It’s an image that’s hard to forget: the lifeless body of 18 year old Michael Brown laying in the street.
For four hours.
For four hours, Mike Brown was left dead in the streets of Ferguson, as though he – to quote Marc Lamont Hill – “belonged to nobody“. I remember being unable to tear my eyes away from the video showing his collapsed body – not out of some morbid desire to see the silence of death from a safe distance, but because his lifeless body in that street meant something immediately.
I had seen the police scene photos of Trayvon Martin’s murdered body. I had seen Oscar Grant get shot in the back. I had seen the aftermath of the 41 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo. I had grown up having seen and always remembering the circle of cops around Rodney King as he crumbled onto the pavement.
But Mike Brown was just lying there. For four hours. He just lay there as neighbors rushed out, trying to make sense of what happened and trying to figure just what had happened and why. An image of a young boy lying in the street, gunned down, lifeless for so many hours brought with it a sort of strange finality to a deep-seated rage; a rage against having to live in subservience to Whiteness by virtue of just..existing.
The BlackLivesMatter movement is a realization of that rage for so many Black Americans whose citizenship is defined in terms of violence, criminalization and dehumanization — all based on the structure of white supremacy this country is built on and built upon the scarred backs of so many black slaves and completely wiped out native populations.
I’m Muslim, I’m brown. And I have a responsibility towards BlackLivesMatter and fighting white supremacy just as my fellow Muslims and brown folks living in this country do as well.
See, so many of us non-Black Muslims, us brown folks benefit directly and indirectly every day from anti-black racism.
We talk about the institutions of racism in this country, but we actually don’t know how (and to what extent) they work and how they impact our day to day lives – because in many ways those institutions don’t. There’s a privilege in our brownness in that it can be assimilated in whiteness — something our communities are already doing when trying to formulate their‘Americanness’ which, undeniably, corresponds with, responds to and incorporates whiteness.
Crazy thing about being a Desi is how relatively easy it is for many of us to actually assimilate into whiteness in America without trying very hard. Part of it is not only buying into the structural racism against black Americans but embodying that racism.
Crazy thing about being Arab in America is that assimilation into whiteness isn’t so much so just an option but rather is something that’s been an integral part of Arab American history itself.
And while we all come, ourselves, in different hues of brown – some far darker than others – anti-Black racism and institutions/structures aren’t solely about the colour of our skin.
We can talk all we want about American white supremacy but these institutions weren’t built at our prerogative – they were built at the expense of men, women and children like Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Tamir Rice Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd and so, so many others against whose names we’ve seen a social revolution for basic human dignity and justice.
That’s not our day to day lived reality (or potential reality) — but we can help still fight it because racism towards us is residual of anti-Black racism. For my fellow Muslims, Islamophobia is something that is rooted in a long history of Western Christian European relations with Islam hearkening back centuries and it’s rooted in foreign policy and geopolitics. But it is also something deeply rooted in white supremacy — white supremacy which was built in this country in direct opposition to Black and indigenous populations.
And this can’t be said enough: anti-Black racism is also a Muslim issue. Islam’s roots in the United States are black. When we, as non-Black Muslims, talk about creating ‘American Islam’ or an ‘American Muslim culture’ we’re directly, unintentionally and not malignantly, engaging in erasure of the history of Islam in America — the history of Islam in America by way of African slaves, by way of Black activism, by way of Black exploration of the faith itself. We are erasing the African and Black history and roots of Islam in this country. That link, of course, between Islam and American blackness does not make us black. To believe this is to ignore how every single one of us actually also benefits from anti-black racism. This link does not give us the license to appropriate Black history while we keep Black Muslims on the outside of the conversations.
Anti-Black racism by way of the criminal justice system, in the workplace, in schools, prisons, the education system, in day to day life is also a Muslim issue. There are countless Muslims, themselves, who are affected violently by every anti-Black racist institution, instance and remark in this country. And it is our responsibility as non-Black Muslims to include efforts like MuslimARC and BlackLivesMatters in the fight against Islamophobia. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
Exceptions all around but let’s not, in an attempt at solidarity, appropriate blackness in America. American racist institutions and systems affect us all — but they, again, also benefit so many of us too. Most of us, in fact. Yes, we have our own violent histories of genocide, identity erasure and cultural devastation — but that does not make our struggle in this country equal in our current experience.
So, what does my responsibility as a brown Muslim woman to BlackLivesMatter mean? What does it mean to fight white supremacy? It means, first, calling racism in this country what it actually is: white supremacy. It means recognizing my own privileges, working within my own ethnic communities to fight anti-Black racism and to work to address whatever anti-Black racism I have in me – however unintentional, however benign. It means to give space to powerful Black Muslim women and to work to help create the space they need in my Muslim communities. It means not usurping the fight of Black Americans, not taking the mantle and speaking from it about them without them. It means supporting Black activists in their struggles and protests – even if I do not necessarily agree with their tactics, because I recognize the history behind criticism of Black protest and response to hurt and oppression.
It means recognizing that our struggles are, globally, the same, but in the context of what’s happening right now in this country – very different. And that that’s okay. And that doesn’t take away from my struggle and my struggle should never take away from someone else’s.
And we shouldn’t shy away from calling ourselves imperfect in our solidarity- for we are. And that’s okay too.