I have been thinking off and on about posting about my attempts to work through the ways that my whiteness, gender identity and convert status intersected, and what the results were like.
But I have been putting it off. Yes, race was certainly a major issue in the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in. But I am not sure that I am the person to talk about it—in fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not. And it’s very, very complicated, especially when race intersects with gender identity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation… and so forth.
Part of me really does not want to talk about it. For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.
But this blog is about my recovery process primarily, not about telling Muslim communities what they need to pay attention to. I don’t imagine for a minute that anything I say here will change a thing, either in the communities that I used to be involved in, or in any other Muslim community. The racism that I was so often immersed in—sometimes as a target, more often as a passive beneficiary, and sometimes as a perpetrator—existed in those communities for a number of complicated reasons, and its continuing existence is enabled by a larger web of oppressive factors that reach far beyond their borders.
There are so many aspects of racism that impacted us as white converts:
- we were fetishized and exoticized, and in the process often dehumanized
- when we were welcomed, it was often at the expense of converts-of-color (who weren’t given nearly such a warm welcome), or of born Muslims of color who weren’t toeing the conservative line
- male white converts in particular were often given positions of power or influence which male converts-of-color with equivalent or even superior qualification were unlikely to be offered
- our presence often seemed to help reinforce oppressive beauty standards held by some born Muslims that favor fair skin, especially for girls and women
- in the case of female converts (regardless of color), our bodies became public property, which was dehumanizing
- we converts (again, regardless of color) were often expected to abandon most aspects of our culture and heritage, and to see then as irredeemably inferior, as jahiliyya
- white female converts were sometimes given positions of responsibility in a tokenistic way, in order to provide a group with a more “North American” and “woman-friendly” image, while female converts-of-color were passed over
- white female converts were sometimes used in order to do “Islamic work” that would put them in the public eye, while born Muslim women were given the “more dignified” and respected role of staying at home
- immigrant men often sought to marry white female converts, but seldom wished to marry black female converts
- immigrant men sometimes married white female converts with the attitude that they were on a “civilizing mission”, and proceeded to give their new wives a conservative Muslim extreme make-over
- we were used as a weapon against born Muslim women (usually, women of color) who didn’t wear hijab, or didn’t buy into patriarchal marriage with sufficient enthusiasm—and we were often quite happy to be used in such a way
- sometimes, our supposed “good example” was used as a weapon against Muslim women of color without our knowledge or consent—or even despite our opposition
- as female converts (regardless of color–though here I think converts of color definitely had it worse), we were often given to understand that we are morally tainted, and that we would never, ever be quite as pure or worthy as born Muslim women of color
- as white converts (or even, as supposedly potential converts), we were often sought in marriage by immigrant Muslim men, who passed over women from their own communities (who were barred from marrying out)
- as white female converts, we were particularly vulnerable to getting into awful or abusive marriages, or being married for immigration purposes
- as white female converts, we spent many years listening to immigrant Muslims making blanket, insulting generalizations about “the West,” “western women,” “white women,” “white people”… including Muslims we were married to, or were (supposedly) friends with
- as female converts, we routinely had to deal with Muslims who doubted that our conversions were based on adequate knowledge of Islam, as well as sincere belief (regardless of color, though here again, my impression is that black female converts had and continue to have it far worse on this issue)
- as female converts, we were often put in the position of being unable to turn to anyone for help, support or counseling (again, this seems to be the case regardless of color)
- as white female converts who married immigrant Muslim men and had children as a result, we lived with the awareness that our “mixed” children were going to face prejudices of various kinds from other Muslims, and were also going to be fetishized—especially our daughters (but not as much as the children of female converts of color)
- as white converts, we lived with the knowledge that the immigrant and immigrant-descended Muslims were proud of us—especially, once we women had put on hijab and married conservative Muslim men—in ways, and to a degree, that they would never, ever be proud of black converts
Quite a mess of issues, to say the least.
Overall, I’d say that my experience has been both highly destructive of my sense of self, and very, very corrupting.
Since there supposedly is “no racism in Islam” (a soundbite often used in the communities I was involved in to mean that “Muslims aren’t racist”), these were not things people usually talked about.
And, I have not found a lot of resources that are terribly helpful in working through these issues. We were victims, and we were also perpetrators. And bystanders who did nothing. It’s complicated.
Next post: But why does it even matter?