Whiteness, privilege… and critical thinking

One of the ways that I and my white female convert friends often reacted to becoming aware of how our white privilege was showing was to avoid thinking critically about the various practices, beliefs and community dynamics of the conservative Muslim communities that we were involved in. This led to a number of serious problems.

Privilege is not a zero-sum game: that either you are privileged, full stop, or you’re not. Pretty much everyone has some privilege, and those who deny that they have any may well be trying to avoid being called out on… their privilege.
(artwork courtesy of: http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/2011/02/bayneh-w-baynik-on-meem-lesbians-privilege/)

It all started innocently/ignorantly enough, I suppose. As whites educated in the ’70’s in largely white small towns, with an educational system that presented white North American Christian (or post-Christian) middle-class culture, history, literature and ways of seeing the world as normative, and consuming media that did likewise, we came into Islam with very Eurocentric (and largely middle class) biases. But our biases were largely unconscious, and therefore, unexamined. We had been educated to simply assume that our ways of doing things and seeing things are only sensible, really… and so by default, any other ways that fall short of what we had been conditioned to believe are rational, fair and correct are inferior, if not flat-out wrong. And, that the world would be a far better place if our “superior” ways became dominant everywhere.

But at the same time, we were very idealistic teens and young adults, who were very critical of the hypocrisy and war-mongering and neo-imperialism and racism and sexism of our parents’ generation. So, we assumed that we ourselves were free from racism, because we were so critical of it in others.

Of course, we were in for a rude shock on that score.

We soon came to realize that we were That White Woman. The kind of white woman who just unreflectively assumes that she knows what’s best for everybody—even if she doesn’t have a clue about the actual lives of the people that she is talking about. And who thinks that she has the right and duty to tell the rest of the world how to live. It was quite painful, looking in the mirror and seeing That White Woman. We absolutely didn’t want to be her.

After all, we had to deal with the likes of her every day out in the street in our hijabs—those white women who would give us pitying looks, or ask us condescendingly, “But aren’t you hot?” Those so-left-you’re-turning-a-donut white women in the tie-dye shirts and “Free Nelson Mandela” (or whatever the latest progressive cause du jour might be) buttons who would demand to know why we had converted to such a woman-hating and/or intrinsically violent religion (which they usually knew next to nothing about, as would quickly become clear from further conversation with them). Or those right-wing Evangelical Christian white women who would patronizingly befriend us in order to hopefully rescue our souls from our awful religion.

Conservative Muslim preachers and authors had their own ways of dismissing the concerns of their critics, whether these critics were secularly-minded Muslims, or outsiders. Thanks to the local MSA and its roster of “approved” speakers, we were exposed to these approaches to criticism early on. They made use of the typical apologetics justifying everything from patriarchal marriage to gender segregation in mosques, of course, but also  at times they very selectively employed liberationist, anti-racist and even feminist rhetoric  in order to shield their ideas from all criticism.

The upshot of this was that in our minds, asking critical questions became identified with being racist. While repeating apologetics, or explaining away complex realities of life in Muslim communities with simple, all-purpose responses blaming everything negative on colonialism, imperialism, and global inequalities became (in our minds) anti-racist. As well as holding Muslims and Muslim beliefs and practices to a lesser and more forgiving standard than that used to measure the beliefs and practices of Others. And dealing with difficult or embarrassing questions by speculating about the possible political or ideological motivations of the person or group raising them (without, however, actually getting around to really answering the question).

We thought that there are certain topics that we really had no right to think critically about. And that list kept expanding. Accepting the interpretations and explanations of Authentic Muslims (who were nearly always middle-class educated urban males, and were usually Arab or South Asian) would be the only way we could escape imposing our white prejudices on Islam and Muslims.

This quest for the Authentic Muslim to whom we could abdicate our minds and consciences without feeling any remaining twinges of the need to think critically about his pronouncements was an important factor in leading some of us to neo-traditionalism.

Looking back, I can see how we were yet again trapped in the black-and-white thinking that religious patriarchies so often foster. And how it inhibited our ability to think, made us vulnerable to various types of exploitation and abuse, and drew us in as reproducers—as supporters even—of limiting and oppressive beliefs and practices.

And how remarkably naive and uninformed we were. How we could have not seen through the “Authentic Muslim” pose as a way that a variety of Muslim groups and individuals try to legitimate themselves, and that it’s often a signal that whatever-it-is that they’re espousing ISN’T uncontested? How could it be that we didn’t see the ethnocentrism, racism, classism and male chauvinism inherent in our notions of who it is who is entitled to speak on behalf of Islam? How didn’t we see that in our concern with trying to avoid wielding our white privilege like a bazooka, that we were bolstering other oppressive systems of privilege??

But it wasn’t all about our concerns about how our white privilege might be oppressing others. There was also another dimension to it all—apologetics and refusing to think critically in the name of anti-racism did come in handy as faith-saving devices. And, they also made our day-to-day lives in highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that had a lot of anxieties about identity and boundaries much easier.

So for years, we wouldn’t really critique things like patriarchal marriage or polygamy or men’s right to unilateral divorce… or even gender segregation. We were happy to buy into (and repeat) the claim that male-authored, conservative visions of men and women playing “complementary, not competing” roles in the family, society and the mosque was somehow liberating, even feminist. An indigenous Muslim women’s feminist vision, supposedly. As opposed to secular nationalist, marxist, feminist or other visions held by some born Muslim women, which we didn’t see as “authentic” or “indigenous”—as though anyone had given us the right to decide that. Oh, we were tools, all right. Tools of patriarchy. Tools of middle-class, educated, transnational, straight male self-elected spokesmen for “True Islam.”

These men were—surprise, surprise—quite privileged in a number of important ways. But they were largely unconscious of their privilege—as people generally are. After all, privilege means you don’t even have to think about it. Privilege is also often context-dependent. While being an Arab male does not make a person privileged in an American airport, it certainly does in most immigrant-dominated “mainstream” American Sunni mosques.

Meanwhile, it isn’t as though refusing to critically examine things doesn’t mean that they will never negatively affect you.  We did pay a severe price for all the things we refused to see—and our children even more so.

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  1. #1 by x_x on August 20, 2012 - 6:18 pm

    Right on. I did this. “An indigenous Muslim women’s feminist vision, supposedly.” I remember viciously hating Fatima Mernissi for this very reason. I privileged what I thought was the voice of the subaltern….but it was really only the subaltern voice of the male-ultra-traditionalist voice. This is why I have such problems with Saba Mahmood now. For all her great work, I have a nagging worry that she thinks she is privileging women’s voices and realities when she may only be privileging the male-traditional voice as those women have internalized it. How can we know? What does it even mean to have an autonomous voice?

  2. #2 by musteryou on April 7, 2013 - 5:36 am

    lovely post!

  1. Link Love (08/09/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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