Of whiteness and conversion

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.

This image is from the Shukr website, on their front page. It is part of an advertisement for their Ramadan-Eid sale. (http://www.shukr.ca/) Sadly, the reason it caught my eye is because all the other female models on the site are white. And I asked myself why. Why all the others are white, and why Shukr would think that this would help them to better sell their clothes in North America, where almost one-third of the Muslim population is black, and many more Muslims have dark skin.

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?

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  1. #1 by Stephanie on August 9, 2012 - 9:57 pm

    I always have been progressive even before being Muslim, finding a progressive Muslim community was the only way I could connect to Islam. I’m glad I found them or I would have given up, because every other circle treated me as you described. I hope you can find yourself, and find peace in this disordered world. Much love, Stephanie

  2. #2 by xcwn on August 9, 2012 - 10:17 pm

    Stephanie—I am glad to hear that you found a community that you are comfortable with.

    Unfortunately, I have encountered many of these racist dynamics in progressive circles as well. Some of the more obvious stuff—like conservative immigrant men marrying converts and making them over—I haven’t seen among progressives (unsurprisingly). But I’d say that in my experience, progressives certainly aren’t immune to unthinkingly reproducing the racist dynamics of more conservative communities (or for that matter, of the wider society).

  3. #3 by Jibreel Speight on August 10, 2012 - 2:26 am

    As I was reading your post, my blood started to boil little-by-little. As an African American male convert, I feel your pain (and then some).

    • #4 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 4:44 pm

      Jibreel–Thank you for your comment. It’s a really ugly situation for many converts, especially for African Americans.

  4. #5 by thewatcher1975 on August 10, 2012 - 7:32 am

    Western Muslim converts bring either an inferiority complex with them or a type if white liberal guilt! Because of this we let a whole heap of imported foreign nastiness go unchecked! This westerner (or as Allah calls us Romans) knows a barbarian when he sees one, and are mosques are filled with them. It’s all in the power of perception, we give them too much power! Imagine what would happen if we started calling immigrant muslims “barbarian born muslims”! The power of that-it would let them know that ‘you’ are inferior to us and we are not scared to say it. Extreme? Nah, it’s what’s necessary when dealing with medieval foreigners!

    • #6 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 4:44 pm

      thewatcher–I don’t think the answer to racism is more racism. Labeling groups of people as “barbarians” or “medieval foreigners” isn’t going to help anyone. And why do we need to find a warrant for our existence in the Qur’an?? What position does that put (say) Aboriginal converts in?

  5. #7 by Nasiru on August 10, 2012 - 10:44 am

    Very interesting read. Not a lot of Muslim whites where I live other than Bosnian so I’ve never seen this firsthand. I know in one instance there was a white brother whom visited a predominantly black masjid, and I was quick to embrace him after prayer. Not that I was putting him on a pedestal, I just wanting him to feel comfortable, and not like an ink spot in a bowl of milk. I know that feeling all too well.

    • #8 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 4:47 pm

      Nasiru—It’s great when people are welcoming, and try to make outsiders feel comfortable.

  6. #9 by AnonyMouse on August 10, 2012 - 6:17 pm

    I just wanted to say that I have been glued to your blog ALL DAY. And I’ve also shared it all over my FB profile, and pretty much everyone else is completely riveted as well.

    We all see so many parallels to our own experiences, or others’ experiences that we’ve witnessed. Thank you so much for having the courage and honesty to bring to light many of these brutal truths which many (most?) Muslims prefer to hide, ignore, or decry.

    • #10 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 4:48 pm

      AnonyMouse–Thank you for your comment.
      The more folks who blog about these sorts of things, the better, IMO.

  7. #11 by Sunni Side Up on August 11, 2012 - 4:53 pm

    Much of what you say is true, and I’ve written about many of the same issues myself. However, I’m not sure it’s fair to paint white converts as ‘innocent victims’ of immigrant men with a fairness fetish. Some are, to be sure, but just as many know exactly what they’re marrying. If the couple dated before marriage, then at some point, they’re going to argue about religious and cultural issues, and the white woman will ask her immigrant Muslim boyfriend obvious questions like “If your wife cooking biryani/taking care of your parents/being Muslim/wearing hijab is so important to you, why don’t you just marry someone from your culture who’s fine with it?” If his answer is “Because I like white women better” (and it very often is!), then she knows what she’s getting into. That doesn’t happen in every case, but in my experience, it happens more often than not. Many white women are happy with situations like that, because they know their husband feels that he ‘married up’ by marrying someone much lighter-skinned, and they like the security of knowing they can’t be easily replaced with someone ‘equal or better’. I think the entire mentality is sickening, but there’s plenty of fault on both sides.

    I also think it’s a bit contradictory to talk about men giving their wives ‘conservative makeovers’ (convincing or coercing them to adopt religious practices they would never have done on their own), then criticize people for questioning those same women’s religious commitment. Both things happen, and both are wrong. However, if the point of the first statement is that those women wouldn’t have done it on their own (and are therefore different from women who HAVE chosen to do it of their own accord), then it doesn’t seem unreasonable that people other than yourself would recognize that difference. If it’s fine for you to make the statement “She’s only doing it because her husband told her to,” why is it wrong for someone else to say the same thing about the same person?

    By speaking of women as objects with no say in what happens to them (e.g., “Her husband made her do XYZ” rather than “She decided she’d rather do XYZ than get a divorce”), it seems like you’re inadvertently doing the same thing you (rightly) criticize the cult for doing. The fact is that in the US and Canada, all of these women have choices, and though they may have been influenced by their husbands and community members to make the wrong ones, they are ultimately responsible for their own actions. To claim otherwise is to deny their adulthood, and even their personhood. The “I’m a woman, so it’s not my fault I was easily influenced” cop-out is exactly the same reasoning Wahhabis and similar sects use to justify continued oppression of women. I hate to see a strong, intelligent woman such as yourself playing right into their hands.

    As for Shukr, their photos are all taken in Syria (which is where their clothes are manufactured), and their models are all Syrian. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re all light-skinned Arabs who look ‘white’, because that’s how the majority of Syrians look. Most Muslim countries aren’t as ethnically diverse as North America, and Syria is no exception. I take issue with a lot of Shukr’s business practices, but I don’t think this is something they’ve done intentionally.

    • #12 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 5:12 pm

      Sunnisideup—Lots of interesting points (and I like your blog, BTW).

      I wasn’t trying to suggest that all white women who marry immigrants are victims, nor that women bear no responsibility for ending up in bad marriages. Though, I must admit that the scenario you sketch, of a dating couple that discusses their differences before getting married, is alien to me. Converts like myself, who were quite sheltered growing up and got married as teenagers several decades ago, simply didn’t have the life experience that would lead us to ask how it was going to work out. And the men we married didn’t pose such questions either–it was just assumed that marriage is a righteous deed that of course will work out just fine, as long as both parties were “good Muslims.” (Clearly, we were blinded by astounding levels of naivete and idealism.) But that’s another post.

      As for conservative makeovers–what I am referring to here goes way beyond religious practices. There are men who do convince their wives that they need to change just about everything they do in order to be “ideal Muslim wives,” even down to mundane details such as how they sweep the floor. In any sane community, they’d be seen as control freaks, but there are Muslim communities and scholars who aid and abet such behavior and make it very hard for women to get out of such marriages, even in North America. Yet another post.

      As for Shukr–next post.

      • #13 by Sunni Side Up on August 12, 2012 - 10:09 pm

        Thanks for your reply! I realized I might come off as a bit harsher than I intended; your blog is very thought-provoking, and when I get into ‘analysis mode’, I often forget pleasantries like “I love your blog!” Sorry for that. 🙂

        I thought you mentioned in another post that you’d been involved with your ex before marriage, then he had some kind of epiphany and became more religious, at which point he started pressuring your for marriage and conversion. I may have misunderstood, or remembered it wrong – sorry for that, too.

        You’re totally right about the ‘conservative makeovers’, and I agree with you that it’s wrong, and should be a major red flag. My point was that when it becomes apparent to the woman that he wants to change virtually everything about her, wouldn’t she question why he’d bother when there were plenty of women from his own culture who would happily toe that line? Many do, and just don’t think critically enough about the implications of whatever answer they get. Alhamdulillah, I figured out pretty quickly that responses like “Because you’re beautiful” or “Because you’re white” are my cue to turn and run in the opposite direction!

        I look forward to reading your post about Shukr! (Like I mentioned previously, they wouldn’t be my first choice to hold up as a model of Islamic business practices, for a variety of reasons.)

  8. #14 by Wahabah on August 12, 2012 - 2:16 pm

    All of these things are reasons why I’ve chosen to largely isolate myself from the larger Muslim community and cultivate a smaller circle of variously colored friends who hail from many cultures and socio-economic positions…particularly important since I’m not really the marrying kind (too old for that) and am bisexual. It’s certainly a journey when Allah calls.

    • #15 by xcwn on August 12, 2012 - 5:16 pm

      Wahabah–Yup, it’s certainly a journey. And the judgment that LGBTQ folks deal with from the larger “mainstream” Muslim community is yet another thing.

  9. #16 by anthrogeek10 on August 12, 2012 - 3:25 pm

    “in the case of female converts (regardless of color), our bodies became public property, which was dehumanizing”

    Can you elaborate here? Thanks!

  10. #17 by Ani on August 12, 2012 - 7:28 pm

    Muslims for Progressive Values is a community that is not just color blind, but also supportive of all sects and sexual orientation. And by inclusive we don’t mean ‘don’t ask don’t tell’!

  11. #18 by Umar Lee on August 12, 2012 - 8:32 pm

    Very timely. I discussed most of these issues on my blog several years ago. Outside of the so-called progressive angle these have all been issues I have written about that are dirty little open secrets of the community.

  12. #19 by Former Cultie on August 13, 2012 - 10:38 pm

    I’m one of the many former “culties” out there and usually don’t comment on blogs, but the models on Shukr’s site arent Syrians (many of whom do look “white”). I am loathe to appear to be defending them at all, but I was close to many of them in my cult days. In their case they’re going to work w what they have; they do EVERYTHING in production in Syria, with the exception of design which is is done in part in Spain.

    You see, in their view (and we know who supplies that view) Muslim women are too “pure” and modest to model, even hijab clothing, so they hire out *** non Muslimah *** models from local agencies in Damascus. Those women tend to be from Russia, and that’s just the way it is. Male models are also hired out out as well, although not all of thm. I think in the past male Brothers have modeled some of the clothes, hence a more diverse representation. If they moved that side of production out to the UK or somewhere – even Egypt, maybe it would change. Most of the women customers are Desi; one of the two owners, the lead designer are Desi and almost all the rest of the staff is Arab or Desi. But I can’t see Shukr, as expensive as heir clothes are, being able to afford to do shoots in a western country or Egypt where more diverse models can be found.

    Honestly it seems like shukr, more than any of the other cultie or Islamic businesses, seems to be a symbol for a lot of people of excessiveness or what’s wrong w Sufis or converts even though only one person involved in that co is a convert (and white dudebro to boot). Is Uns still around? Now there’s a symbol of western classist excessive snobbery and elitism.

    • #20 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:27 am

      Former Cultie—Thanks for commenting. I always like to know that there are other former Muslim cult members out there. 🙂

      Interesting comments about Shukr. I have nothing against them personally, and don’t want to single them out as being somehow “worse” than anyone else. Which is the point—I think that their use of fair-skinned female models does express something about the conservative Sunni “mainstream” customer base in North America that they are trying to reach. Which to my mind is disturbing. But that’s another post.

      I don’t know anyone who ended up involved in Uns, or if its still around—anyone have an idea?

  13. #21 by Heather Rawlings on August 14, 2012 - 1:57 am

    Your blog entry reminded me so much of my white convert experience. I’m so glad I found your blog, I was initially welcomed into the community, but the moment I became engaged to an Arab brother the racism/backbiting/slander began. It had a negative impact on me, and I’ve never felt welcome or comfortable at most mosques.

  14. #22 by The White Pumpkin on August 14, 2012 - 3:48 am

    SubhanAllah… I am really glad to have stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for putting a lot of my feelings into writing. I shall return

  15. #23 by rootedinbeing on August 14, 2012 - 3:29 pm

    I just had to come back to this post and let you know how excellent it is! You are a great writer, and you really convey the experience as a white convert perfectly. The fact that there is such an apparent pattern to our generalized experience is giving me pause. I’m in Wisconsin, and could swear you and I must have attended the same mosques.

  16. #24 by x_x on August 17, 2012 - 3:12 am

    Who is Uns? Former Cultie? Intrigued.

  17. #25 by Saliha on August 17, 2012 - 7:13 am

    Uns was a company that sold crazy expensive perfume oils and dhikr beads made from rare woods and such. Their website always struck me as really elitist and somehow counter to the values they espoused.

    • #26 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 1:22 pm

      Saliha–Weren’t they involved in some sort of book publishing too? Or do I misremember?

  18. #27 by Saliha on August 17, 2012 - 7:11 pm

    I don’t remember ever seeing books from them, they did have clothing for a very short period of time. I just googled them. In case anyone is in the market for $400 tasbeeh/misbah/dhikr beads or $200/oz oud, they’re still around.

    • #28 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 7:14 pm

      LOL. Ah well, you just reminded me of an old song… “Stairway to Heaven.” 🙂

  19. #29 by Saliha on August 17, 2012 - 9:28 pm

    The perfect song to accompany this madness. Speaking of all this madness, I don’t know, nor do I have any need to know the exact cult that you were involved in. What saddens me is that I can think of at least 3 groups off the top of my head that fit your descriptions. I know too many people, male and female, in some cases now 3 generations in the same family whose lives were damaged or destroyed. It’s so important that others offer what they can in the way of help and healing. Telling these stories is essential to that healing. Thank you for this blog.

  20. #30 by rosalindawijks on March 8, 2015 - 4:42 pm

    Spot on & true even in my experience! Alas, racism, shadeism, colorism and self-hatred are inbedded in many communities of people of color……..including Muslim communties around the world.

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