I thought I wasn’t racist. I grew up in Sudan and the humanity of my friends and neighbors was something I took for granted. Muhammadain taught me how to drive, Mrs. Bashary was a beloved teacher and the twins next-door were chatty Safiya and Summaiya, who shared my secrets and whose mother smelled heavenly. Race was an American conversation I was introduced to after coming to the United States. I counted my blessings and thought, what if I was raised in Indo-Pakistan and if I had not been raised around people with black skin? Would I have seen them in the same way as many South Asians do?
I thought I was okay. I was well-read, trained.
I thought I was not racist, but we all have internal biases which come out. Admitting this is imperative to moving forward.
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A few years ago, I wrote a news story for a local paper about a mainly South Asian youth group who delivered Ramadan meals to the inner city masajid. My tone came across as very “desi savior,” even if I did not consciously attempt to write it that way. The youth did not stay to break their fast with the community, I didn’t comment on that behavior and covered dilapidated mosques and did not give the same attention to the organized and well-run masjid in the center of the city. Black elders in Baltimore checked me, and I tried to explain it away until I realized I needed to stop. They were not being oversensitive; I was being oversensitive. I was just as biased as anyone else – my perspective was influenced by my own experiences and position of privilege.
I have been checked a few times since. My sister, Romana Muhammad, checked me when I wrote a news article in which I quoted a woman from a housing project I had interviewed, verbatim. “E tu brute?” said Sr Romana, expecting better of me. I thought I was relaying authentic vernacular. But I had fixed the grammar of many immigrant leaders that I had interviewed; why didn’t I fix her quote?
These are times when your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of what you say, write or do. In these examples, I was perpetuating stereotypes of Black Muslims, which can cause real harm.
Nice people can do and say racist things.
If someone points out that something you said or did is an act of racism and you take it as a personal attack on your character, you’re making the situation all about you – not the bigger picture of how all of us can take responsibility for our own role in white supremacy. Really good people can do this. Really nice people can do this.
I knew I had to work on myself.
My dearest nonBlack family,
We need to have a hard conversation. We have come a little way forward but we are nowhere near where we need to be in learning how not to be racist.
Many of us come from colonized lands where our parents and grandparents were forced to hate themselves for their own identities- we carry this baggage with us. We have negative feelings about our own selves, our languages, traditions, culture. This is called internalized racism. We are taught to value white culture and white values over our own through television, movies etc. So much so that when we are told Musa was a Black man we gasp, as if hearing blasphemy. We have to analyze ourselves and learn to filter that out before we react to people and the world around us.
“And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors. For in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of innate knowledge!” (Quran 30:22).
We have to admit that many, many times we aspire to whiteness—maybe because that is where power and wealth lies— many times over piety, even over doing the right thing. What does this mean for those of us who live in the West? We move into white neighborhoods as fast as we can afford them, as far away as possible from black people. We choose white schools and label black areas as bad.
We coo over light skinned babies, bleach our skin, and dismiss the idea of marrying into black families as if it is a haram act. Whiteness is a norm. So much so that we sometimes even stop treating Black people as humans.
It is a learned behavior and we can unlearn it. If we have been miseducated, we can educate ourselves.
What is interesting is that many scholars who study race believe that race is a social construction with no true or absolute biological basis. “Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery,” explains historian Barbara J. Fields in the PBS’s series Race: The Power of An Illusion.
Many of us don’t know that the word “white” in the United States has more to do with regulating marriage, property rights, citizenship, and voting than it has to do with actual ancestry. Mexicans were considered white until the 1930s. Historically, many people of differing skin color were placed in the category of “white.”
Racism to Anti Racism
According to Dr Anneliese A. Singh, in her book on racial healing, the term “antiracist” refers to people “who are actively seeking not only to raise their consciousness about race and racism, but also to take action when they see racial power inequities in everyday life.” Being an antiracist is much different from just being “nonracist,” writes Black antiracist Marlon James.
Dr Singh also urges us to keep in mind that we have internalized White supremacist notions about our own race and others, so we have to keep a lookout for how those internalized attitudes show up and provide an obstacle to us joining forces with other people of color groups.
Start your education on racism
Racism occurs between individuals, on an interpersonal level, and is embedded in organizations, institutions and countries through their policies, procedures and practices.
The Messenger of Allah said: These lineages of yours do not make you superior to anyone. You are all sons of Adam. No one has superiority over another except in piety and consciousness. It is sufficient shame for one to be foul, evil, or stingy.”
As a Muslims, dealing with interpersonal racism is incumbent on us. Many people say they do not see color, but Allah asks us in the Quran, “Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of color, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men, and crawling creatures, and cattle – they are of various colors. Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge. For Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving” (Quran 35:27-28).
As a people of “color” and a minority, we don’t want people looking at us colorblind, do we? We all have vibrant, beautiful histories, some filled with pain of colonialism and neocolonialism. When we don’t want this for ourselves, then why do we take the “colorblind” approach to our black brothers and sisters? We can’t erase their histories.
When you find yourself in a situation when you know racism is the cause of a marriage proposal being rejected, or someone not being offered a job, then for Allah’s sake speak up. Speak up when you hear people use a derogatory slur even in jest. It is incumbent upon you.
How many times do we fail to speak up when racism is happening because we do not want to draw attention to ourselves?. It’s our job to call it out when it happens, even if it feels uncomfortable. We had to have these difficult conversations with our families. You’re not “ruining” an otherwise peaceful occasion—they’re ruining it by being racist.
You have the truth with you and this is so powerful. Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said that “the truth has the power to penetrate the hearts of people, including those whose hearts have a seal. Humanity has the right to have among us witnesses to the truth, those who are willing to defend the truth no matter how unpopular it may be.” We are all creations of Allah.
Systemic Racism includes policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of certain groups.
Many of us who live in the United States need to study the life of Al Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), if we haven’t already. He was Allah blessing to this nation for a reason: to cure the cancer of racism, before his life was snatched. He wrote in his column in the Eygptian Gazette, “Racism: the Cancer that is Destroying America,” in Aug. 25 1964. “The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect as human beings, the God-given right to be a human being. Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans.”
If you can not understand why people are protesting right now in so much anger, read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which shows how the criminal justice system perpetuates racist oppression, or Cornel West’s Race Matters, or watch 13th by Ava DuVernay.
I remember my first visit to DC and witnessing the abject poverty under the shadow of the Capitol of the most powerful nation in the world. Nothing made sense. Venture into parts of Baltimore city with large presence of police and the state of the schools, playgrounds and empty buildings reemphasize how little resources are channeled into certain areas.
I learned about the the vicious policies that forced some Black fathers to leave their families from Ustadha Zakia Amin, the wife of Imam Hassan Amin and cofounder of the Muslim Social Services. She shared stories of the 60s, when governmental aid was only given to single women and the department of Human Services would conduct a raid of laundry baskets inside homes to make sure no man lived in the house. Many fathers who could not find jobs in their wrecked neighborhoods had to walk away from families because they faced the difficult choice of watching their children starve or to live with them. How many Black fathers are imprisoned for petty crimes while white men get away with much worse crimes?
Remember this, the next time people talk about broken Black families, which is such a gross stereotype.
Understanding Race and Whiteness
It was important to study and read about Whiteness. “Racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence,” writes Paul Kivel in Uprooting Racism, “whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”
During university in New Orleans, my white roommate shared that there was white side of Lake Ponchatrian and a black side and that I should not go to the black side. This was a defining and very jarring moment for me in a superbly divided city. I had no place in it as a dusky South Asian international student. “Hena, you are white,” she drawled. I most certainly am not. But her binary way of thinking, made me pick up some reading. American philosopher, Dr Cornel West explained it all in his 1994 book Race Matters, “Yet the enslavement of Africans—over 20 percent of the population—served as the linchpin of American democracy; that is, the much-heralded stability and continuity of American democracy was predicated upon black oppression and degradation. Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”—they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them was not simply the presence of unprecedented opportunities, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which black slavery and racial caste served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic, and gender struggles could be diffused and diverted. In other words, white poverty could be ignored and whites’ paranoia of each other could be overlooked primarily owing to the distinctive American feature: the basic racial divide of black and white peoples. From 1776 to 1964… this racial divide would serve as a basic presupposition for the expansive functioning of American democracy, even as the concentration of wealth and power remained in the hands of a Few well-to-do white men.” I realized how whitewashed my U.S. history books had been.
There is plenty of literature that you can study that considers whiteness — most notably by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. In his 1984 essay, James Baldwin provided an excellent description of the nature of whiteness in the United States as a social construction. Writing about how European immigrants to this country (Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, French, Polish, and so on) began to define themselves as white — sometimes not by choice and other times by choice in order to gain privileges — he explains how this new way of thinking and this new category changed the immigrants’ mindset: “Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers.” In conclusion, he writes: “However — ! White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people), the crisis of leadership for those of us whose identity has been forged, or branded, as Black is nothing new.”
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is an essential read as it explains for profit prisons, how Black communities are punished with harsher prison sentences for minor crimes and the “caste system” as she calls it. “The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
Racism in Muslim Communities
There are many articles on Muslimmatters on this subject. Here, here, here, here, and here, and especially by Umm Zakiyyah. Read them with an open heart, willing to purify yourself and your community.
I have often stood on the port in Annapolis, where they used to dock slave ships. There is a memorial to Kunta Kente. We don’t know or teach our children that Muslims have been on this soil from the time they were brought on slave ships from Africa, or even before that when Moors traveled on Spanish ships. By doing this we erase the history and justify why the Black struggle is not a “Muslim” issue. I urge people to visit America’s Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington DC, run by Br Amir Muhammad with their family and then spend the day at the African American History Museum.
Another segment in Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is an aha moment, especially when it comes to the Muslim community. She writes that when we think of racism “we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and “whites only” signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners–and wished them well– nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation… Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”
When you understand this, then you understand that we do the same in Muslim communities. Just because we may not be actively banning Black people from the masjid, or harming them physically doesn’t mean we are not consciously or subconsciously not voting for them for board positions or not inviting them to speak at our events, not donating to their causes. When we do this we uphold similar power structures in our own institutions.
Many NonBlack Muslims, especially immigrants, buy into the model minority myth – hook, line and sinker. We were allowed to come to the United States because of the sacrifices Black people made in the civil rights movement.
Nearly 60 years ago, four African-American college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and started a movement that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress then passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing the race-based immigration quota system and replacing it with a system that prioritized refugees, people with special skills, and those with family members living in the United States. It also forbade discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.
Most of us or our parents were allowed to come because we were highly educated. We fail to see the inequities or learn history, and blame Black people for not working hard, after all we made it so why can’t they? This point of view fails to take into account the systematic dehumanization that Black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today.
“It is from the unseen world that the phenomenal world emerges, and it is from the unseen realm of our hearts that all actions spring,” writes Shaykh Hamza. Muslim communities and institutions run by non-Blacks (we often forget that upto ¼ of our community is Black) must reflect on this extremely important communal spiritual state. The well-known civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. said that in order for people to condemn injustice, they must go through four stages. The first stage is that people must ascertain that indeed injustices are being perpetrated. In his case, it was injustice against African Americans in the United States. The second stage is to negotiate, that is, approach the oppressor and demand justice. If the oppressor refuses, King said that the third stage is self-purification, which starts with the question: “Are we ourselves wrongdoers? Are we ourselves oppressors?” The fourth stage, then, is to take action after true self-examination, after removing one’s own wrongs before demanding justice from others.(Purification of the Heart)
We are going through a time when we are faced with openly anti-Muslim administrations in many Western countries. The Muslim community has to examine our collective wrongs, and racism (both personal and structural) is a wrong doing in our communities.
How many times do we fail to speak up when racist events are happening because we do not want to draw attention to ourselves.
Self-reflection is a crucial part of the journey
The Prophet warned us over and over again: “Narrated Uqbah Bin Aamir: The Messenger of Allah said: These lineages of yours do not make you superior to anyone. You are all sons of Adam. No one has superiority over another except in piety and consciousness. It is sufficient shame for one to be foul, evil, or stingy.”
Racism is a disease of the heart
Allah didn’t create racial disparity, society did, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.
I believe Racism is a sin. No one can tell me that they don’t sin ever. No one can say they are not a liar. You may not lie today, but you could lie tomorrow. You may try never to do gheebah, but could slip tomorrow. It is a sin that we fight against our nafs. We try not to do it but we acknowledge that we are weak and that we can fall. We accept our mistake and learn from it and promise Allah not to do it again. We apologize to the person that we have harmed and try to be better. It is as simple as that.
Racism is a disease of the heart. Mufti Menk taught me that. You think you are better than another person, which is directly against the orders of the Quran.
The heart can be purified. I learnt that from a beautiful book, Purification of the Heart, many years ago. Sh Hamza writes that “purifying the heart is a process. First, one must understand the necessity of having courtesy with God and the importance of fulfilling its requirements, as noted above. Second, one must be aware of the diseases of the heart—aware of their existence, their ailments, and the deleterious complications and troubles that ensue from them, and recognize that these diseases prevent one from attaining this courtesy.”
Racism of the Tongue
Be careful with your tongue. Words like Abeed (which literally means slave) and Ka$%u are not just words. They carry poison for you and the people you say them to. If you are in the habit of saying the N word, please pay especially attention to the taubah section and cure yourself.
These are Prophetic teachings: “Abu Malik al-Ash’ari narrated Allah’s Messenger who said: Among my people there are four characteristics belonging to pre-Islamic time of ignorance which they do not abandon: boasting of high rank, reviling other peoples’ genealogies, seeking rain by stars, and walling (Sahih Muslim, #934).
So make sure you do not say a word about a person based on his or her race or the color of the skin(1).
“Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
How to make Taubah and erase the disease
Imam Ali is quoted to have said that the tongue is the interpreter of the heart. We have to purify our hearts to perfect our relationship with God.
Allah commands us to be upright in our speech, which is a gauge of the heart’s state.
According to a Prophetic tradition, each morning, when the limbs and organs awaken in the spiritual world, they shudder and say to the tongue, “Fear God concerning us! For if you are upright, then we are upright; and if you deviate, we too deviate.
Engaging in the regular remembrance of God (dhikr) safeguards the tongue and replaces idle talk with words and phrases that raise one in honor. The tongue is essential in developing courtesy with God, which is the whole point of existence.”” (Purification of The Heart)
Sit with those feelings. This part of your education and development as a servant of Allah.
We can’t control what others say and do but we can control what we do. “In essence, what is forbidden to do is likewise forbidden as an object of reflection. Included in this is thinking about the weaknesses or faults of others, whether they are present or not. The Prophet said, “There is a tree in Paradise reserved for one whose own faults preoccupied him from considering the faults of others.” Spending time thinking or talking about other people’s faults is foolish. Time is short and is better invested in recognizing one’s own shortcomings and then working consistently to eradicate them.”(Purification of the Heart)
Another hadith states, “One of you will say a word and give it no consideration, though it will drag the person [who uttered it] through Hellfire for 70 years.”
When a person with dark skin color comes to you and shares their pain- for example that they were not allowed to give adhan at the masjid even though their recitation is amazing. Or they were passed over a raise or called angry for expressing their views, Listen, and do not try to explain their own experience to them. They are not ignorant or wrong about their own experiences, nor are they overly sensitive. Just give them some brotherly or sisterly love and hold space for them — which is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state without interfering with your own feelings.
I still get confused because there are a variety of voices in the African American/ Black Muslim community and they don’t always agree with each other, but that’s like any community no? Can’t we afford to give them that- the space to differ? We differ all the time. Learn to learn. Listen. Be okay with being checked.
Don’t traumatize Black People
When you start realizing how racist society is and you see it everywhere, at this point resist the urge to share those stories with your Black friends. I do not relay anti-black racist incidents to my Black American or African friends or colleagues. See I can feel angry about the incident and vent. When I share it with you, a non Black person, we will be collectively upset for a while. But then we can move on. We don’t have to live it. That incident will not bring up lived memories of similar experiences that Black people have gone through or go through everyday.
We don’t share the pain of being dehumanized or internalizing that pain, especially from our own brothers and sisters in Islam.
In the same vein, don’t share dehumanizing photographs and videos of death by cops. Black people will stay the same color their entire life, they cannot take off their skins.
The Anti-Racist Grind
Anti-racism work is a continuing pursuit of acknowledging where you are on the spectrum of oppression, which is why I’ve made so many different choices since my earlier mistakes. Each of us should be striving to be an anti-racist- in word and in action. I urge you to get trained by Muslim AntiRacism Collaborative.
When you start actively becoming an anti-racist then do not make it about yourself. Many people who do this work all day and do not have time or the energy to educate you, to discuss racism that you start seeing it everywhere — once you see the matrix, you can’t unsee it.
My work with RashidunDC and CEPA forces me to witness the reality of these policies. When you work with the families affected by these policies it become so much more personal- you build relationships. I share all this to show you that everyone needs to constantly work on themselves and then do something with what they have learned.
There are a lot of strong figures within Black and Black Muslim communities that lead initiatives, show up and support their leadership. Be comfortable in taking their lead about issues that they are intimately familiar with.
Step out of your bubble. Volunteer for organizations that are doing solid, transformative work. Do work behind the scenes on a consistent basis. Don’t look for gratitude.
We need spiritual remedies and social remedies, we need just policies and breaking the structures that support racism, like police accountability, like abolishing private prisons, dismantling the school to prison pipeline. We need love and we need seeking forgiveness from Allah, from each other.
This is hard, lifelong work. It is a test. It is not a selfie and a rant on social media. Let’s get to work. In the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”
Those of us who have made the journey to this land – a settler colony – and now call it home must reconcile with and love our Black and Native siblings deeply, and adopt their struggles, for the sake of Allah, before we lose our souls to the devil.
It is a lifelong journey- let’s ride together.
1. Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, and upon him, said, “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, his heart is not upright until his tongue is upright. A man will not enter Paradise if his neighbor is not secure from his evil.”Source: Musnad Aḥmad 12636
عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا يَسْتَقِيمُ إِيمَانُ عَبْدٍ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ قَلْبُهُ وَلَا يَسْتَقِيمُ قَلْبُهُ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ لِسَانُهُ وَلَا يَدْخُلُ رَجُلٌ الْجَنَّةَ لَا يَأْمَنُ جَارُهُ بَوَائِقَهُ
12636 مسند أحمد باقي مسند المكثرين
2554 المحدث الألباني خلاصة حكم المحدث حسن في صحيح الترغيب