I’ve been thinking about white privilege a lot lately, and it’s a break from my usual topics here, but I wanted to say my peace. It’s hard watching a Facebook stream of people both experiencing injustices and disregarding injustices at the same time. So, here’s my experience as a born-white American who converted to Islam in my adult years.
By all accounts, I’m white, caucasian, Euro-American, whatever you want to call it, but I’m no longer treated by the general public like I used to, so I feel that I can speak about the subject. You see, color and race seem to be subjective in this country. It doesn’t feel often that I can fit into the “white” circles anymore (even though I’m half Norwegian and half German… not the most exotic of the bunch), which gives me a bit of an outside perspective on white privilege.
The thing about white privilege is you don’t know you have it until it’s gone. You don’t realize what it feels like to be part of “us” until you’re part of “them.” You think everyone else’s world is the same as yours; your neighbors are treated the same as you, regardless of their skin tone. The fact is, that just isn’t true.
White privilege means that you are generally assumed not to be suspicious. People may assume you actually have more money than you do, and they aren’t surprised when you say that you have achieved higher education. Or, the simple things like not being surprised when you don’t have a foreign accent.
I grew up white and always had empathy for my minority friends, and surrounded myself with friends of various backgrounds. I thought I got it, but I didn’t have a full picture until I started wearing hijab. That’s when white privilege became crystal clear.
Now my appearance brings so many, I mean so many assumptions. The first normally comes in the form of a simple question: “Where is your husband from?” Oh, the baggage in that question! Sure, maybe it’s an innocent enough question, but I’ve been through this scenario enough times to see where it goes. It plays something like this:
“Where is your husband from”
Me, “From here.”
“No, but before that. Where are his parents from?”
Me, “From here also.”
“So… (long pause) And he’s a Muslim???”
It can go any number of directions from there. The fact that we are both American Muslim converts is something that just doesn’t compute for most people. “Where is your husband from?” is not a simple question. The question behind the question is usually, “Let me learn about who you converted to Islam for.” The idea that I came to Islam without the bait of a man is a hard concept for a lot of people to grasp.
Or the question of why I wear hijab. Why would someone with full rights by US law decide to cover myself up without being forced by a man? The amount of time it takes to explain to people that no, really, I started wearing hijab before I started talking to my husband shows the amount of baggage people come with in their assumptions.
Another aspect of white privilege, probably the one I miss the most, is you don’t have to answer for other people’s actions. “Why does my coworker drink if he’s a Muslim?,” “Why are they killing Christians in Iraq?,” “My neighbor treats his wife terribly, but you say women are not oppressed.” and the list goes on and on and on.
So, as someone without white privilege, I have to act on my best behavior all the time (or to the best of my ability). I don’t get to slip in my Islam publicly because I know another unsuspecting Muslim is going to have to answer for me. The idea that one Muslim doesn’t speak to the truth of Islam is a shockingly hard concept for a lot of people to digest.
Lastly, there are far too many people that completely disregard the injustices, ignorance, and bigotry that non-white people face. Do not disregard someone’s personal experience as a figment of their imagination. It is rude and condescending. Even if you have questions on the full validity of a statement, give someone the benefit of the doubt. As a white person, you have not seen the fear in people’s eyes as you enter a room. You have not seen the hesitation for people to interact with you because of assumptions they have about your character. You don’t know what it is like being feared before opening your mouth, or people being suspicious when you have a large gathering.
There is a non-white problem in the United States. It is far from over.
In sha Allah this small post helps open minds and hearts so we can see positive change in our communities.
**In the interest of keeping comments civil, I get that I’m still white, caucasian, Euro-American, whatever you want to call it. I still identify as such if someone asks me. That does not negate the fact that others do not treat me as such. Many people assume my light complexion is because I’m from Egypt, Syrian, or another “Muslim” area that has lighter skin tone.
Also, I realize that I have not experienced what African Americans experience, or Latino Americans, or any other group. I can only speak to my experience as being a Muslim “other” in America. I do believe having this experience has helped me have an appreciation for the plight of minorities across the US.
Yeeeeesssss!! So so true! I could probably fill a book on this subject. Being a white American muslim who lives in Germany, i often blow peoples minds. The simple fact of the matter for me though is that I CHOOSE this, if i stopped dressing as a Muslim I would be back in the fold…this makes it much easier to deal with racism knowing it is my choice not something I cant help (ie skin color)
I hate the privilges I get sometimes also. Once I was with my children somewhere and a woman started gushing about how great it is that the children can speak such good english and that they are billingual. I just looked at her and said “they are no different from any other foreigner child speaking in their mother language” because I knew that if they had been speaking Polish, Turkish, Arabic, etc. It actually would be more of a “oh, these foreign kids have to speak German” and not a celebration.
um ibrahim says
Asalaamu alaykum. It was really interesting reading your thoughts on this subject of white privilage. Unfortunately as you said some people just don’t see what they have until it’s gone. But it’s something that’s certainly true, white privilege exists. What bothers me though is not the curiosity of people to know where I’m from, or even the assumptions they have about me. What really bothers me is the fact that some people just don’t want to accept someone being different from them. That’s, I believe where the real problem lies.
The way some people look at me with pity is just…ridiculous. I’m a proud Muslim woman. I do not need to be pitied! But even if you tell them this, they won’t accept it. They still think someone is forcing you some how or has brainwashed you in some way. That’s what I find most irritating.
i dont get the “white privilege” from your article.
this is more about changed behaviour from people when you changed your religious appearance.
A lot of muslims in muslim minority countries face this, no matter if you born there and would otherwise look like them if you hadnt expressed your religious belief.
Our way of dress intrigues people and well articulated and patient responses may be used as a dawah when curious people ask questions.
I had a friend who transitioned from male to female a few years ago. She said something that resonated with me then, which your post has reminded me of: that you don’t understand male privilege until you lose it. It’s fascinating and terrifying in equal measures how much we rely on stereotypes and assumptions.