Sunday, May 17, 2009

The White Privilege and the Ummah Carnival: What Does It Mean to You, Them and Us?

Sister Brooke over at Rolling Ruminations has started "The White Privilege and the Ummah: What Does It Mean to You, Them, and Us" blog carnival. "Them" is non-Muslims, "Us" is the Ummah.

If you are/consider yourself "white," feel free to jump in. It is open to both brothers and sisters. The carnival goes up on Friday, May 22, Insha Allah.

Once your post is finished, go to Brooke's blog and add your link to the comments or send her a private email with your post link.

Here is my contribution:

It's difficult for me to discuss this topic in a blog carnival. Why? First of all, because the topic is potentially rife with fitnah. But I can only write about my experiences and observations. I do not claim to speak for others.

I am a "white" Muslimah who is 60 years old. I am also a convert from Judaism to Islam.

So, "privilege" is not something I have personally ever associated with my white skin.

The Jew in America was, and to some extent still is, always considered "other."

There was a time in America when Jews were treated similarly to people of color (POC). Anti-semitism was rampant in America. Jews were vilified and even denied admittance to many places in America. Even today, Jewish country clubs, golf courses, and other places still exist that were started in 1940ish America.

I particularly remember how proud Jewish people were when Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945. Now, mind you, I was born in 1949, but as a child, Bess Myerson was an American Jewish heroine among us Jews. She was the first and last Jewish Miss America.

Looking at Bess Myerson and not knowing who she is or anything about her, one would assume white privilege:

But Bess Myerson suffered incredible anti-semitism as Miss America. This link explains some of what she experienced. Bess Myerson had a lot of difficulty carrying out her Miss America duties.

These days, some assert that Jews don't have it so bad in America. Some even claim that Jews run America. If that's true, it wasn't always that way.

Some Muslims claim that white privilege extends into the Muslim ummah. Perhaps it does. But some say that lighter skin has always been desirable among people. For example, some Arabs whiten their skin. "Good hair" is talked about among Blacks, as "pelo bueno" is among Hispanics. All over the world, light skin is sought. The "why" is not the focus of my post. I will leave that for discussion by a person of color.

For me, I haven't experienced "privilege" in the Muslim community due to my white skin. When I was divorced, no one knocked down my door for marriage because I have white skin. No one recommended me to any non-white for marriage despite my deen and my participation in the masjid. I am sure it had more to do with my age at the time (in my 50s) than my skin color.

Of all the white sisters I personally know, NONE of them are married to Arabs who had green cards or citizenship prior to the marriage to the white sister. If they did have documentation, they sent "back home" for a spouse when they were ready to marry.

In my masjid, my opinion is not purposely sought because of my white skin. As a matter of fact, my opinion is more often disregarded because I am not Arab or Indo-Pak. No one goes out of their way to favor me by speaking English because I have white skin.

As a child, I saw and experienced a lot of racism toward people of color. Remember that inter-racial marriage was a crime until the mid 1960s. For a time, we lived in a housing project (in the 1950s) where we had a black section. But, we did all go to school together. Where did I fit in as Jew? With the black kids. I did not enjoy "white privilege" because I was a Jew.

Prior to living in this housing project, we lived in New York City. Maybe I was too little to understand racism, but I never felt it so keenly until we moved to the projects in Pennsylvania.

When I become a Muslim, I thought the anti-semitism and racism would not exist. I was naive. Before saying the Shahadah, I read a lot about Islam and Muslims. I especially enjoyed the Prophet's (saw) Last Sermon, where he spoke about no person being better than another except by deen.

But mixing with Muslims, I have to say that I HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED SO MUCH RACISM since my childhood. Some Muslims are over-concerned with another's lineage. Arabs stick with Arabs. Pakistanis stick with Pakistanis. Egyptians stick with Egyptians. Saudis with Saudis - and on and on and on.

Black sisters have shared with me the racism that feel and experience in the ummah. When they first started talking to me about it, I was real quick to defend those they were accusing of being racist. But, then I started to see it with my own eyes.

To add another layer to it all, my husband is African-American. Some of you "White" sisters or brothers married to Blacks know the story all too well. When someone first meets you (as a white Muslim), the first question they want to know is who you are married to and where your spouse is from. I play a little game with them:

Them: Sister, where is your husband from?
Me: Oh (with big fake smile because I know where this convo is going), he's American.
Them: Oh, yes, but where is he from?
Me: Why, he's American (pretending like I'm stupid).
Them: Yes, but WHERE is he from?
Me: He's from Philadelphia.
Them: Yes (a little uncomfortable now), but before that.
Me: He's American. Born and raised in Philadelphia. He's African-American.
Them: face falls, silent.

We (hubby and I) are not highly sought out. We are not invited to many homes or parties. We don't fit in anywhere. Everyone says they love us. But they don't include us. Yes, one or two Muslims who place Allah (swt) and deen first, yes, but for the most part, no. There are sisters here who I mix with on a regular basis. I have never been invited to their homes, to aqiqahs for the children, etc.

White privilege? For me, despite having white skin, people who don't know me assume that I'm a light-skinned Arab. Some Arabs even speak Arabic to me until they find out that I am a white American. Non-Muslims look at my clothing, not my skin.

When they find out I am a convert, that I PURPOSELY chose to be a Muslim and dress this way, I am seen as a traitor to "my" race. I truly then lose whatever race card I supposedly held.

Many people would prefer to marry their "own kind" - for many reasons. Inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages can be difficult.

How many Muslim couples do you know where both the husband and the wife are White?

Do you realize how difficult it can be to explain to your relatives that you have married a Muslim? And, oh BTW, he's (insert whatever non-white he is).

My mother, who was white/Polish and who married a Jew, was very bitter after they got divorced. When I was a little girl, my mother used to constantly remind me that "a Jew is a nigger turned inside out." As a little girl, I used to wonder if I had black skin underneath my white skin. Perhaps it was true, I thought. After all, when my black friends cut or scraped themselves on the playground, I always saw white/pink skin and red blood underneath their black skin. Imagine my confusion when I got hurt. I never saw the black skin my mother said I had underneath my scrap or cut. And my black friends had white-ish skin under their feet. The bottoms of my feet are white. I didn't see black skin on the bottoms of my feet. Yes, I was confused about a lot of things as a child.

I'm sure that I had some white privilege from people who didn't know that I was Jewish. I just wasn't aware of it.

The white privilege I experience these days is that most white people automatically think I'm a Catholic nun. They see my black jilbabs and hijab and think I"m a nun. Perhaps they don't know any white Muslims. It doesn't always have to be racism.

So you can see why I think this theme is rife for fitnah, stereotypes, and prejudice. So, I'll leave it to what I have written.


Brooke said...

Asalamu Walaikum Sis,
Thank you so much for contributing! You certainly offer a lot to think about. For starters, my uncensored gut reaction was "But how do people know that you were Jewish, and not JUST white?" But then I remembered your conversion story and I can see how quickly that info gets around! I have never known a secular Jewish person was Jewish until they tell me and having not been raised with any religion, it just never meant much to me. Also, I fail all the "guess what ethnicity these folks are" tests that I have taken :(
Again, thanks sis and inshallah, I'll be back for more--especially that playing dumb scenario-I'm getting good at. Are you also asked "what does he dooooo?"
Love and Peace,

Stacy K. said...

Most of what you have experienced, even in the Muslim community is pretty common. Its really too bad. I love the concept of the Ummah for what it should be, but it really has never reached its ideal. Thanks for sharing your story.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Brooke:

Sometimes people can tell that people are Jewish by the way they dress, very much like Muslims.

Oh Brooke: I just thought of something! I was at our prison's volunteer appreciation banquet today. One of the volunteers asked me if I am a Catholic nun. You know, I get that a LOT. Maybe that's a white privilege thing. Maybe "they" don't think that any white person would actually be a Muslim!

Occasionally, I get "what does he dooooo?" Because you know that some of them have stereotypes of blacks and what they "doooo." My husband is a school teacher in a juvenile justice facility.

@ Stacky aka Fahiima: Yes, sadly it is very common. I have an email signature that helps me so much. I'll get it and be right back.

Safiyyah said...

Here it is:

The Prophet (saw) said: "Whoever is mainly concerned about the Hereafter, Allaah will make him feel independent of others and will make him focused and content, and his worldly affairs will fall into place...but whoever is mainly concerned with this world, Allaah will make him feel in constant need of others and will make him distracted and unfocused, and he will get nothing of this world except what is decreed for him." (Tirmidhi)

Alhamdulillah, I try to always hold on to this hadith. I'm not always successful, but most times I am. I work at it :)

al-Ghariba said...

Yeah, I can empathise with much of what you say as another "white" revert muslimah.
Marriage proposals came in desire of passport, or free mahar because I had no family to put pressure on the man to do the right thing. Many of the Arab Muslims in our area thought all us revert whities were sluts underneath our niqabs and would never be truely muslim.

But unlike you I did enjoy "white privilage" before entering Islam. And it was fantastic in an ignorant way. I wish I could feel like that with my ummah, and everyone feels fantastic no matter what skin they are filling.

iMuslimah said...

Oh Saf-

Assalamu alaykum sister.

What an AWESOME essay you have written. You perspective is interesting and your wisdom keen. I have to read it again. More thoughts to come.

Yasemin said...

Mashallah I am SO impressed Safiyyah. You absolutely have to win if there is a contest at stake.

Like al-Ghariba, I enjoyed the White privilege pre-Islam. Being catapulted into minority status and learning a whole new religion and culture was jarring.

Sometimes, I wonder what could have been had I married a nice, normal Arab. One who needed more than papers. And conversely, I wonder what would have happened if I'd married a White Christian. I figure he would have cheated a lot and we'd be divorced. Indeed, the problem is me.

I love you so much sweetie. You are a brilliant writer!

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Everyone:

Seriously! You guys should get in on Brooke's carnival. Go to her link mentioned in my post.

There's no prize for blog carnivals. It's like a reading carnival. Someone "hosts" it and then everyone writes and links to the host. Then everyone "walks" around and reads!

Anonymous said...

"One of the volunteers asked me if I am a Catholic nun. You know, I get that a LOT. Maybe that's a white privilege thing."
Inneresting. I know two minority sisters (trying not to reveal identities here) who work in a hospital established specifically for their minority. One passes as white (she is half) and the other is also mixed, but looks the same minority of the patients. Did you follow that :) The white looking one is frequently mistaken for a nun (she wears all black) and the other sister receives plenty of hostility--even once being threatened to be beat up by a patient in a wheel chair!

al-Ghariba said...

Sorry Brooke, I feel if I get into writing essays about "white privilege" and the Ummah, I will start whinging or cursing someone. I am too frustrated to be let loose with pen or keyboard. But I will be interesting in reading other peoples contributions.

Brooke said...

al-Ghariba - It's great that you recognize that and save yourself and others the fitna--I mean that :)
btw - I was talking to a sister tonight who I'm going to work with editting some translation work she is doing, inshallah, and I told her about "the father-in law is..." Subhanallah, we need more translation, faster and BETTER! For awhile I felt like I couldn't read another translated work, verily it was driving me mad!

Imane said...

Assalamou ‘alaykum dear sister

As an Arab/French Muslim, I don’t feel comfortable when people talk about ‘race’, I prefer using “ethnic groups”, because for me there is one Human race divided in several ethnic groups. I know that in the States it is an important issue but in France, people can’t be asked officially what are their roots or their religion. Statistics concerning ethnic, religion or sexuality are not allowed.
However, I can’t deny that it is a kind of hypocrisy, because there isn’t a lot of ‘visible minorities’ in the important positions such as in the parliament or in town halls.
As far as Muslim women are concerned, it is even worse: in the name of ‘secularity’, it is not allowed to go to school with a hijab or work in any official structure that belongs to the government (hospital, school, town halls…).
In fact this makes the Ummah in France more tied, and there are more and more ‘mixed’ marriages from different “minorities”.
Nevertheless, when I go to Arab countries, I can feel a kind of racism, because I am Arab and my husband is ‘white’ (Berber roots)
I pray The Almighty to open the eyes of all the Muslims to really respect what Mohamed
صلى الله عليه وسلم had left us : one Ummah under God, all equal AMINE

Fi Amanillah

Safiyyah said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Imane:

Ameen! You are so correct. There is only one race: the human race.

Many Muslims get upset with me because I still identify myself as Jewish. I am one who believes that we are an ethnic group as well as a religion.

Arabs and Jews are the same people: semitic people. There are Arab Muslims, Arab Jews, Arab Christians, Arab secular/whatever, etc. Do Arabs give up their ethnicity when they change religions? I think not.

You have dark Arabs and light Arabs. You have dark Jews and light Jews. My own father could have easily passed for an Arab with his olive skin. I have very white skin because my mother was Polish. I have the dark hair, eyes of my father, but I have my mother's skin.

I have asked the sisters (mainly white Arabs) on WOC blogs if they consider Jewish women as WOC. No one has said yes yet, lol.

Anonymous said...

yeah jewish as an ethnicity, cos what does a jew say when asked that question? I have a Jewish background (my immediate family never practiced or identified as Jewish), but the older parts of the fam do not have an ethnicity apart from being Jewish. I never thought of it before until now.

I know some Jews from Lithuania, and they do not consider themselves Lithuanian, they just lived in that land. I guess it is something that faces any long term diaspora people.

ANy ethnically jewish woman who testifies la ilaha ila ALlah wa Muhammad ar-Rasool Allah is my sister.

luckyfatima said...

Ashkenazi Jews ARE white in the American context. Jews of Eastern European heritage do indeed have white privilege in America. Yes, Jews still face prejudice. I know for a fact because I am a Muslim of Jewish heritage and I have personally experienced prejudice directed at me from non-Jews (of various colors and creeds). But we definately benefit from white privilege. I am 30 years younger than you, my Jewish father is your age. So I know the anti-Jewish attitudes were a lot stronger when you and he were coming up. By the way, you HAVE experienced racism even from your own mother who told you that about Jews and n-s.

I have also experienced anti-Jewish attitudes directed at me on a few occasions from Muslims after converting to Islam. It is something really hurtful and I hate to even think about it.

I live in the Middle East and I very rarely tell anyone that I have Jewish heritage just because it is a very different environment here, but I never hid the fact from my Muslim community when I was in America. But you know, I "look Jewish" and often people question me over and over again about my heritage over here because they think I am an Arab or part Arab. Also, because of my Jewish face, with a hijab on, I am never ever read as white and strangers interact with me like I am not an American white. But it isn't just about looks. It is about unseen benefits of whiteness which we Ashkenazi Jews or people of Jewish heritage have. A big heavy bag of white privilege that sits there next to the prejudice we have faced and continue to face.

Anyway, when we come into the Ummah, we have that same privileged white status (I know we are so called "ethnic", but doesn't every Muslim of color see you as white?), but we also have that Jewish status. At least some people are very accepting of it...maybe like they caught a big Jewish fish (a gefilte fish?).

I could say a lot more about this, but I feel weird doing it because it is so personal. Anywayz, nice to read is a good start to the discussion.

Hajar Zamzam Ismail said...

That is a very thoughtful and insightful post. It is so truthful, especially about the fact that the non-white Muslim (women especially) don't speak English when they see us in the masjid or elsewhere, just because we are white. I have often felt that the women are jealous of me because I am a threat to their territory (i.e. I was eligible to steal one of "their" men. :} )
I thought that was interesting that your mom used to tell you that Jews are "niggers turned inside out."
My mother used to tell me something, because I have a lot of brown colored moles, so I used to ask her what they were, when I was a child. She told me that "maybe God did not have enough white skin to finish making you, so he used black skin to complete you."
In my childish mind I imagined God had two large iron cauldrons, one with black skin, and one with white skin. So I envisioned him scraping the bottom of the white-skin kettle when he was making me, and found that he was just a little short, and decided to finish creating me by sprinkling black skin, from the other kettle on me, wherever the white skin wasn't quite enough.
Sometimes I think that my mother, unsuspectingly, impressioned the equality of black and white people on my young mind, the way they are in God's eyes, and should be in our eyes. It certainly was not a negative thing to me, the way she explained it.
I understand that what your mother said, was not a positive connotation for you, but I think it still had a similar effect on your developing mind.
I wish people just weren't so narrow-minded that they have to judge one another based on skin-color. It just feels so WRONG, especially for Muslims, who have all this documentation, sacred texts, that teach against racism.

Anonymous said...

"buen pelo" is actually 'pelo bueno'......

Safiyyah said...

Whoops! Thank you Anonymous; I'll change it :D

Safiyyah said...

Salaams LuckyFatima:

Thanks so much for sharing all that you did. Also, I think things were different when your dad and I were coming up. But the point is that "now" - because things are different - I have the white privilege, but the problem is that I don't feel it. I think I'm having difficulty articulating when I want to say. I know it will come to me and Insha Allah I'll be back to articulate it.

Lisa asked in one of the first comments HOW people knew we were Jewish. Back in the day, especially in large urban areas, like NYC, etc., people lived among "their own kind." The Jewish people mainly lived in select areas, and we had ChinaTown, Little Italy, etc. It was like everyone knew who you were and what your heritage was by where you lived.

Salaams Sister Hajar:

Wow! Your had a similar childhood experience. In our imaginative child minds, we think of all kinds of explanations :)

Anonymous said...


Thank you~ While I appreciate I may have had white priveledge - and likely still do, ageism (anything over 25 lol) plays a key role in my exclusion much like what you described. My story is no different than the 19 yr old who converted and was held up as a pillar of Musliminess except I was 30 at the time. A concerned brother tried to talk my husband out of marrying me describing American women as trees that are bent when they come out of the ground and can never be unbent - there some warm fuzzies for ya

Pink Muslimah said...

assalamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah, sister
Can youseemyemail address? I have no idea how to contact you. Please email me.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Pink:

I left a message on your blog. I cannot see your email addy.

Mine is Jihadlevine at yahoo dot com

Insha Allah I will hear from you soon :)