A Residue Remains: Using White Privilege in The Ummah

A friend of mine told me this week that I am seeing racism and white privilege everywhere. Well, I am, because as Angela Glover Blackwell explains in this very easy to watch video “Structural racism is racism baked into society…baked into the consciousness.” It is everywhere. Recently I have begun to look at where I see it play out in my life—to my advantage.

As this deadline has approached, I have asked myself repeatedly why am I doing this carnival? Of course I am doing it for the sake of Allah, but what does that mean?

Everywhere doesn’t preclude the Muslim blogospere, where issues related to nationalism and racism are ever present. I have repeatedly seen comments from both genders and varying ethnicities who affirm that there is no place for racism/nationalism in the deen. And this is true. But the problems exist, so shouldn’t we be actively working to eradicate them? People are, but in my experience I have only seen very, very little talk about these problems coming from white Muslims–and mostly it has revolved around implicating others. And where I do see discussions about racism/nationalsim and other isms in the Ummah, problem solving is often interrupted with a Muslim “blocking move,” such as ”They aren’t on the right manhaj, so there is no use in dealing with them” or “Nationalism has always existed, it is unavoidable” or the one you see in the anti-racism blogosphere as well “There are much more pressing issues to address than a bunch of over-sensitive whiners!” The response to that last one is often, “Don’t you think injustice is a pressing issue?”

Don’t you?

Here is some of the ultimate guidance that has been left to humankind, and is often paraphrased regarding these issues, but has been reduced to a hollow maxim:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.” ~Muhammed(sallallaahu ‘alayhe wa sallam)

Unearned privilege is injustice. For me, addressing my own white privilege is a necessary step to further remove myself from the residual behaviors of my jilhaliya.  The utterance of shahada does not eliminate a couple or more decades worth of habits, attitudes, behavior, cultural baggage, etc. Pork is easy enough to quit, swearing takes a bit more work, but what about learned behavior that we don’t recognize that we have learned–like white privilege? I didn’t know I still had it until very–too–recently.

As an aside, it is well known that many of us, when new Muslims, develop a strong case of convertitis and are quick to disparge the cultural, not-so-Muslim behaviors of some born Muslims. I had this, I still get a touch of it from time to time. But I will no longer believe that I have entered into this deen pure–without my own baggage. Pointing fingers at (literally) others’ stuff is part of my superiority baggage, so again, this is an attempt to turn the mirror to myself.

For the past year, I have been struggling to work within my community. My community is really small. Though sources have cited about 3,000 Muslims here, I have never seen more than a few hundred at the Eid prayers. We have yet to create a bonafide community with a masjid (actually there is one ethnically-based masjid that is exclusive to one minority), school and other services. It seems our options are to either continue waiting some more decades for a dominant group to control things, deal with each other, choose virtual isolation or, of course, move away – which is what many of us wait to do while doing nothing for the current community. Segregation is an option and does exist to some degree. I’m not sure if the time had come that we should retreat to a mountainside with our flock—but it often feels that way.

Many of us have tried individually to start up community based services and activities, but they often flounder and flop nearly immediately. Other than having a place to pray and a fairly ethnically segregated Sunday school, I can’t think of a service that has been consistently available to the community in the six years that I have lived here. After failing to organize with folks a couple of times, I just left it off. Recently, I reengaged when I saw a few of my sisters struggling just as I had and I hated that for them. Finally, I seemed to have grasp that I really wanted for them what I wanted for myself—a community!  Since I had seen what it was like to have a good handful or two of sisters come together to do community building and then quickly drop off after a few meetings, I decided that maybe if I just kept a seat warm it could somehow help. I did not expect to last a year! Though I did make lots of dua about whether or not I was doing the right thing. I also ran into many of the Muslim blocking moves.

While I thought I was just bench-warming, Jamerican suggested the problem of “[Muslimahs] using Muslim community White privilege to dictate norms to other- brown- Muslim women.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I became concerned that I may not be working  for my community, but rather I may be forcing my agenda all over my sisters. And what would my agenda be? Very possibly, to do things my way, the right way, the whi–argh. Yep, that was it. Jamerican may have meant something different, and this idea probably plays out in different ways in different settings. For me it looked nearly superficial as our work was mostly benign initially, but I am really thankful that another sister in the group has been exploring these issues too and she now also sees it. We are actively working to find a new balance, where we contribute, but do not try to dominate—directly or subversively. So here’s what it looked like:

Our group of a couple dozen women has one minority majority, about 5-6 white convert sisters, and then one or two sisters each from different backgrounds. Often we would seem to meet a stalemate as a group and my internal response would be that I could not “wrap my head around their way of thinking.” This is classic Orientalist behavior, baked into my “cultural DNA.” They (the Orientalists) are from my people, you know, and their indoctrinations have not failed to affect me, ironical since I am now Orientalized somewhat—anyway– The fallacy (and it does go both ways really, but again I am looking at my stuff) is that they are (amongst other things) irrational beings, and since they don’t make sense, we simply cannot understand them and should not bother ourselves trying. And we didn’t. Instead we would say, “I don’t understand” and make plans to do what we thought was best as if we had to make decisions for the group because the group was not able to as a whole. Astagfirallah, it is embarrassing to admit. The thing, I (and my white sisters who also admitted to confusion) wouldn’t even try to dialogue with the rest of the group. This is how I see us as maintaining our learned behavior of arrogance. Part of white privilege is that we have learned to believe that we are smarter than everyone else:

“Another way that racism harms white people is by denying them the ability to develop their critical thinking. This is due in part to the constant, regular reinforcement that white is right. White people are raised in an environment in which they are regularly assured of their superiority. Their experts are white, like them.”

This is arrogance, which we should all work to eradicate from ourselves.

What I have chosen to do is not exactly novel. Some Muslims know it as shura. I’ve started talking with people. Asking more questions, and waiting more patiently for answers. The last meeting we had I no longer felt a great burden (another jilhaliya baggage ) to dredge through our work. I recognize that it is ours.

“[Heidi] Zetzer believes the first, and easiest, way to initiate this transformation [of changing white privilege dynamics] is through dialogue. Honest and multicultural dialogue is the first way to build alliances which can then ‘transform people and systems and turn intention into action,’ thus slowly changing the persistence of white privilege.”

I had hoped to address that initial conversation starter about white privilege which has got so much attention, but I haven’t finished it yet. So, inshAllah, I will post “Distrusting the White Muslim” in the next day or so.

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7 thoughts on “A Residue Remains: Using White Privilege in The Ummah

  1. Very good, mashallah. You know, despite being familiar with anti-racism rhetoric and Orientalism, I still find myself thinking racist things about Muslims, maybe after reading something bad in the newspaper and I have a thought about sexist Arab men even though I live in an Arab country and know 500 counter examples to that stereotype, my brain falls into those patterns that you call “baked in.” Astaghfirullah. I am glad you bring this up. I mean, we white Muslims are products of our Orientalist Islamphobic society, too. We have all been raised on Aladdin and Not Without My Daughter and Black Hawk Down and all the rest. It is shameful to admit, but those subversive Orientalist/Islamophobic messages are so strong and they are really still a part of us and don’t evaporate even as we become targets of the same Islamophobia and exotification that they foster.

    Anyways, thanks again for doing this carnival. Can’t wait to read everyone else’s stuff.

  2. Admitting that you are wearing an “invisible knapsack” is really, really difficult. Taking the necessary steps to begin unpacking it is tantamount to a revolutionary mission. This carnival has been enlightening so far. Thank you, again, for hosting it.
    Big Hugs.

  3. Salaam Alaikum,

    Another appreciative voice here. I think anyone who know what white privilege is, realises that is needs to be fought.

    Further to what Lucky Fatima says, I feel that a very potent part of WP, isn’t just that PoC are wrong, it’s that White people are right. The whole concept of “First world”, “Developed World”, “Advanced countries”, “Post-Enlightenment” are really hard to undo.

    Well done Brooke! it saddens me that you’re getting so much stick for this. Check your privilege people!

  4. I really admire luckyfatima’s honesty about still holding racist ideas even after converting to Islam. I don’t think it is necessarily because she is a bad person but as she says, when such views are so popular and mainstream, its hard not to internalise them to some extent. I think we should all challenge the racist/sexist and other prejudicial views we hold within our selves and strive to treat all people equally without discrimination.

    Leon

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