Racialized Muslim Bodies And White Revert Privilege

Awhile ago, I was involved in a great but challenging debate with some of my intellectual superiors on the issue of ‘White feminism’. The initial discussions revolved around feminist imperialism (or imperialist feminism). A discussant equated this with ‘White feminism.’ This assertion, made in passing, was problematized by a White Muslim female revert, who found the term, in fact, ‘racist’. It immediately triggered an impassioned debate about the use of Whiteness as a socio-political category and a descriptively pejorative classification for a [large] brand of feminism. Most of the arguments struck against the point that to refer to a brand of feminism under the auspices of Whiteness was racist. If we could accept Women of Color feminism or Black feminism, then could we not accept White feminism as a feminism that is entrenched not in skin color  but a history of privilege and imperialism? After all, the Third Wave of feminism emerged as a response to the Whiteness of feminism, making an effort to respond to the many intellectual and thought potholes left by preceding generations that served to be exclusionary. During the discussion, slightly upset by the denial of White Privilege’s more than peaking presence in feminism, I maintained: White Feminism’ as a term is not racist, in the least. It was and remains a diagnosis for a feminism which was and is.

One of my main arguments was countering a point made by the discussant who problematized the use of ‘White feminism.’ She claimed that her Whiteness was overshadowed by her physical appearance as a practicing Muslim woman. To this, I responded (with much intrigue):

I think it’s interesting to think that Whiteness can be somewhat compromised or completely erased by entering Islam. I think, personally, the only real bit of legitimacy (to an extent) to that perspective comes when there’s a burdened visual to accompany one’s Muslimness — and a very particular visual at that  (the hijab and her sisters).  Other than that, I don’t think one’s whiteness or even perceived whiteness can easily be so shed. Nor can white privilege. And, of course, this works both ways — even class privilege cannot fully erase bigotry against so-called “people of color” who have ‘attained’ it — if anything, it just can just hide it until the quiet moments where it does rear its ugly head. Class doesn’t always necessarily trump race, despite what the Marxists may say.

And let us not forget the privileges that come from being white within our large and diverse Muslim community (with, obviously, some disadvantages and condescending assumptions). Both white in skin tone (fair complexions, etc) and white as a socio-political category and heritage.

I realize this sounds fatalistic: that we can never ‘escape’ what privileges us and what disadvantages us in relation to our skin color and our epistemic history and memory. I don’t mean to speak without exceptions or in absolutes.

I do, however, think we should not and cannot underestimate the power of both owned and perceived privilege and treat it as something extremely flexible and fluid through which one can move in and out. The near-fastened nature of white privilege is exactly why the Third Wave emerged. It is exactly why the term ‘White Feminism’ (and also ‘women of color’) was brought about.

Since this discussion, however, I couldn’t help but think about White Privilege in the setting of not only Muslims, as a social group, but from the perspective of faith. From perspective of faith–there lies no difference between myself and a Muslim from either the socio-political category of Black or of White. Before God and with one another, we are all equal. Yet there is something to be said about the inequalities which are so historically, socially and institutionally embedded within both physical society and our individual and collective psyches, that I wondered how such God-centric equality could be achieved.

From there, I also thought more about the point of the headscarf erasing Whiteness. While I disagree it ‘erases’ Whiteness, I have come to believe that it certainly puts Whiteness and White privilege in a flux — which is, in of itself, an interesting socio-historical phenomenon. And, mind you, I speak of this flux as primarily in relation to non-racialized society, outside the Muslim domain. Within the Muslim domain, Whiteness is a whole other issue which permeates through imperialism, beauty and other’ing.

While many may argue that ‘racism’ against Muslims is non-existent since to be Muslim is to be a practitioner of a faith and not part of a race, the fact of the matter is that Muslims have become racialized bodies. In other words:

Racialization refers to processes of the discursive production of racial identities. It signifies the extension of dehumanizing and racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.Put simply, a group of people is seen as a “race”, when it was not before.

I went for Wikipedia because I felt that was the best short definition I could find at the moment. Thus, racialization refers to the process by which non-racial groups are made into a race by virtue of how they are represented and spoken about. The key part of the above definition is ‘dehumanizing’ — racialization is not, in anyway, a positive transformation of a group. It is, in fact, the attempt to destroy a group by placing it within the arbitrary but fixed confines of the socially constructed ‘race’ category. Europe serves as a prime example of where such racialization has taken place in the past (European Jewry) and is currently taking place (Roma, Muslims). Also, on a slight tangent, there is I would argue (and perhaps it is painfully obvious to those who enjoy critical race theory and social power relations) also the process of racialization of non-White/Anglo immigrants in Euro-American societies (into a single Immigrant race).

Thus, if we accept Muslim bodies to be racialized bodies, does then coming into the faith, specifically from the vantage point of privilege, racialize the non-racialized as well?

It’s okay. Take an Advil.

What I mean to say – when a White woman, a White man converts to Islam, does s/he lose a large part of his/her privilege? I’m more inclined to say no than yes — but then I want to further ask: what of physical indicators of faith and piety? Does the headscarf racialize? Does the beard? Does fasting racialize? What about taking the time to pray in a non-racialized environment of privilege?  Does a woman, physically discernible as Muslim, face a greater degree of racialization than her male counterparts in faith due to the effects of gender on race perception and treatment as well as the role and imagery of Muslim women in creating that ‘discursive’ tradition that renders Islam a racial category?

Whiteness cannot be erased for all socio-political intents and purposes (yet?), but can it be compromised by adoption of not only a racialized physical appearance but a racialized set of beliefs? And I don’t mean ‘adoption’ in that White hipster appropriation kinda way.

These are just some thoughts that have been swimming in my head lately as I try to unravel what Whiteness means to me and how I, as a person of faith with many layers of interlocked and subverted privileges and disadvantages, can engage with it in an earnest way so that I can move forward from intellectual reductionism and fatalism. Still working through ideas and challenging much of what I’ve said here already.

Looking forward to your thoughts.

18 thoughts on “Racialized Muslim Bodies And White Revert Privilege

  1. I was on the Swiss radio the other day and I was talking about how yes, Muslims do face discrimination, and that as a result I have taken steps like dejabbing, lying during Ramadan at lunch about what was going on, just being a closet Muslim. That is easy for me to do because I am white. I think and have seen anecdotally that the north African chicks here, hijab or not, get asked random questions about islam or culture I don’t usually get. I don’t like it when white people say that their hijab made them know what privilege is. It doesn’t because you can take off hijab but you can’t take off brown or black. The only “problem” white reverts have is that we are in a no man’s land- we are neither here nor there. It is harder for us to gain legitimacy as credible muslims and not “married-tos”, and white people think we just need to move to Africa or something. But again, that petty inconvenience doesn’t trump the fact that as Muslims we still have our white masks, we can still blend in, I do it every day. That can’t change, and for me that is the essence of white privilege.

  2. i think what makes the privilege a little less priveleged in the case of a white muslim would be the overt symbolic piece of Islam (hjijab, beard, kufi) and maybe in someways being Muslim overshadows their state of being White (i just felt rocks thrown at me for saying “state of white”–i gross myself sometimes)—i like how nicole said she can hide and be a closet Muslim—i have often wondered if i took my hijab out, it would be one less layer of discrimination against me and although i am not “white”, but i am of fair complexion, and i have often thought about flying under the radar without the hijab–(but i digress)—here is a thought, i wonder if White Muslims (obvious wearing the symbols of islam, Muslims)—if in fact their being white and with the privilege of being White, if they ever actually experience this (i don’t know what to call it) reverse racialization perhaps in the form of questions like: “now why would you go and convert to such a barbaric religion, when you raised in Western/democratic/better values, know better” (okay not exactly those words, but you get what i mean right?)

  3. i think what makes the privilege a little less priveleged in the case of a white muslim would be the overt symbolic piece of Islam (hjijab, beard, kufi) and maybe in someways being Muslim overshadows their state of being White (i just felt rocks thrown at me for saying “state of white”–i gross myself sometimes)—i like how nicole said she can hide and be a closet Muslim—i have often wondered if i took my hijab out, it would be one less layer of discrimination against me and although i am not “white”, but i am of fair complexion, and i have often thought about flying under the radar without the hijab–(but i digress)—here is a thought, i wonder if White Muslims (obvious wearing the symbols of islam, Muslims)—if in fact their being white and with the privilege of being White, if they ever actually experience this (i don’t know what to call it) reverse racialization in the form of questions like: “now why would you go and convert to such a barbaric religion, when you, a westerner/knower of democratic and better values know better” (okay not exactly those words, but you get what i mean right?)

  4. I’d say whites don’t lose their privilege because, even entering the faith, they can choose much more easily to ‘pass’ as a “normal white person” (read: non-Muslim white person) than PoC – who, regardless of their faith, tend to be branded by (usually white people) as Muslim, with all the loaded, racial and cultural anxieties of white people that go with it, whether they are in fact Muslim or not. With that said – it may definitely make whites more aware of their privilege, as they find themselves subjected to the kind of prejudices that Muslims and PoC deal with every day (and don’t have the choice of just taking the headscarf off and ‘boom, white person, so no more crap!’). Bah, it sounds like I’m just describing from outside what’s been said above.

  5. I was totally planning on writing a similar post on white Muslims and white privilege/power. I think the hijab is racialized and bodies that wear it are marked as “threatening” racial others, regardless of skin color, but I don’t believe whiteness ever goes away for white Muslims. Not too long ago, a white Muslim khateeb (who had a beard and wore a kufi) called racism and anti-racism “evil” and preached problematic narratives about Malcolm X (saying he once advocated “black supremacy” until “he saw the light”). In addition to his poor anti-racist analysis, he shouted louder than any other khateeb I’ve ever heard (and the image of a white man shouting at a congregation of brown and black bodies was not flattering). He charged immigrant communities with racism and scolded them for “breaking up families” because they make it so difficult for their children to marry white Muslims. I don’t deny that these family break-ups happen, but the way it was presented made me really uncomfortable. I was also waiting for him to criticize white families for the way many of them treat their children when they become Muslim, but he didn’t say anything.

    There are times when I feel white Muslims speak for Muslims color without understanding their responsibility and whiteness. A lot of times, it comes off as if they’re acting like “saviors” for us “regressive and backwards brown people.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard some of them say, “Islam doesn’t teach domestic violence, it’s the cultures that are the problem!” The cultures being “non-white” cultures, of course. This is how white Muslims still play into the racialization of Muslims of color. So yeah, I definitely think whiteness and white privilege/power definitely plays a significant role, especially within our community.

  6. I don’t think white converts lose a part of their privilege upon entering the Muslim community at all. In fact, in some cases their privilege increases. I’m reminded of the “Great White Sheikhs” who use their influence to discuss how “we Muslims” are doing it wrong “over there” and “back home.” Highly problematic.

    As a white convert (and more especially, a woman) yes I have experienced genderized Islamophobia, been spat on, and verbally harassed by “my own people” who reduce racial prejudice to a visual symbol and who justify violence against a religious minority by attacking gender. But like other comments have pointed out, I can take my hijab off. I can blend in easily. And when it’s learned I’m a white convert, more often than not, I’m praised for taking on such a harsh, foreign and exotic way of life. *roll eyes*

    I also have my white name to help me get a job. I have my white contacts to help me succeed at school. And I don’t have to know about these successes — that’s part of being privileged. Even when I wear a head scarf, my whiteness benefits me. While I may not have any validity as a “real” Muslim by some in the community (but also praise for being a “better Muslim than those born into it, because I CHOSE Islam), my whiteness helps me become the spokesperson for the community who would rather showcase a white convert over a black convert. The white convert is an oddity, special, and prized as proof that there’s nothing wrong with Islam — not when so many white Britons converting to Islam! (BBC)

    The paltry experiences of exclusion that white converts feel by the community is nothing compared to the systematic exclusion of PoC. I might be exotified by wearing the hijab, having my so-called whiteness erased by the ignorant — but I was never brought up to watch what I say to my teachers, bosses and friends out of the fear of tarnishing my future. I wasn’t brought up to alter my behaviour in the presence of the police because I might be profiled. Even today when I get extra attention at the airport… well, so do all hijabis.

    I absolutely have to acknowledge my white privilege and hope to be an ally and never a saviour.

    This is an excellent post.

  7. This is a very interesting discussion so thank you for initiating it. I have actually conducted extensive research about this subject and one of my research papers is due to be published soon entitled: ‘White Privilege and White Disprivilege in the Lives of Muslim Converts in Britain’. The details are as follows:

    In this paper, I explore how the ‘race’ of ‘white’ converts to Islam affects their post-conversion experiences. I do this by drawing upon the idea of white privilege. I assess the extent to which ‘white’ Muslim converts are privileged because of their ‘whiteness’. This involves comparing their experiences to ‘non-white’ converts. I argue that ‘white’ converts are privileged in various ways because their ‘whiteness’ functions as a marker of dominance and respectability which ‘non-white’ converts are assumed not to possess. Yet, in attempting to go beyond well-established observations about the existence of white privilege, I also consider the limits of white privilege. I argue that upon converting to Islam, their ‘whiteness’ is tarnished to the extent where they are ‘re-racialised’ as ‘not-quite-white’. I also reflect on the way in which even when converts are still racialised as ‘white’, their ‘whiteness’ can not be privileging due to the contexts they live in. I introduce the concept of ‘white disprivilege’ to understand how ‘whiteness’ can, in some contexts, decrease opportunities and increase restrictions. Unlike white supremacists who may always portray ‘white’ people as always the victim though, in this paper I seek to highlight how ‘whiteness’ can be both privileging and disprivilging, empowering and disempowering. I explain that in the milieu that ‘white’ converts to Islam live in, their ‘whiteness’ does afford them privileges in some instances, but it also causes them disprivileges in other instances, the latter of which is important to highlight because it challenges the dominant understanding of the consequences of being racialised as ‘white’. This paper is based on 37 in-depth interviews that I conducted between 2008-2009 with Muslim converts in Greater Manchester as part of my PhD research on the experiences of Muslim converts in Britain.

    If anyone wants a copy of the paper or further information about my research feel free to email me on reza_moosavi@hotmail.co.uk.

  8. Asalam Alikom wa Rahmutuallah wa Baraktuh…quite frankly all of this confuses me…what privilege do I have being white that you do not have and visa versa?? Seriously this confuses me, and I feel adds more to the fitnah within our communities…when I first reverted, and until actually quite recently I was quite in awe of other Sisters of different nationalities and skin colour, feeling like I was less than them, that they had something special I did not….I seriously would like some one to explain all of this to me, perhaps I am just too dense or too old, or a little of both :)

  9. I find it very encouraging that so many white converts have responded to this discussion. I truly love my Muslim brothers and sisters. White or Black or Brown or Yellow, this discussion reminds me that Islam has made us the best of humanity, by Allah’s Grace and Mercy. So from what you see in my 1st statements, if you examine my words closely, you will come to the correct assumption that I am a convert from a Protestant back ground, that I’m Black and American (my idiomatic “preachy” style). You might assume I’m a new convert, but you’d be wrong and if you think racialization is a significant factor in “White Society”, you haven’t been a Black American convert among Arabs and South Asians.
    I can almost understand the prejudice and racialization that White converts experience in Europe or England because in that case it is the indigenous people who are expressing their feelings of fear and anxiety that what their ancestors did to other nations could be happening to them in their own country. The 1st experience Europe had with Europeans converting to Islam was when British and French naval officers “turned Moor”, took over their ships and waged guerrilla warfare on European naval vessels, retrieving the the treasures the Europeans had stolen from the Muslim countries and returning the wealth to the Muslims. You can see in the movies and literature how Europeans “racialized” these pirates (why Johnny Dep has such a dark tan in his pirate movies) and how they are always depicted as mentally imbalanced, wealth and/or sex-crazy sociopaths, just as Muslim men- especially converts– are depicted today. White converts are seen as renegades, apostates and traitors to their country, race and national/ religious/ cultural heritage. They have always suffered the backlash for their assumed betrayal, it has little to do with any race other than their own.
    I think it could be argued that “blending in” could be good for the Muslim community in that it could assuage the natives’ fears of losing control, privilege or power.
    But what the heck is wrong with Indian, Pakistani, and Arab Muslims who treat Black converts with distrust, disrespect, condescension and overt racism, and who assume White converts value or desire White privilege?
    I have lived in some of the most historically racially-charged areas in the Southern states of the US and never been treated by even Klu Klux Klanners as disrespectfully as I have been treated by Muslims–because of my color. Alternately, my white daughters-in-law have been fawned over and stucked up to by these same Muslims. In the Islamic school, my grandchildren are treated according to how much or how little melanin they inherited. My grandchildren who attend public school, on the other hand, have a good chance of being treated fairly by the non-Muslim teachers by virtue of the fact that their parents speak English without an “accent” and are familiar with the local culture and mannerisms.
    Though I am a Black woman I can do my version of “blending in” among non-Muslims. I look them in the eye, smile and “preach” the Gospel of Islam in a manner and with an accent they can relate to. I can even pull my “Oprah card” and give them advice, or trick them into believing I’m not poor. Among Muslims…not so much. No matter what I do, and after 40 years in Islam, I’ve tried a lot, they never accept me and other Black people as equal, the same, just a brother or sister. It’s as if it’s against their religion to treat a Black person as truly their equal, or as if in some way they, like their white counterparts will lose their assumed status.

  10. @Jehanzeb

    I think your being hypocritical and are uncomfortable with white people in general.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with the alleged brothers position of being against “racism and anti-racism”, as you claim he put it. Such an analysis might appear problematic to you however the history of these words such as anti-racism and the movements such as the Nation of Islam are not exactly apparent. The NOI ARE a black supremacist group who believe blacks are the chosen people and whites are devils. This group believes one cannot have a racist act perpetrated against them unless they are black, and it is not possible for black people to be racist. They redefine the word racist to mean only those who have the power to engage in institutionalized racism. They also redefined anti-racism as being anti-white because whites are racist. That sir is problematic. So when Mr. al hajj malik shabazz left the NOI he did see the light, because he left a kaffir organization. Islam does not allow racism or so called “reverse racism”. Its all the same crap.

    On another note you seem like a sensitive and pride filled guy to sit there at a khutbah thinking “Who does this white guy think he is talking to us like that?”. That is what they do at a khutbah they talk about the issues concerning the community and you would not have had an issue with what he had said had you considered that brother apart of the community. Since we are talking about personal experiences. Do you know how many times I have sat and listened to Imams tell me how corrupt Western culture and society is? The culture being “non-brown” culture, of course. But I never sat there and took offense. The reality is we all have our own problems as communities and I don’t have such an ego that it makes me uncomfortable for an outsider to point it out. I’m sure that the Imam never said “all immigrant communities are racist” you just interpreted it as such. But the reality is that it is a common practice for many Muslim families to exercise racial prejudice when it comes to marriage and to deny their daughters right to their choices. So do you condone this practice upheld by these walis? Do you think Imams should keep quite about the issue? And if no then should we get a brown man to do it next time so you feel comfortable?

    And how would criticizing non-muslim families for their lack of understanding in front of a congregation of Muslims be beneficial or on topic? Do you expect kaffir to behave better then the believers? You just can’t seem to understand that he wasn’t thinking racially like you were and that’s why he never brought up our kaffir families, it never occurred to him that he had to even the score. Lastly I gotta say its not only reverts who use labeling of an issue as cultural in defense of Islam, but I do think it is overused. However, I do think you are again incorrect by thinking that these INDIVIDUALS are insinuating that such a defense is a criticism of “non-white” cultures instead of seeing it as a criticism of man made cultures in general. Because you have to admit if we were big on culture we would have never become Muslim.

    So where was my white privilege in the Muslim community when I have been denied a wife 5 times for no other reason then I was white, a convert, and from a “different culture”(even though we were all raised in the west)? Where was my white privilege in the western community when I lost my job for refusing to sell alcohol? Where was my white privilege when I alienated my self from my culture, color and society only to be treated as an outsider by many in the community of believers?

    Thank you all for belittling my life struggles and reminding me just how good I have it no matter what, because I am white.

  11. @israfel:

    this is not the first time i have heard this reverse racism from desi families towards reverts and i find it horribly uncomfortable—and i would assume, if u were a white revert girl, a brown guy will have a lot easier of a time taking you home and introducing you and getting married to you (in fact, being Muslim isn’t even that important (this is the only time being a woman is of privilege in desi cultures *gag*) vs. a white revert guy being taken home by a desi girl to be introduced and get married. chances are the desi girls not so religious parents would actually DENY the proposal of the white guy on the basis of: “this is not our culture” or “what would people say”—i can’t imagine your struggle being an easy one—May Allah help you in your life as you have chosen his path ameen:)

  12. Thank you for the kind words. I also need to say Salam to everyone and Ramadan mubarak. I apologize for my rant but it is from my heart.

    I’m not entirely sure why you thought I was strictly speaking about desi families. I’m not sure where you are from but I’m in Canada and to be honest the pakistani community has been nothing but polite and welcoming. I’ve met a few who had negative ideas about white people like “They are lazy” etc. But it was them who actually offered me, on two separate occasions, their daughters. I only politely declined the proposals at the time because I needed to learn my religion, that was a mistake I think. I’ve only had issues in this area with Arab women.

  13. Pingback: An Illusion of Intellectualism: Mohamed Ghilan and Neo-Traditional Islam | Desperately Seeking Paradise

  14. All I have to say is enjoy facing Allah SWT and explaining how you view others simply because of race. You’re undoing what Islam meant to get rid of. Maybe you need to educate yourself about your religion, first.

  15. Real privledge these days, is seen in the middle east. People who look white are targetted over there and often killed by brown people with privledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s