By Han Angus
For Black History Month in the United Kingdom, Han Angus conducted a survey on the intersections of Black and Muslim identity. View the survey here and read her in depth interviews with Black Muslims across the diaspora.
Many people lack awareness of the Black Muslim experience. Usually the discussion revolving around race and racism do not explore this particular intersection in either community. Many Black Muslims, including myself, think that this is an issue as our experiences are invalidated under guise of them "not existing".
For this Black History Month, which is in October for those of us in the United Kingdom, I wanted to explore the experiences of being Black and Muslim all over the diaspora as there is somewhat still a denial on the idea of racism existing within our community. I have collected interviews from Black Muslims of various nationalities and ethnicities in order to show the range of views on anti-blackness in the Muslim community. I have also conducted a survey on being Black and Muslim which can be seen here.
I have experienced racism from non-Black Muslims. For example, the "‘n’-word" has been used in front of me without much concern for my feelings. In response to this transgression I was told I had no right to point out this racism due to the microaggressions faced by Arab Muslims especially in regard to the slur "sand 'n'-word". Such a response is sadly very common.
In order to find out other views on anti-Blackness in our community I interviewed four Black Muslim women: Sawda, Kiah, Sama and Sofiya.
What are your ethnicity and nationality?
Sawda: I’m Nigerian and British
Kiah: I’m Taina, Puerto Rican, Cuban, St. Vincentian and American.
Sama: I’m Sudanese and British.
Sofiya: I'm Somali and British
Do you think antiblackness exists within the Muslim community? If so can you give me an anecdote of a time you've experienced antiblackness from non-black Muslims?
Sawda: Yes, most definitely. One time I was in a predominantly Asian mosque, in Leicester, for Jummah. We arrived first so I thought that the people didn't sit next to my sisters and I because they came afterwards and wanted space, however, when the Jummah prayer started they refused to stand next to us and made a new row behind us despite there being more than enough space.
Kiah: It totally exists. I run the Ramadan activities for my office and usually we try to make these as inclusive as possible. We have nights dedicated to representing different cultures including a black culture night. Once, I had a student call me before Ramadan began and ask me what was for dinner on black culture night. I told her we don't tell people what's for dinner because it's not about the food it’s about the fast and coming together and unless she had an allergy I wasn't sharing that information. She replied by telling me that she needed to know when black culture night was because she didn't want to eat with us on those nights. She didn't like ‘THAT food’ and ‘that food isn't proper for an iftar’ and ‘it hurts people's stomach to have fried food (meaning fried chicken)’. Mind you she was speaking to me, a whole entire black woman.
Sama: Yes, most definitely! One example of anti-blackness I have encountered was when I was around 13/14. A Palestinian family friend suggested that I buy skin lightening products to make myself ‘look more like her and more beautiful’. This is a prime example of inter-racial colourism that we black Muslims often face within Muslim/Arab communities, and has intense damaging effects, as essentially, we are being ridiculed for our black skin. This is just one of many examples of inherent anti-blackness that we experience. But I also wanted to add that by this Palestinian lady suggesting that I lighten my skin, she is also trying to reach closer proximity to whiteness. This most definitely links to a lot of anti-blackness within Muslim communities. I strongly believe that when a non-black Muslim exercises racism towards a black Muslim, this is a way for them to reach a certain proximity to whiteness. A desire to replace white supremacists, not for freedom, but to perpetuate oppression towards black Muslims and have that power.
Sofiya: Anti-blackness most definitely exists in our Muslim community, without a doubt. I've been fortunate enough not to have experienced anti-blackness from non-black Muslims, not to my knowledge anyway. The only anti-blackness I've expressly experienced have always been from non-Muslims.
How do you think we can fix antiblackness in the Muslim community and should it be solely up to black Muslims?
Sawda: Anti-blackness is a widespread problem found in every community including the black community, so essentially it's up to everyone to become aware of anti-black attitudes, and realise that they are wrong generally and definitely in Islam. However, I feel that because anti-blackness was a problem started externally there is an element of dealing with it externally, especially in a movement of empowerment in the black community at the moment. I think if non-black Muslims are educated against the heavily rooted anti-black ideologies, anti-blackness can gradually begin to become erased.
The anti-blackness in the black community comes as self-hate, that was taught externally and spread internally. Black people need to recognise this too. In conclusion, if one is talking about anti-blackness against black people perpetrated by non-black Muslims e.g. my above example, then non-black Muslims need to be taught the opposite of anti-blackness in their homes and communities and integrate more to be less ignorant towards what they are against.
Kiah: I don't think it's our job to foster the burden of stopping anti-blackness. We can start the process and share the knowledge but after a point, it's up to non-black people to carry on the mission. They need to talk to their aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They need to call them out when black people aren't around. They need to challenge their practices and beliefs. They don't hear us often when we speak. But they hear one another.
Sama: To fix anti-blackness within the Muslim communities, non-black Muslims must first acknowledge their privilege. Once they have acknowledged their privilege, together non-black Muslims and black Muslims can work together to dismantle the racism within Muslim communities. As a black Muslim woman, my voice is greatly diminished within the Muslim community. Non-black Muslims should use their privilege and platform to speak out against the blatant racism that black Muslims have encountered for so long.
Sofiya: With regards to anti-blackness in the ummah, the only people who can 'fix it' are the people who display it i.e. not us. I don't think racism is something that will ever cease to exist, in our lifetime or beyond, and I just see it as an unfortunate consequence of dealing with non-black, close-minded people. It's not up to us to try and change the disgusting views of others; it's their own personal problem and I, personally, don't have the time to justify the colour of my skin day in, day out.
What's your view on the idea that we cannot speak about anti-blackness or racism because it makes Muslims look even worse in an already tense political climate?
Sawda: As much as one appreciates that there is a tense climate, not talking about anti-blackness takes us further from tackling it and allows people who are comfortable, or even in agreement with anti-black rhetoric to continue to be that way. To not talk about a problem is not any way to solve it, and can in most cases represent a compliance with it.
However, there is a way everything can be said. Ideally, as an ummah, we should talk to each other in a truthful but constructive rather than destructive manner. Additionally, as a Muslim, one needs to understand that some people will always be out to look at your wrongs/bring you down etc. Some people won't want to mention the problems in the community as to not make us look worse in the eyes of non-Muslims/the West etc, but we need to have confidence within ourselves, focus on ourselves, and remember that our honour does not lie with mankind it lies with Allah as hard as this is to actually always believe and act by.
Kiah: Every group has problems. Not talking about something to make us look better is to silence part of our own community. We need to confront our issues head-on. Not hide to make out side gazes more comfortable on us.
Sama: I think that this is just a way to completely disregard the black Muslim experience. I’ve grown up in a political climate that has always been tense regarding Islam, and it only seems to be getting more and more tense with the rise of xenophobic leaders. Anti-blackness and racism within Muslim communities is not a new phenomenon. It dates all the way back to the Arab slave trade where 17 million people were sold into slavery.
Sofiya: The notion that black Muslims can't call out the racism in our community because we already 'look bad' to society is a joke because it excuses non-black Muslims from their behaviour. It also minimizes what racism actually is and does to somebody, and telling us that we shouldn't say anything tells us that non-black Muslims prioritize society's view of Muslims over their own treatment of their brothers and sisters.
Do you feel like the anti-blackness that stems from the Middle East in the form of underpaid and abused workers is ignored by our community?
Sawda: Yes. Definitely. Everyone focuses on the luxury life you can live in the UAE but not on the mistreatment of workers. Hardly anyone remembers this, let alone the effects/relationship with anti-blackness it can have.
Sama: For sure! This is modern day slavery, there is no other way to describe it. Workers are essentially ‘owned’ by the people that buy them and receive intense physical and emotional abuse, and for many there is no way out. With the rise of social media, I think people are becoming more aware of what is going on, but we definitely have a long way to go in terms of actually addressing the problem and ensuring that workers are granted the same rights, and are actually treated like humans.
Sofiya: Growing up with Arab friends, they would always tell me about their holidays and what it was like living in their respective Middle Eastern countries. I remember one time my friends nonchalantly recalled a story of this Ethiopian maid getting physically and emotionally abused on the street in Lebanon, for no reason other than the colour of her skin. So nonchalantly was this story told to me that it made me look at my friends a lot differently. These were girls I grew up with, whose houses I was always at, whose mothers were always sweet to me. The only times I hear genuine concern or any dialogue surrounding underpaid and abused workers, especially when they're black or POC, are from fellow Black/POC Muslims, and this isn't entirely surprising.
Who do you feel presents the most antiblackness in the Muslim community?
Sawda: In the UK, from experience, I'd say South-Asian communities as they are the most populous. However, anti-blackness in other places will be perpetrated the most by other groups due to a lot of factors. At the end of the day, despite being technically immeasurable, anti-blackness is rife, everywhere, coming from everyone, unfortunately.
Kiah: It depends. But anyone who isn't or doesn't identify as Black American can perpetuate anti-blackness. I've even seen anti-Blackness from Africans. I have seen people who are African who have said they aren't ‘Black’ but that they are African in order to separate themselves from Black Americans.
Sama: I don’t feel that there is a certain group of Muslims that exhibit the most anti-blackness. I believe that antiblackness is everywhere in Muslim communities, even in Black Muslim communities. However, some communities are more overt about it, and others display anti-blackness in more covert ways, but both are just as detrimental to Black Muslims.
Sofiya: Oh, the Arabs are in the lead by a long mile. The Jnoubis (Southern Lebanese), in particular, are doing the MOST. May Allah guide them.
Do you feel like we'll finally get to a place where racism is no longer a part of our community?
Sawda: I'd like to think idealistically and say yes, but no, at least not in my lifetime. For this to happen the world would need to undergo so much change in so many aspects.
Kiah: Probably not ever. And that is because there are people who hold fast in the fact that there isn't a problem.
Sama: As I said before, racism within Muslim communities is not a new phenomenon. As long as there are these power structures that continue to proliferate this idea where blackness is ridiculed and associated with being at the bottom of the social ladder, then racism will continue to prevail. People feed off the power that comes with oppressing those beneath you, and in order for racism to no longer be a part of our community we must dismantle this oppressive system. Sadly, I do not think that this will happen in my near future.
Sofiya: As I said before, I don't think racism will ever stop being a thing. In most cases, it's a generational thing, with racist ideologies and thoughts being passed down from parents to children. Some communities are literally built on anti-blackness, with constant reference made to black people, with the constant degradation made towards black people. It's just unrealistic to imagine a world without anti-blackness in the ummah, unfortunately.
For many of us, anti-Blackness is something we constantly experience and just because you have not witnessed it or experienced it, to deny the accounts of Black Muslims because it makes you uncomfortable is un-islamic. As Muslims we should be actively trying to remove bigotry from our community instead of defending it or acting as if it doesn’t exist. When you as a non-Black Muslim witness anti-blackness please speak up. Your voice is needed to end this as we cannot do it all by ourselves as the ladies above have commented. We did not start it and we can not end it.
Han Angus is the editor of chief of 'NerdyPOC' a publication dedicated to representation for nerds of colour in media. Follow her @hanxine on twitter.