriminated against. I’m not saying that Black Americans have been really deft at broaching this issue. I think there are ways that we can better engage the broader Muslim community with the issue that affect us. In addition, I find is troubling is that Black American Muslims and White American Muslims seem to be living that great divide. Even for us professional, educated and Middle Class Black American Muslims that divide exists. Few thinkers or scholars have deeply explored why.
The ambivalence that I have towards this sentiment also reflects my frustration with the broader trend in America. I have long suspected that this sentiment was shared by a number of people, especially immigrants because they may be perpetuating discrimination. But I guess I was a little surprised to see them articulated by white American Muslims. It just cut too close to rhetoric and attitudes that are outlined in
Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. A review of the book states:
These scholars are putting forward a fresh analysis of racial injustice that sets aside overt prejudice and individual acts of discrimination, which they say have little actual impact in today�s world. Instead they pull back the covers on social practices and policies sewn into the fabric of work, school and the medical system that privilege whites. Even the most well-intentioned white person, they say, benefits from a legacy of accumulated preferential treatment.
We are all influenced by certain ideologies and American myths. Some of the myths we are taught as Americans actually perpetuate inequality. Perhaps the myth of the color blind ummah also blinds us from seeing how racism and classism play out in our communities.
I’m not trying to bash the sister. Not at all. I think that people who want Black American Musilms to just move on and stop talking about discrimination and inequality are well meaning. But I wonder if at this stage of the discussion should people like Umm Zaid enter in the dialog, especially when they are insisting that we just pack up and move on. Or maybe she isn’t part of the dialog, but making an outsider commentary. At this stage, many of us in the Black American Muslim community are trying to put our cards on the table. It makes me wonder if these dialogs should be closed in order to avoid the dissonance. At the same time, I am reminded that Civil Rights leaders going back from Reconstruction times to the civil rights movement were constantly told to not make waves, that they were trouble makers–basically they were told to stay in their place. Without meaning to attack anyone, I just wanted to remind folks that silencing this discussion will not help advance our cause. It actually makes me keenly aware of how unaffected some of us are and how in their privilege they can afford to just be Muslim. Meanwhile, I have to make sense of the opportunities and limitations that are afforded to me as a Muslim who happens to be Black and who happens to a woman in America. Not everyone is directly affected by racism. You may not be subject to anti-Black discrimination or you may not be a person perpetuating anti-Black discrimination. These issues may be illegible an insignificant in your life. And you have every right to remain uninterested. And if you are an uninterested party, you don’t have to weigh in. But then again, weighing in implies you have some interest in the dialog going a certain way. But by you insisting which direction it should go, isn’t that asserting some kind of privilege?
**This is a correction where I stated that Umm Zaid was white after I was informed that Umm Zaid was not White America but white skinned.