I am a Black woman who was born Muslim. My mother taught me Islamic studies, and like many Muslim children, I attended Qur’an classes and fasted during Ramadan. Now that I am older I am grappling with the prejudices and nuances about my race and religion. I am fortunate to have grown up in Philadelphia, a city with a very affluent Black Muslim community where blackness and Islam coexist in a very public way. However, it didn’t prepare me for a world that struggles to accept we exist.
When people first meet me, they don’t always believe that I’m Muslim. I remember an awkward Uber ride when my driver would not stop asking about my background. “Hanifah sounds Muslim, but you can’t be Muslim,” he said after asking me where my family is from. This experience was hurtful but not unfamiliar, as I almost always find myself continually standing up for my race, religion, and gender. Not only do I fight for each aspect of my identity separately, but I also fight for the recognition of my intersecting identity as well.
Intersectionality is a term that was created by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to explain how overlapping marginalized social identities like race, gender, and sexuality are affected by systemic oppressions. For example, if you are a racial minority living with a disability, your experience is shaped by both of both identities and you may face discrimination by the non-POC disabled community or ableism within your racial group. For me, intersectionality encompasses my life as a Black-American Muslim woman.
Most of the prejudice comes from ignorance and lack of proper representation. However, when we fight for representation, intersectionality is often ignored in our pleas. During college, I took a class about feminism in religion. Once we began our unit on Islam, we were only shown images of Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim women. My professor ignored the fact that Islam is not synonymous with culture, and there are Muslims of every race, including Black-Americans.
According to Pew Research, Black-Americans make up one-fifth of the Muslim population in the United States. The history of Black-Americans and Islam can be traced back to slavery when groups on slaves would practice the religion in secret. A prime example of a Black-American Muslim would be the prolific Civil Rights leader Malcolm X who was outspoken about both his faith and his rights as a Black man.
With prejudice and bias running rampant in Trump’s America, Black-American Muslims often have to question whether they’re being discriminated against because of the color of their skin or their declaration of faith. To make matters worse, you may find yourself dealing with racism from the Muslim community and Islamophobia from the Black community. Muslim Youtuber Habiba Da Silva made a video addressing colorism and racism in the hijabi influencer community.
While Black Twitter was processing the possibility of another war in the Middle East, I couldn’t help but notice the presence of Islamophobic sentiments that accompanied the #WWIII hashtag. While it all began with jokes, suddenly the memes became increasingly disrespectful when users began to mention Allah (which means God in Arabic) and verses of the Qu’ran in their attempts to go viral.
These instances often leave Black-Muslims feeling conflicted. No one should feel like they have to choose between their race and their religion. At the end of the day, it’s all about diversity and the importance of respecting every aspect of someone’s identity. My identity is a huge part of who I am and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love breaking fast with soul food iftars and watching my melanated sisters in Islam rocking bold-colored hijabs. Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of representation for girls like me, thankfully, things are starting to change.
Today, Black Muslims from all backgrounds are being recognized by the world, from Representative Ilhan Omar to activist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. In 2016, a Black woman by the name of Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim-American woman to earn a medal at the Olympics. She is also the face of the first hijabi Barbie. Representation in Hollywood is also increasing. Mahershala Ali is set to guest star on the next season of Ramy and Halima Aden is gracing the cover of Essence Magazine.
Black Muslims are breaking through systemic barriers of racism and Islamophobia -- we are here, and we matter too.