This is an edited version of a talk given at the Inclusive Mosque Initiative’s “Raise Your Gaze” event on 16th September 2017.
I’m going to use Black feminism to talk about how we can better care for and centre the needs of those that we ignore or push to the sidelines of society. I see this as part of our move towards a society where all of us (not just some of us) can be free.
I felt like this was the only way that I could do this workshop and finally address some of my concerns regarding conversations about anti-Black racism within the Muslim community. Specifically, I want to talk about the frustration that I feel when Black Muslims are ignored and/or vilified within the Muslim community. For me, it’s been surprising how even though my research focuses on Black Muslim women and Black feminism, I have received a number of invitations to talk about anti-Black violence within South Asian Muslim communities.
This assumes that the experiences of Black Muslims can or should be reduced to the oppression that we face, when this is not (and can never) be the case. Those of us that are oppressed know that our lives are bigger than the racism that we face within and beyond the Muslim community. Somehow we continue to live and love despite all of the horrors that surround us. Yes, we suffer under anti-Black racism: but when people within South Asian Muslim communities deny our humanity (or ignore our suffering since it doesn’t affect them), it is their own humanity that is called into question, and not ours. James Baldwin (1963) has spoken about this at length when describing white people that were unable to recognise the horrors of the systems that they have inherited: because of this, they are unable to tap into their own humanity as their very lives are dependent on denying the lives of others.
I do recognise the need for people to learn how to tackle anti-Black racism within their own communities. However, my problem with these conversations is that they are overwhelmingly repetitive. Again and again, Black Muslims point to the ways in which anti-Black violence (within and beyond the Muslim community) affects our lives, and non-Black Muslims nod their heads whilst doing little to challenge this racism when it is apparent in mosques, homes and everyday spaces. Again and again, Black Muslims point to how Black African majority-Muslim countries are forgotten in the prayers of Muslims, and non-Black Muslims nod their heads whilst talking about Bilal’s role in the early Islamicate.
So I see a problem with the expectation that myself or other Black Muslims would or should be willing to have these repetitive conversations about anti-Black racism. It puts Black Muslims in the position of having to explain our oppression to our oppressors (a job that I am not willing to do in my personal life, ever since Brexit happened). When Black Muslims are called upon to explain anti-Black racism to those who perpetuate it, we are put in the position of holding the hands of those that continue to oppress us. The emotions and needs of those that can question our humanity is put first and centred, often at the cost of our own well-being. This maintains the status quo and centres those that either wilfully oppress or wilfully ignore oppression. This is what we need to change.
Let me be clear: I don’t think that this is a problem that is limited to anti-Black violence within the Muslim community. This speaks to the many others that we can ignore even as we’re organising against oppression. This includes organising against Islamophobia in the UK without connecting it to the histories of Empire that allows the UK government to have never-ending wars against Black and Brown people abroad. It means connecting our own experiences and lives to the lives of those of us who died trying to cross treacherous borders, who are trans, who are locked up in refugee detention centres, who are homeless, who are sex workers, who are imprisoned within violent prison industrial systems, who are (or have been) all of the above, and who are unnamed even here. All of us deserve justice and freedom.
This is where I need to talk about the role of Black feminism, as Black feminists have always spoken about this need to care for those that are most often forgotten when people talk about justice. Black feminists identified how “woman” was coded to mean white, and “Black” was coded to mean male, and spoke out against this (it’s within this context that Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality, even though it has been whitewashed and neutralised in many ways).
I’m going to expand on this a bit: Black feminists saw suffragette movements that argued for the right to vote with the interest of maintaining white supremacy – one of the most famous suffragettes Susan B. Anthony had said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman”. We see updated versions of this when hordes of white women in pink hats came out for Women’s Marches across the West, but did not feel the same urgency to come out and make their voices heard when Black people (including many women who are Black) were and are dying because of police brutality and from racist systems that continue to deny our people proper housing, education and employment.
Similarly, Black feminists saw anti-racist movements that argued for freedom on the basis of “manhood.” I have a deep respect for the hearts and actions of cis- hetero- male civil rights/Black power writers and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. They continued to fight against tides of oppression with unwavering voices and demands for justice. But I am also aware of how they still limited their dreams to the rights of cis- hetero- Black men. Their language and actions focused first and foremost on these Black men being denied the space to “be men” under white supremacy.
Both of these examples of white feminists and Black men ignore the many issues that Black women have faced under white supremacist and misogynistic structures. They both inaccurately simplify the struggle towards freedom by narrowing it down to freedom for only some of us, rather than all of us. This continues a system where, to borrow the words of Kristie Dotson, some of us might be temporarily spared from the same oppression, but none of us would be actually saved in the long run. It simply allows those of us that are just steps away from the bottom rungs of society to try and claw our way up a step, instead of getting rid of these unequal systems altogether.
So what does all of this mean for the ways in which we organise and care for one another? For me, I think of Black feminists who have shown that we need to start from those that are most marginalised when we talk about and move towards justice and freedom. This means insisting on our rights to be seen as human beings, yes: but more importantly, it requires us to live in ways where we never ever forget other people’s rights to be seen as human beings with all of our differences and similarities. This is why Audre Lorde taught us:
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.” (Lorde, 1984: 133)
Of course, we can’t solve all of the problems of the world, and we need to think carefully about managing our workload (although I have to note how those that are most marginalised are the ones that more often than not do the most work of standing up for the rights of others). However, we need to begin by changing our language and actions: we can’t continue to expect those who face oppression to swallow their experiences and “wait their turn” in spaces where we’re meant to be working towards a different and better society. We need to start by putting the needs of those most marginalised within our communities first, with the knowledge that justice and freedom for all is dependent on justice and freedom for the most marginalised.
Ok, that’s all I wanted to say to set the tone, and now I want to turn the conversation over to you. I want to hear more about how each of us within our own lives can do the work of standing firm for the rights and the freedom of those that are most marginalised within our communities. What does this look like for you? How do we build these kinds of communities? What concerns or questions do you have about doing this kind of work? I see these questions as being all the more urgent given the overt racism that we’re seeing displayed these days, and so I look forward to hearing more from you.
Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time, New York, Vintage Books.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, California, The Crossing Press.