It’s a great topic, but it occurred to me that for plenty of us white folks, myself included, the first step is figuring out what white folks are in the first place. During my discussion with Umar about white Muslims and the comments from different people that followed, a common idea that came up was that white people are a distinct race of people with distinct culture and traits, and by distinct I mean distinct from what is meant by American.
I’ve benefited personally from looking at things this way: that white people are simply Americans who enjoy white privilege. They do not rise to the level of a culture or race distinct from American in the sense that Blackamericans, Arab-Americans or Native Americans may. With the latter, there are certain shared histories, experiences, languages or dialects, specific geographic origins, artifacts of culture and/or a sense of community that binds them together into a distinct people set apart from Americans as a whole.
To set white people as a category equivalent to the rest is to exclude non-whites from what it means to be American or to assume that there is no shared set of American culture, which ultimately perpetuates white privilege. White people are [among] the undifferentiated mass of Americans, with the single and of course very significant difference that they enjoy white privilege. That is not to say that white Americans are all the same, rather that the term “white” doesn’t connote anything in particular about them that “American” does not, except the receipt and quite possibly the exercise of white privilege. White privilege and institutionalized racism are a tremendous negative force in American society, most certainly, and many aspects of American culture have been used as a vehicle for white supremacy. But it still doesn’t transform white-skinned people into a People called White in any meaningful or positive way.
So with that as a starting point, I’ve been surprised to find in some white convert quarters the assumption that white people are a People with a capital “P”. I’ve met white converts who spoke of themselves as Caucasian and meant or implied by that some connection with the muslim peoples of the Caucasus, like the Chechens and so on. No doubt for the white convert finding himself a minority for the first time there may be some comfort in knowing that there are people who look like them who are muslim. But it ends at the resemblance. White Americans do not have much in common with the many muslim peoples of Europe and the Caucasus beyond skin tone. I imagine that the Quranic verse that God created man into various nations and tribes may lead some white converts to go looking for their tribe. But there is no reason to imagine that the nations and tribes God created are immutable, unchangeable or even have any intrinsic value in front of the Creator! For we know with certainty that nations have been raised up and destroyed, that tribes have come and gone, that languages have arisen, changed and disappeared. The message of the verse is the second clause, so that we may know one another. If you, the white American convert, have some particular connection to your European heritage, good for you. But your pre-American ancestry has only as much significance to who you are as you attach to it.
Umar Lee has a fairly complex personal relationship to whiteness and yet has lamented a loss of white brotherhood and white ethnic identity upon becoming muslim, and he’s not alone in feeling that way. Yet I think the feeling is real but the cause is misplaced. American culture is fundamentally alienating: there is a huge number of white men who are totally alienated from any sense of community or culture or belonging, without becoming muslim, without having done anything to consciously remove themselves before feeling that way. In other words, the feeling of loss, disconnection and emptiness at the heart of so many young white people isn’t a disconnection from any mythical white brotherhood but a disconnection from the awful shallowness and emptiness that is modern American life.
Other muslims have begun to use the term whiteamerican, after Dr. Sherman Jackson’s neologism Blackamerican, as though whites were an equivalently distinct subset of Americans. But Dr. Jackson doesn’t use the term Whiteamerican anywhere in his superb book Islam and the Blackamerican, and does not even capitalize “white”, which highlights the lack of symmetry he sees between what is meant by Blackamerican and what is meant by white. For those who haven’t read the book, Dr. Jackson uses Blackamerican to distinguish between the descendants of American slavery and the culture and community they have built over 400 years to the newly arrived black African immigrants who do not receive white skin privilege in America but are in most other respects not connected to the “indigenous” Black community. There is simply no parallel among white people that is worth highlighting. It takes about 30 seconds flat – or at most a generation – for a white European immigrant to go from FOB to whatever could be meant by Whiteamerican. There are effectively no white Americans that are separate from Whiteamericans, so why elevate an artificial construct designed to oppress to the status of an ethnic group? Let whiteness die the death it so richly deserves.
Thus the white convert doesn’t leave the White Race behind because there is no such thing. He is simply by his example broadening what is possible for an American to be. It isn’t much different from what the Amish, vegetarians, hippies or any other subculture have gone through in establishing a space for themselves in American culture. [Enough people do it, and pretty soon you’re a distinct marketing segment, and that’s when you know you’re somebody in America.]
At the same time, the white male convert doesn’t leave white privilege behind, because as long as somebody else is still giving it to you, you still got it, whether you like it or not. I’m not talking about women here. It is very very different for them and I’ll leave them to discuss it. But guys? the white muslim male continues to be treated white the vast majority of the time, at least in my experience. If you get funny looks, it’s because you look funny with that hat on your head, not because they think you’re not a white male. And if they’re still not sure you just say hello and that’s the end of that. I don’t want to say you can’t ever be sized up as non-white at first glance – it’s happened to me plenty of times over the years. But it doesn’t happen much, doesn’t mean much and it’s really not worth making much of. Contrast the dirty look you may have gotten that one time with the numerous sikhs who have been hurt or killed over the years for resembling muslims and you see the difference color makes.
Finally, the American convert doesn’t leave the broader American culture behind entirely either, and the idea that they do, and that their practice of Islam is somehow purer because of it than that of immigrant muslims or muslims in other countries is a very pernicious conceit that was exploded very well in Muslimah Media Watch a while ago.
Ok, so my Fairy Internet Godmother is advising me to stop gazing admiringly in the mirror, and I think that’s wise before I steer off into tedious personal anecdotes. I’m happy to say that muslims the world over have always treated me great, and I’m going to chalk that up to what a wonderful guy I am and leave it at that. Head over to Brooke’s Blog Carnival and get some other perspectives.[Update 2009: Whiteness up the wazoo at Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race]