People Like YouPosted: November 12, 2015
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Muslims use Bilal (rA)’s name to support their theories on why racism cannot or does not exist in the Ummah. As if the Ummah is monolithic, as if it were a small community or a classroom or a place that could be static, even for a moment. As if the act of tokenizing a man as a one size fits all patch to the “non racist” racism that “doesn’t exist” is somehow okay. As if they were capable of naming another black Sahaba and not have to resort to Malcolm X in a desperate attempt not to be labeled the “R word.” As if Twitter and other social media platforms weren’t littered with the word abeed, as if in the mad dash to advocate and mobilize for Syria and Palestine we didn’t forget Somalia, and the war on black men, women and children and non binary folks that is occurring right now in our towns, our cities, our homes.
As Muslims we like to knock ourselves in the head with the idea that we aren’t susceptible to racism, that somehow because we were warned by the Prophet (saws) to beware of oppression and to remember that racial hierarchies are bullshit, we are spared from the parasitic nature of anti-black racism. We give the Ummah this projected identity of a safe and equitable space, void of aunties who want lighter-skinned daughters for their sons; uncles who won’t let black men marry their daughters; and masjids that actively work to keep out “urban culture”, i.e., black culture. As if there aren’t brothers and sisters who forget what private naseeha looks like when they see the blackness of someone’s skin, as if there aren’t entire countries being crushed by the foot of neocolonialism that go unsupported because a significant portion of their populations are black.
A few months ago I went to a masjid that was predominately Pakistani. I stopped on my way home from work, it wasn’t my normal masjid, but it was the closest one to me, so I decided to pray there. I generally have no qualms about praying somewhere on the side of the bus stop or in a quiet place at the subway station, but this day I had a little more time, and so I thought I’d check out this masjid I’d never been to before.
Immediately after I walked in, the women were staring at me. As a black woman, I’m used to this. I was also wearing a merlot colour lipstick and big headphones so I wrote off their looks as inquisitive, or disapproving of my chosen aesthetic (I can see how it may be an acquired taste). Either way, their prying eyes were inconsequential, because as a black woman who has experienced being the only black woman in her class, or at her place of work, staring is something I can generally ignore.
I smiled, said my salaams (which weren’t returned), put my bags on the floor of the musullah and prayed my first two rakahs. A woman came over to me in the middle of my salaah and proceeded to say “excuse me” at least 5 times. I ignored her, disgusted by her disrespect, but eventually so frazzled that I could not continue praying. When she had succeeded in getting my attention she said, “This is an Urdu-speaking mosque.”
I didn’t move. I didn’t respond. I looked at her, waiting until she made her point, shocked at her audacity and disrespect. She waited for me to respond but when she saw that I wasn’t going to, she continued, “There is another mosque where you can go not too far from here. There are more people like you there.”
I was in complete disbelief, I looked around at the other aunties who were smiling and nodding in agreement. It made me think they had drawn straws to see who would come and tell me that I was not welcome, and that they were glad it wasn’t them.
I stood for a moment that felt like a lifetime, bouncing around in my own head, trying to unpack what I had just heard. I turned back to the qibla, finished praying, grabbed my stuff and left. The sound of anger was loud, and it clouded my thoughts. I knew what “people like you” meant. Black people. People whose skin is always dark enough to be offensive, its presence so jarring, so stirring that those women felt compelled to interrupt someone’s communion with God to save themselves from having to be in its presence.
I wish I could say that this experience existed in a vacuum, but it doesn’t. I have experienced overt racism in the masjid on at least three separate occasions, directed at me by other Muslims online more than 50 times, and subtly more times than I can count. It’s frustrating that when black Muslims try to have these conversations they are often shut down immediately by using Bilal (rA)’s name. The only time that anti-black racism in the Ummah is discussed in depth is usually amongst a group of black Muslims, outside of our religious spaces. The kinds of stories I hear from other brothers and sisters about their experiences with racism from other Muslims are stunning.
We need to be able to have these conversations in our masjids, in our other religious spaces, in our homes with our families, in our social groups, whether we have a black friend present or not. We need to check each other when anti-black racism arises. We can’t wear keffiyehs around our necks and stand in the middle of a pro-Palestine protest but go home and use the word abeed, or not stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters and not give them space to share their experiences safely.
Last year I met a black woman who experienced so much emotional and psychological violence in the masjid because of her blackness, that she left Islam. I often wonder if Bilal (rA) would be ashamed to hear the ways in which he is tokenized by clearly racist Muslims to justify their racism. We need to do better and be better. We need to interrogate our anti-blackness, we need to unlearn our language and the stereotypes that we have conceived around black people. We need to be open to critique and challenge when our words or sentiments are triggering and oppressive. We need to shed the defensiveness. When we are able to do this, we will begin to heal the trauma and distrust left by anti-black racism.
I believe that when we can have these conversations, hear these stories, mobilize for change we will truly be an Ummah. As long as we adhere to racial hierarchies or allow racism to parade itself in front of us without challenging it, we will continue to be disjointed, and the trauma and hurt will fester.
We’re capable of closing these wounds and healing, but we have to be dedicated.
Read more by Key, here.
Key Ballah is a Toronto-based writer and Hip Hop enthusiast. She is the author of the poetry collection, ‘Preparing My Daughter For Rain‘, she melts faith, love and her experiences of being a woman of colour navigating the western world in her writing. She believes in empowering the brown girl to reclaim her selves and her body, by connecting and healing collectively, over borders, oceans and time zones, through story telling and poetry. She is currently working on a new project due out this autumn.
contact her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
follow her on twitter & Instagram : @keyballah
read more of her works: www.keywrites.com