I want to respond to a post disagreeing with my views on the roles of white Muslims in America by a white Muslim brother by the name of bin Gregory over at his blog. My response to him is not out of a spirit of hostility our animosity towards him; but rather in a spirit of trying to clear up any confusion with regards to my arguments.Below is the post of bin Gregory and my new commentary is in dark type and his words are in italic.
bin Gregory: Umar Lee, whose website is frequently enraging but always engaging, is presenting a series of ideas about what it means to be white and muslim, and they are at such odds with each other I don’t know how they stay on the same page.
First of all,
( quoting from Umar) One thing you cannot be and be white in my mind is Muslim.which he believes to be true across the board.
Second, about himself,
(quoting from Umar again) African-American brothers … are the Muslims I have always been the closest to and have been able to identity with the most.
Third, on his favorite punching bag, other white muslims,
( quoting Umar) I despise the patronizing and phoniness of guilty white liberals, but the Muslim community is full of them. These Muslims take shahadah and immediately begin a full imitation of some group, Arabs, Pakistanis, African-Americans, etc, and are subservient and un-critical of these cultures while being fiercely critical of any white culture…. I think that some of these Muslims, but not all, embrace Islam to stop being white…
Several commenters on his site have picked up on the inherent contradictions in these three opinions, the biggest one being, what exactly is the difference between Umar Lee gravitating to the black community, and other brothers gravitating to the Arab or the Pakistani or the black community? I’d sincerely like Umar to answer that, since he is so vicious in his anger at these other brothers. From where I’m standing, there’s no difference at all, except perhaps that Umar had some prior connection to the black community before becoming Muslim
Thank you for this question because this is equivalent to one of those ripe fast balls right down the middle of the plate thrown to Mark McGuire during his great home run chase with Sammy Sosa in 1998. I think gravitating was the wrong word for me to use. Before and after I took shahdah I lived in areas and went to schools and existed in a family that were heavily African-American. I did not see my kinship with the African-American Muslim brothers as a cultural breakthrough or something any different than I would have been doing if I was not Muslim. It is hard for me to see how given the upbringing and living the life I have led that I could be expected to have the same outlook on things and identity as those who had amore traditional white upbringing. I saw these brothers as basically coming from the same experience and set of circumstances I had though obviously there are differences due to the fact that we had different skin colors and despite what you may hear from your professors or from the ivory-tower thinkers race matters jus as much in America as it every did and it colors every issue in this society. If I would have thought that I had to gravitate to something foreign, like Arab or Pakistani culture, I would not have taken shahadah, so for the most part, shariah issues aside, I did not change the essential nature of who I was after becoming Muslim. I stopped eating pork but didn’t stop eating the food I liked in order to eat like an Arab or Desi and I wore the clothes I had always worn for the most part without feeling the need to wear a kufee most times or a thobe.
If that is the case, these other brothers are simply guilty of being less further along in the process of acculturation or assimilation into a “foreign” milieu. These brothers never really become arab or pakistani any more than Umar becomes black – they simply become more comfortable in, more knowledgeable of and more accepted by the community they have adopted. Alhamdulillah. Now, I would suggest that both people, Umar and the arabized or pakified brother, would be of most direct benefit to the society at large if they can use their position in between two ethnic communities to build bridges of understanding, rather than to simply retreat into these communities they have adopted. Middle class white America needs your sympathetic, compassionate dawah, Umar. Tease not the tofu. Look past the lattes.
Well, again, I am not trying to assimilate or anything of that nature, and I do not even think it is possible, but my lack of being able to wholly assimilate into another culture does not automatically give me a place in that I am supposed to belong to. On the second point I agree with the brother, people like me would be of most benefit to the greater society if we could be bridge-builders between white America and those other cultures we have some affinity with, but that is not as easily said as done. Since 9-11 I have tried to do this and have been instrumental in getting Muslims involved in issue-oriented coalitions, the anti-war movement, and meeting with elected officials. But there is one thing bin Gregory is forgetting; I have a very troubled relationship with white America. I wish this were not true, I wish that I could sit down at a table and feel at home in a group of white Americans, I wish that maybe we could converse and be in the same chapter when we are not even in the same book, but that is not the case. The only white people I can really relate to are those like I grew up with, hard-working blue-collar guys, but this group also happens to be the most racist group in America, and while at one time I could relate to them, for the most part guys like this did not like me and I grew up fighting with them because they saw me as some kind of nigger loving race traitor even if they did not say it.
The most troublesome part of Umar’s racial construct is the idea that one cannot be white and muslim. If we uncritically accept this idea, then the pain and confusion that Umar and other commenters here feel is unavoidable – you’ve lost your community and so you must find another or be lost alone in the wilderness. But wait – who says you can’t be white and Muslim? There are some on the far right who might say you can’t be muslim and American, but who here would agree to that? We are Muslim Americans and proud of it, no? If you were born here and you grew up here then you are inalienably American no matter who you vote for or who you pray to. You can’t shake it off if you tried – not that some haven’t tried.
Let me separate the issue of whiteness and the issue of being an American. I am an American 100%. This is my country, I feel intimately connected to its history, and I am very American and am not ashamed of that. I have often had Muslim immigrants tell me ” you are thinking like an American” as if it were something bad; but that would be a real issue if I as an American began seeing the world like someone who grew up in a culture vastly different than mine and most of those differences having nothing to do with Islam. Now, to the issue of whiteness again, I feel that becoming a Muslim, fully becoming a Muslim, violates your whiteness, and you can ask brothers like Ismail Royer and Seifullah Chapman about their white privilege after being a Muslim, and I believe that whiteness is based on what you are not and not what you are. Yes my skin remains white, other white Muslims skin remains white, but are they viewed as brethren in white America? If you think the answer to this is yes than I suggest there are some issues of racial naiveté going on. While I believe we stop being white, and that there is no overriding American identity divorced from race for the vast majority of people and the culture in general, I do not believe you can alter your racial identity and I believe that yes being a white Muslim in America for many people, myself included, means that you will be lonely and you will be a stranger, but we have to accept this isolation for the sake of Allah. We no longer have a racial or ethnic group to identity with, or that will accept us, so we must be involved in helping to create an American-Muslim identity and building strong families and that will cure the isolation and loneliness.
Being white isn’t all that much different. It’s about how you look and how you speak. If you have a native accent and white skin, congratulations, you are in-group, and you can’t leave if you wanted to. It’s true that at one time, your religion mattered. Jews and Catholics were non-white. But that is not race today. Not too many people out there really care what god you pray to, and it won’t stop them from serving you well at a restaurant or giving you a job. Cabbies will pick you up. Cops will let you go.
This is staggering in its naiveté. “Being white is not that much different”, is that a serious statement? The history of America and Western Civilization has been one of if you are white you are on top and if you are not you feel the wrath and weight of white civilization and that exists today in a kinder and gentler form, it has not gone anywhere. Religion also matters. The LAPD is not running around profiling and monitoring the Mormons or the Baptists, it is Muslims, and if you think that Jews are seen as anything other than an “alien” group be a large and diverse segment of American society then I suggest you go and read some studies. It is true there is not the anti-Catholic bias there used to be and it is true that cabbies will pick you up if you are white no matter what, but that is a general statement . Another example I will give is that even in prison white prisoners are shown more respect by the authorities than black or Latino prisoners. When you are white in America you are expected to act in a certain way and there is room for differences depending where you live and your economic status within that construct. If you fail to meet that vision you do not stop being white per se but you become a hated figure. I can tell you this as someone who was once chained to a chair and beaten at a police station as a teenager because I would not talk white (and I was trying…lol), and who was hated by people who had never met me because of my family and personal situation and there are many issues within my multi-racial family on this topic I could get into but I’m not trying to piss my family off if they read this.
Unless! Unless you have decorated yourself with enough flagrantly Islamic symbols that they question you, such as a stereotypical Muslim beard – long, untrimmed, with no mustache – or a big loud kufi. Then you might get some strange looks. Even then, as soon as you open your mouth and unaccented English emerges, *poof*, you’re back in. “Oh”, they think, “You’re actually just a white boy with a beard and a funny hat!” What Americans don’t like is foreigners, not eccentric white people. I say this as a white convert who has been wearing a full beard and a kufi every single day for very nearly fifteen years. I have never once been treated badly by an anonymous white person in public because I’m Muslim. Yes, I’ve been stared at; yes, I’ve been asked what my deal is exactly; but never once have I stopped receiving customary white privilege from my fellow white people. O my fellow white Muslim! If you think we all automatically stop being white by virtue of practicing Islam, you are gravely mistaken. Your family may disown you, your friends might stop speaking to you, but to the white man on the street, you are still white. Now, you can be ashamed of that, you can be proud of that, you can protest against that, but that is how things are in America in 2007. And the fact is, that is good for dawah, as Abdul Alim and others have pointed out. The fact that the average white person is not automatically suspicious or hostile of you as they may be with a black, Pakistani, or Arab Muslim means you have an extra advantage to introduce them to Islam, the religion of Allah, that is open to and perfect for all people, all races, for all time.
Well, I do not run around dressed like an Arab, but I do have a beard not because I want to fulfill some kind of a stereotype but because we are commanded to grow our beards by the Messenger of Allah ( s.a.s.), but that is another argument. I also think that if you feel all of white America will accept you try going Down South, to places like South Brooklyn in NYC, Deep South St. Louis, South Boston, any exurban area, or any number of places, and you will see they will tell you openly what the latte drinkers think but will not say ( unless they think you are just playing a game by being Muslim and are not serious and then you may be cool). To the second part of your argument I agree, to the average white person seeing you walking down the street you will not be threatening unless they know you, and maybe not even then, but once it is known that you are a Muslim and are serious then you are in a different category.
[Disclaimer: All of the above may not apply to hijabi white women; I’m speaking to men here.]
I should add, O my fellow white muslims, in case it isn’t clear, that being white and being taken for white has nothing to do with what your politics are, which ethnic groups you have affinity for, how racist or colorblind you are, what European country your forefathers emigrated from, what neighborhood you grew up in, what race your best friends are, what food you prefer to eat, what clothes you prefer to wear, how high or low your tax bracket or education level is, how much you buy into or reject mainstream American culture, to what degree you fight the power or are a tool of the man, or how much you love or hate being white! All of those deep and complicated emotions you may be struggling with have nothing whatsoever to do with how you are treated at first glance by other white people, which does not change upon taking shahadah, so get over yourself.
This paragraph is redundant and I will say for most Americans this is true even if there are a lot of generalizations with regards to different ethnic groups and how they are viewed ( I do not think this brother has lived in the Northeast and if he did maybe it was around globos) , but not for Muslims, my message for white Muslims is this; if you are true to Islam you will become a stranger in your own land but, as I said before, find your companionships in creating an American-Muslim identity, your Muslim family, and if you cannot do that may Allah reward you in jinnah.