How much do I really know about the black experience?

I am of Bangladeshi descent, but I grew up in a black-majority county and went to school with many black friends. At one time, in elementary school, my homeroom teacher was African American, my principal was West African, my carpooling buddies were East African. I prayed in a masjid filled with Somalis and Ethiopians, and had iftar in Ramadan with Egyptian and Sudanese brothers. During the summers, I worked in a day camp under a supervisor from Philadelphia and biked in the afternoons with a close friend from Tanzania. During the school year, we learned about the history of slavery and the civil rights movement and we read literature about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I thought I knew a lot about my black brothers and sisters, about their history, about their experiences. I was proud of my diverse masjid and community. I was hopeful with our nation electing its first Black President. I was optimistic that we were past the dregs of racism.

I was wrong.

It was, in fact, a simple event that blew my house of cards away. I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed one day and came across a post speaking out strongly against the discrimination towards blacks in America, and in our Muslim communities. Though I’ve seen other posts like it, that one really hit home and made it personal because I saw that the post was shared by an African-American brother I knew very well. He was someone I’ve always seen in the masjid with a happy, smiling face. He was very involved in our community and was easy going with everybody. It hit me that if even he felt that discrimination, that things weren’t as simple, as black and white, as I thought they were. When I went to the masjid later that week, I paid closer attention when I stood by the brother in prayer, smiled at him, and shook his hand. I didn’t want him to feel slighted in the least bit. I wanted him to know that I genuinely loved and respected him. I resolved to keep my eyes more open to the racism that lurked in the deep shadows of our communities.

Discovering Racism Everywhere

At the masjid and organizational level, I didn’t need to look far to find racism and race issues tearing us up. One nearby masjid fractured down the middle after much infighting, and it ended up with many African-Americans leaving and starting their own masjid. At another masjid, the attendees watched as an Arab imam sat down after the khutbah and an African-American brother started his post-jumuah announcements, but suddenly he began to accuse the imam and others of discrimination. In my own limited activism, as I helped organize Islamic conferences and inter-masjid unity events in the Washington, D.C. area, folks shared that they were unhappy with the lack of black speakers and organizers as part of the event. They asked, “Is this a DC Conference, or is this really a Desi Conference?” and “Why do you have so few inner-city masajid and black imams as part of your event? When will you have more than Imam Siraj Wahhaj at your events? We’ve been practicing Islam decades before you set foot in America.” I saw the chagrin and disappointment up close, and it left me deeply affected.

At the community level, the more I looked, sadly, the more I saw. At a dinner party, I witnessed an auntie come up to my mom and joke, “Oh, please do help my son find a suitable wife. I’m worried that if we don’t find him someone soon, he might bring home a black girl…” Someone else cautioned me one evening, while pointing to some guys standing around in a parking lot, “Keep your distance from the blacks. They may be thieves.” As I drove an elderly neighbor home one day, and shared a hadith I just learned, that Prophet Musa “was a black-skinned man”1, I heard her tell me, “I just can’t imagine a Prophet being black. I can’t believe it.” And yet another time, while talking about race, I heard someone bring up, “I once saw this documentary where babies were given the option to choose between a white doll and a black doll. Everybody went for the white one.” Needless to say, these firsthand experiences left me pained and angered. I realized that these statements weren’t isolated incidents, but they were indicative of a larger prevalence of racism present in many Muslim families. It also gave me cause to reflect. Where was this racism coming from? Was this just a lack of awareness on their part, or maybe misrepresentation fed from the media? Do their comments reflect on me also, as a member of the community, that perhaps I, too, have racism nestled deep in my heart?

Learning Further Myself

On a personal level, I continued to seek and take in. My learning took a pivotal turn when I transferred to a community college close to my home. With over three-quarters of the students identifying as “Black/African-American”2, I was a minority, which was a first for me. I quickly began to appreciate that just like every other community, our black brothers and sisters were not a monolith. I got to meet math geniuses tutoring other students, entrepreneurs with dapper suits and amazing business plans, bookish academics quietly studying away, pastors giving the most rousing orations, activists eloquently challenging the status quo, laidback guys having a good time, effusive professors teaching while also studying for their PhD’s, judges and politicians coming by to pontificate, and so many mothers and fathers taking time out to earn a degree. I saw how there were cliques depending on whether one was African or Afro-Latin vs. African-American, from a higher or lower-income background, Democratic or Republican, or a Redskins or Ravens football fan. I noticed the diversity of clothing, hairstyles, music, vernacular, and culture in the black community. Black was truly beautiful. I only wished everybody in my community could understand this too.

In the college classes themselves, I was challenged even further as we openly discussed sensitive topics, such as affirmative action, owning the “n-word”, black history month, black lives matter, and black incarceration rates. At first, I couldn’t believe that some should get preferential admission, or be the only ones allowed to say something, based on the color of their skin. I didn’t quite understand yet why there was passionate controversy on the other topics, or what to do about it. However, as we discussed each topic further, I realized that I didn’t take into mind the systemic bigotry and discrimination blacks had to face since the founding of America, and how little we as a nation have done to make things right. I didn’t know that nonwhite students were more likely to attend poorly funded schools, that school segregation still existed and was widespread3, and that blacks are still underrepresented in top tier colleges4. I was alarmed to hear that under current incarceration rates, 1 in 3 black males born today can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes, in part due to situations where African-Americans are disproportionately accused and charged more3. I couldn’t believe how little I knew.

My Resolve Moving Forward

Whether from an organizational, communal, personal, or sociological point of view, I was just discovering the struggles the black community has been going through, and how much they had to offer in spite of those struggles. As God made us “peoples and tribes that you may know one another”5, I consider it my duty to learn more and be closer to all my black brothers and sisters. God did not create me to be colorblind. I need to read more on Luqman, Mansa Musa, Bilal, and other black and noble Muslim luminaries. I need to study more about post-slavery discrimination and current modern realities. I need to judge less and be more open-minded. I need to invite more community members from other ethnicities and races, including my black brothers, over to my place to eat and relax together. Above all, I need to love them, pray for them, and support them through all they’re going through.

My dear black brothers and sisters, I’m sorry for the racism, bigotry, discrimination, arrogance, contempt, and misconduct we, your fellow Muslims and Americans, have shown you. I know you haven’t asked for an apology, but I still offer mine here. This is more for me to acknowledge and repent for our collective sins and shortcomings, for as Malcolm X said, one “can never start to cure himself until he recognizes and accepts his true condition”6. I pray God unites and cures our hearts of all sorts of racism, helps us to be protectors of one another as champions of social justice, and grants us the highest levels of Paradise. Ameen.


Bibliography

  1. Hadith #3365 – Musnad Imam Ahmad
  2. Performance Accountability Report 2014 – Prince George’s Community College
  3. 15 Charts That Prove We’re Far From Post-Racial – Huffington Post
  4. The Best New Argument for Affirmative Action – The Atlantic
  5. Surah Hujurat 49:13 – Al-Qur’an
  6. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Page 165 – Alex Haley

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

6 Responses to "Discovering (I Knew Nothing of) the Black Experience"

  1. Ayman Nassar says:

    nice sharing Arif

  2. Alina says:

    Thank you for bringing up this issue, which is very sparsely mentioned. As human beings we have an innate tendency to discriminate. But isn’t overcoming those inhuman traits the true meaning of ‘being human’ and attaining taqwa?

    • Arif says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alina. I would caveat what you said with, “As human beings, we have an innate nafs/soul that is turbulent and can fall into the tendency to discriminate.” You’re absolutely right in that struggling and overcoming those traits are part of being human and attaining taqwa.

  3. Khayra says:

    Ameen. Jazakallahu khayr akhi.