The sound of chatter drowns out distant bird calls and the vibrant breeze brushing past glass panes. A guest author asks the 12- to 14-year-olds to create characters for a story. A Black girl suggests she would like to create a Black girl just like her, who defies stereotypes. Someone else wants to create a Middle-Eastern character like himself who plays basketball. The guest author suggests merging the two, creating an African-American Muslim girl who plays basketball — a stereotype. This makes the non-Black (Indian, Pakistani, white, Iranian, and mixed) kids get excited. Many of them yell out qualities and words to describe variations of their own characters that happen to be stereotypes associated with Blackness and Black people: crack addict, murdered his best friend, designer thobe wearer, rapper, ghetto, drug dealer, etc. They laugh. The Black kids don’t, though.
As a volunteer at the camp, I sit in the back of the classroom observing the incident slowly unfold before me, waiting for someone to do or say something. No one does or says anything. And this is the beginning of the problem.
Following the incident, the Black campers express discomfort and are dismissed as exaggeratory by camp administrators, leading to a senior director being called in to virtually take charge of the situation. The director makes all of the children apologize (even the victims), creating insincerity. Many, including the main perpetrators, make statements like, “I’m sorry you guys might have maybe felt that way even though I didn’t do anything wrong.” The administrators and guest author apologize for missing the microaggressions. They admit to being checked out, or thinking the children are just “joking around.” The non-Black children explain they are made uncomfortable by the pressure of being targeted by racial stereotypes in their everyday lives, causing them to capitalize on similar stereotypes about another race. They explain this while oblivious to the fact that they have not thought about the influences their words have on others. Non-Black people of Color have the potential to perpetuate anti-Blackness and erasure just as much as white people, and in this situation, all perpetrators and administrators are non-Black POC.
The camp’s aim is to provide a safe space for Muslim youth of diverse backgrounds to be themselves. However, it’s also very important we recognize the shortcomings that result from our blindness due to privilege. Being numb to someone else’s identity because it is not your own isn’t an excuse to stay ignorant. It’s important for those who call themselves supporters and champions of diversity to look within themselves and figure out what is allowing them to feel content with possibly reinforcing injustices, no matter how small. In the situation above, the Black kids initially stayed quiet due to discomfort, and a need to claim their right to the space (even though they felt targeted and unsafe).
Marginalized people working within segregated frameworks isn’t anything new. As suggested by Shahid Malcolm X in an analogy dating back to American slavery, there are “House Negroes” and “Field Negroes.” Those in the house are known to get caught up in being favored by the master and become comfortable and compliant. They are afforded luxuries unavailable to those in the field — food scraps, newer clothing, and sometimes a chance to live in the house. Many of them are of fair skin (a result of the master’s rape) and therefore deemed of greater value. Those in the field, on the other hand, are known to rebel, cause riots, and fight for their families.
X’s observation suggests we either choose to or choose not to work within the previously established system. This resonates with me because it is an accessible suggestion for a young person: we don’t all need to jump up and start revolutions within traditionally segregated spaces, but we need to at least be willing to work within the house framework, and ultimately join those fighting on the front lines even if it appears silent to others. Similarly, if we are willing and interested, we are also more than capable of being the ones to fight head on.
Our collective liberation as a global community is entirely dependant upon our recognizing varying forms of segregation, and doing what we can to dismantle the systems. Fighting division for the sake of unity is a great idea. However, through unification, we must be careful not to erase the qualities that make us different.
As a Black Muslim woman interested in uniting with others of different backgrounds, my strength comes from my difference. I choose to use my identity as my strength. I regret not speaking up and calling out the guest author, organizational administrators, and ignorant children mentioned in the story above sooner. I regret letting the words that affected those like me sink in overnight and and cause deeper damage.
Our collective differences are not what divide us. Being different than someone else is not a bad thing; it’s instead human, and raw. In the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We must find our own tools to build our own house, knowing that I might want us to build a cottage with purple walls, and you might want us to build a mansion with yellow ones. Working within the framework of powerful structures (such as white privilege, through which even non-white individuals fuel anti-Black sentiment) with the master’s tools may provide temporary relief, for we finally are in control, but utilizing our advantages in society for personal gains only perpetuates the hierarchical system of privilege.
Homogeneity, or sameness, and unification are not the same thing. In order to be a unified faith community, or a unified world, we must not erase those differences that make us ourselves. Often times these differences have taken us years to accept, so suggesting homogeneity is counterproductive. Unity is about speaking from within our communities as well as outside of them, accepting critique of longheld ideals, opening our hearts up to compassion, using creativity as a form of activism, and having hope for a brighter future for our children. Unity is about the development of personal and collective identity, and using our talents for the benefit of future generations. Oppression is a form of motivated suppression or harm, and if we are to move past our various traumas, we too must must be motivated. The difference here is that our motivation is encouragement rather than suppression, and kindness rather than harm. Our resistance must be as calculated and as strategic as the oppression we endure.
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