I didn’t know I was “white” until I became Muslim. I always used to think of myself as a human being. Other people were “black” or “indian” or whatever. I was just a person. And when I looked out at the world of books, television, movies, fantasy, sci fi, music, politics, business, and so on, I saw the world reflecting back to me the same self understanding. I liked rap a lot, but considered it “black music,” and felt self-conscious about not having full access to its inner sanctums. It was the aesthetic equivalent of feeling scared when we drove through Cabrini Green on the way to watch the Chicago Bulls – I knew I was out of place. But these were isolated events – I could always retreat rather quickly to the safety and security of my white world.
When I went to boarding school as a sophomore (well, we called it “lower year”…Go Blue!), for the first time I interacted on a daily basis with black peers. I had some black friends from summer camp, but that was only two months out of the year. But looking back on it now, I see how boarding school was still a microcosm of the larger society. We would wonder why so many of the black kids sat together at meals, never once realizing that most of the white kids were sitting together ALL THE TIME! It would have sounded weird to us if you had described it as a “white-majority school,” although we had no problem talking ad nauseam about “minorities.” I had some black teachers and coaches, but no one I would call a serious mentor.
The first time I wrote down the words, “I think I want to become a Muslim” was after finishing the Autobiography of Malcolm X in the summer between boarding school and college. The way he weaved the American narrative of race and injustice with the Muslim story of brotherhood and redemption struck a deep nerve. Most powerfully, when he spoke of his pilgrimage to Makkah, I felt that it might be something for me.
By the grace of God, I have since been to Makkah three times. By God’s arrangement, my first teacher of Islam was a black imam/prison chaplain from Brooklyn who studied for many years in Pakistan. You cannot imagine the psychological re-wiring that happens when your living exemplar of a man of God is a person you previously wouldn’t have even paid attention to, let alone spent many hours with. He taught me the basics of classical Arabic, how to read the Qur’anic text, how to improve my prayer, but most importantly, how to be a more God-conscious and self-sacrificing human being. I loved being in his presence so much that many years later, when I was struggling to find my place in graduate school, I drove in the middle of the night from New Jersey to Rhode Island to pray fajr with him and stay at the masjid for 3 days so that I could spend time with him.
But I will always be a white kid from an all-white suburb. I learned in my early years as a Muslim that I could not be black nor pakistani no matter how much at times I wanted to fully integrate into those Muslim circles. But I learned that whiteness is like The Matrix – you don’t know you’re in it until you start to get out of it. I hope I have fulfilled Malcolm’s words that “their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.” If not, then I have more work to do for the sake of the God who created us all, and only distinguishes us on the basis of the way we transform our inner and outer selves due to our conscious awareness of the Divine, or what in Arabic we call “taqwa.”
Many will probably think this is overly quaint, and that they are soooo over the false promise of “Islam is a universal brotherhood and sisterhood.” But I respectfully disagree. I am well aware of the overt racism of elements in the American Muslim community, and the hard collective work that needs to be done for our institutions to live up to our ideals. But as for me, I have experienced nothing as deeply transformative of American race relations like being Muslim, and I believe Islam provides more hope for transforming white American society at large than anything else. It was Islam that caused me to start hanging out on the South Side of Chicago, to visit my brothers at the Inner City Islamic Center or Masjid al-Faatir or that super hardcore masjid on like 76th or something (can’t remember the name), even though I grew up only an hour away. It was Islam that led me to sitting for hours with black men so that I could learn from their character, spirituality, and wisdom. And it was Islam that ultimately taught me about my own people – that ragtag collection of post-Europeans I call “white people” or “Whiteamericans” when I am trying to sound as smart as Dr. Jackson. We are just another people with a history, with our strengths and our weaknesses, and whom I love, just as the Prophet (upon him peace) loved his people, the Quraysh, even when they were the oppressors.
Even now, it is my brothers and sisters in Islam from all different ethnicities who share with me their passionate perspectives on race in America. This is my typical heart-on-the-sleeve white guy contribution to the conversation. I reiterate Malcolm’s hope when he wrote, “But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.”
And I close with the words of the Islamic tradition: “All praise is due to Allah for the blessing of Islam, and sufficient is it as a blessing.”