FOR MOST OF my life, as a member of the privileged, “white” majority of Americans, I didn’t have to consider the color of my skin, or how the public perceived me. I always felt “normal” – not realizing my advantage nor that my privileges were nonstandard for others.
I may have appeared eccentric in the early years after I became Muslim: long sleeve shirts in summer, loose clothing, no makeup, hair unflatteringly pulled back into a bun… but I was still a white girl, able to fly under the radar. It’s this scarf on my head that changed things.
Finally adopting full coverage took a long time. I knew subconsciously that I would no longer move through the world unnoticed. I’d be judged. I’d be mistaken for a foreigner; and that’s exactly what happened. Browsing at a local garage sale with my grandmother years ago, her neighbor approached from behind. My grandmother introduced me casually, “This is my granddaughter, Danielle.” The neighbor gasped. “No!” She stuttered, covering her gaping mouth. “I… thought you were… some foreigner!”
However, not everyone assumes I am foreign. Apparently, my face is still familiar enough to utterly perplex some people. Like the petite grey-haired cashier who peered at me as I waited in line, her expression twisted in confusion. When I reached the register she blurted out, “Are you American???” “Yes…” My answer provided no relief. “So what’s that thing??” She asked, clumsily gesturing around her head. “Uh… I’m American and Muslim…?” Unfortunately, too many believe those two terms are mutually exclusive.
I lost some (not all) of my white privilege the day I decided to visually display my Islam everywhere I go, but I have to say, I enjoy the pros more than I regret the cons. Let’s compare:
If I’m Not Presentable, All Muslims Look Bad
Back when I was in art school, I could walk around with paint on my pants, dirty work clothes, the same clothes for days, and no one would associate my unkemptness with my whiteness, or blame my religion or ethnicity for my lack of cleanliness. Now if I am the least bit disheveled or mismatched, I know my entire religion will be implicated.
Too Fast = Crazy Muslim
I’m an aggressive driver (haram, I know) but if I happen to annoy another driver now, their road rage might come with a side of extreme prejudice.
Too Slow = Stupid Foreigner
As a new Muslim, I literally drove 30mph because Islam encourages caution, and respect for the laws of the land. People honked at me so often that I eventually had to speed up. I know ‘slow’ is often associated with stupid – I’m not about to be the one to give any bigot the pleasure of uttering such an insult when it involves Islam and my ummah.
I Feel out of Place amongst My Own People
I have come to realize that the whiter the venue, the more likely I am to be judged as an outsider – even though I’m plenty “white” and even my grandparents were born in America.
My Family Becomes Less-White Just By Walking With Me
When I go out with my non-Muslim family members, they automatically lose some of their white privilege just by being with me. They have never complained, but it stinks to be shocked that your sister actually wants to go to the mall with you.
From Ordinary to Suspect
I used to be the average girl next door, now in the minds of some, I might be the potential terrorist next door. I probably should think twice before shopping online and receiving possibly ‘suspicious’ deliveries.
Does He Beat You?
Yes, I’ve been asked if my husband beats me. My neighbors in the early part of my marriage studied me suspiciously. One of them said to another, “I can tell her husband is good from her smile.”
I Must be Dumb/I Converted for my Husband
Nope. I used my brain, thank you very much. I happened to get married years later, but even people whose conversion coincided with their marriage had to do an awful lot of learning and soul searching to make such a momentous decision.
Even Muslims Ask me Where I’m From
White Americans can be Muslim too! Allah said:
This (Quran) is direction and guidance for the whole world. [Sûrat Ṣâd, 38:87]
Let’s stop perpetuating the notion that Islam is only for foreigners!
Forever Thought of as “New”
Come on guys, the Sahaba were all converts! I appreciate your intention to help, but it takes quite a bit of research to be willing to turn your whole family and world upside down to become Muslim. More than reprimands, converts long to feel fraternity. Allah said:
The believers are but brothers. [Sûrat Ghâfir, 49:10]
And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. [Sûrat Âl Imrân, 3:103]
Let’s remember we are trying to hold on, together.
And now for the positives: In addition to the unimaginable happiness and peace I’ve been blessed with via Islam, I’ve experienced quite a few benefits as a result of not being blissfully ignorant about white privilege anymore.
I’m a Flag-Bearer Now
Being aware that I represent more than myself when I go out – I represent Islam, I am more concerned about being presentable, clean, and in general, well behaved –Islam promotes all of the above, anyway. It’s a responsibility and an honor.
Down to Earth
I’m no longer in the clouds and oblivious of the rich diversity in our country. I feel an affection and solidarity with minorities now. We all share a certain “otherness,” and unspoken connection. It’s a lovely camaraderie that is new to me and I greatly appreciate it.
My Muslim family is global and multi ethnic. I now enjoy having friends and sisters in faith from every background you can think of. Every time I look around a gathering of my Muslim friends or a congregation in the masjid, I thank Allah for making me a part of this diverse family.
Far Less Racism
Many people I know are in bi-racial/multi-ethnic marriages. When I get together with Muslims, it’s always a mix of races/ethnicities and I don’t hear any nonsense or micro-aggression about race anymore. Racism is not entirely eradicated from today’s Muslim community, but I find far less than in the general US population.
Empathy and an Inclination for Social Justice
I’m more in touch with the struggles and reality minorities live with in this country. Being “white,” I had virtually no idea that my life was different from the lives of people of color or religious minorities. It’s eye opening, sobering and I’m a more conscientious, compassionate person because of it.
I’ve Become an Instant Emissary
I can use my whiteness to bridge the gap and help white people understand that Islam is not just for “foreigners” or people from other cultural backgrounds.
I’m a Human Pep Talk for Muslims
As a result of centuries of colonization and aggression by western powers, some Muslims have an inferiority complex. They try to adopt western behaviors and hide their Islam as if their heritage is a shame. White Muslims like me are proof to them that Islam is a precious gem. With the rise in depression and drug addiction, I know that so many Americans would do anything to have what we have – if they just knew about it.
Being part of a global community puts things into perspective: none of us are inherently worth more than anyone else.
My Kids Will Grow Up More Conscientious Than I Was
My kids are being raised to be aware of racism and discrimination. I can already see that they have a great sense of justice and intolerance for inequality.
Because I’m no longer 100% part of the dominating party, I have to be strong, self confident and willing to assert myself.
In many ways I still benefit greatly from the white privilege I was born with. While many Muslims (especially women) have suffered micro aggression, verbal and even physical assaults, I have had virtually zero negative experiences because of my faith/appearance. This may be due, in part, to the fact that my appearance causes some confusion. People can’t quite be sure if I’m foreign, Muslim, or just a white girl with a strange fashion sense.
Knowing that I continue to benefit as a white Muslim in this country causes me to feel an even greater sense of responsibility to represent Islam to my fellow Americans. I think that white Muslims like me are well positioned to help remove the stigmas and reduce the gap between the white American non-Muslim population and the general American Muslims, by Allah’s will. White Americans continue to enter the fold of Islam by Allah’s permission, every year. I believe that the more white American Muslims there are, the more normalized Islam will become in America, which will in turn, benefit the overall Muslim populace, here as well as abroad.