To be a Black American Muslim Woman Is to be Both an Insider and an Outsider

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America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

If I had to describe my relationship with Islam in one word, it would be nuanced. Two words? Profoundly nuanced.

I’m not a hijabi Muslimah, and because I don’t wear hijab, I blend. I blend in with other black Americans who like other people, don’t recognize that my entire name is Arabic, which could be referenced to make an educated guess about this aspect of my identity. My name is often confused with being just “a black girl name.”

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This is mostly true unless I’m going through customs in any country; they constantly make “educated guesses” about who’s Muslim, and you know why. There have been a couple times when, while traveling abroad, my Muslim name that typically goes unnoticed becomes a racial identifier and matters more than my American passport. For context, an American passport is among the most coveted in the world, and still, I’ve been in situations when having one, didn’t matter.

My intersections then are like a game of poker. It goes like, “Yes, Customs Officer, I am Muslim, but I raise you this American passport!” Sometimes I get “Enjoy your stay” or “Welcome home.” And sometimes I get “Please step to the side ma’am.” So yep, it’s just like poker, or a crap shoot, or as we play in the hood, dice (the Muslim in me should stop referencing games where people gamble).

But it’s quite symbolic really, of what it’s been like for me as a black American Muslim woman born and raised in New York City: a game of insider-outsider. I’m reminded of Langston Hughes’ short story Who’s Passing for Who?, which explored a nuance of another kind (passing for white), but a nuance no less, which, at its best, is interesting to navigate, and at its worst, so paradoxical you feel like you may come to an eventual fork in the road that requires you to choose.

Because of this experience, I’m able to identify with immigrants. There’s never been a good time to be an immigrant in America (unless you’re Asian after the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965), so like them, I’m generally afraid of being “foreignized.” We all saw what America did to Obama, our own 44th president, simply because he was suspected of being Muslim; regardless of the proof of his (three words I’ll never forget) “long-form birth certificate,” and him clarifying over and over again that he’s a Christian. Still, the stigma didn’t miss him.

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And I gotta keep it real (cause there’s no future in frontin’), I’ll never understand why America insists on treating Islam like it’s foreign. Islam arrived on the slave ships. Islam was shooting in the gym (I was about to add “Islam is a Day One,” but you get the point). And this all seems to be lost on black Christians, too. I don’t know many black Christians who readily connect that when they’re talking about their (and my) ancestors, they’re referring to their Muslim ancestors. Unfortunately, reminders need to be given even among us. More than I’d like, I get the “ooooh, yeah that’s right,” whenever I remind (my own) people that I’m Muslim and that means I don’t eat pork, and they’ll have to remove their shoes when they come to my house. And don’t even get me started on all the effort I have to put in to explain that not all black Muslims have or want anything to do with the Nation of Islam.

While I refuse to educate white people about blackness, I don’t feel I can make the same resolution about Islam with non-Muslims; even after acknowledging that within the American context, both identities shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone because there’s no way to separate America’s oppressive introduction to both of these identities, simultaneously. In short y’all, I can’t win. I can’t break even, and I can’t get outta the game.

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The truth is, there is so much for people to learn about Islam to help the tenets and ideals be recognized as more familiar than most people think. And more honestly, it kind of makes me happy to illuminate the foundations of Islam as inherently groundbreaking and progressive. Islam has positively informed my outlook on matters like anti-racism, sex positivity, polyamory, and privileging female sexual pleasure. It’s taught me to appreciate moments when I’ve been called to serve, and how to cherish being the person to whom someone may reach out in their time of need.

Islam even has an environmental justice platform and recommends socialism to encourage equitable economics. And because it is the last development in the Abrahamic tradition, it is informed by the two faiths before it, Judaism and Christianity. When you view Islam as the third part of a trilogy (because, it is!), instead of a stand-alone faith, you’ll see there’s so much we Muslims have in common, at the very least, with other monotheists.

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I would encourage anyone to learn as much about Islam as I would encourage a person to learn about black people; and not from Muslims or black people themselves, but actual scripture and history. As in either instance, there is more to be gleaned from actually doing the work to become well-read than what can be gained from conversations with people of either or both of these identities. Even for myself, I learned more about black people and Muslims from studying black history and Islam respectively, than I have from the lived experience of being black and Muslim alone. I personally couldn’t be more thankful that both of these identities, experiences, and bodies of information help to make me, me.

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About the author

Dope Plain Jane

Dope Plain Jane is a Womanist, hoe enthusiast with a thick New York accent who’s trying to make the world a safer place for everyone, by making it a safer place for Black women and hoes.