Oh man, white muslims again
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: Whiteness up the wazoo at Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race]
[Update Update: Further Discussions on White Privilege and the White Muslim
I've enjoyed the discussions taking place at Umar Lee's and Talk Islam. It occurred to me that Umar and I may have been talking in circles without disagreeing with one another, particularly about the issue of loss of white privilege by the white male muslim in the larger society.
When I've been talking about whether or not a white man loses white privilege upon becoming muslim and donning kufi and beard, I've been talking exclusively about *physical appearance* and *first reactions*. In other words, if somebody sees you they don't assume you are a person of color! They may (or may not) recognize you as a muslim and they may (or may not) have a problem with muslims, but they are still seeing you as an American of European Descent. Maybe that's obvious and I've just been belaboring a petty issue.
But I think it's worth noting because white women who wear hijab are very often not seen as being *physically white/of European descent*. For men, all I'm saying is this isn't an issue. Again, minor point, but because it has happened to me and I'm sure to other white boys too *on a handful of occassions*, and we see it happening to our white sisters with great frequency, there is room for the white male convert to get confused and think he's lost the ability to pass as physically white, which he hasn't. THAT'S ALL I'M SAYING. If somebody identifies you *as a muslim* and strolls over and coldcocks you, that is not white on non-white racism. It is Islamophobia. Maybe it's a moot point - you took one in the teeth either way. But obviously I think it's an important enough distinction to spend half a page on.
I promised no tedious anecdotes, but I guess I lied: When I was just getting out of grad school, I applied for a job at a small company run by two white women, one of them Jewish. I was interviewed by both of them together, and they clearly sized me up from my blazer and tie to the long beard and plain white kufi, and after the standard skills-type questions, out came, would I be ok having a couple of women as my boss? Now I wanted to say, shoot, I take orders from my wife all the time, but I knew that wouldn't come off as funny as I thought, so I said something neutral but reassuring about not having any difficulty fitting in to the team or whatever. SO. I didn't get the job. A girl from my same graduating class who I knew quite well did. Now, I knew that girl pretty well, it being a small class, and she was damn talented and a pleasure to work with, so I'm prepared to accept that she got the job on her own merits. But if that wasn't the reason, and that shady question leaves the door open that there might have been more at work, then what was it? It might have been sexism: they didn't want to work with a man. Or it might have been islamophobia: they didn't think a practicing muslim man could work well with women. But it sure wasn't that they didn't want to work with somebody who wasn't white because that girl was Korean.
[Update x3: Somebody Stop Me]
Reading back over my own piece, I feel the weakest argument I made is that white privilege can be extricated in any reasonable way from what it means to be American. In other words, when I said “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” it may be that this is a distinction without a difference, because the dynamic of white privilege for the people on all sides of it is intrinsic to the American experience, that we can’t know anything about you as an American until we know whether you’re a black, brown or white one. This is the “baked into the cake” or “cultural DNA” sort of argument, and I’m willing to entertain the idea, although I’m not convinced.
But in the end, I think it is necessary to assert, even if it is not yet categorically true, that there is an element of shared American culture that is not mediated by race. If not, what hope is there for building a just society?
Maybe I’m derailing things to move to this next example, but you remember that website Stuff White People Like? It had a number of very sharp observations about the habits of a certain set of Americans, and categorized them as “White”. It was instructive to me to see the responses of the people that hated it. A significant number of white people were angry because they didn’t like that stuff, and they are white. Straightforward: there are lots of types of white folks. But a significant number of people of color were angry, because they DO like that stuff, and liking it doesn’t make them white and it doesn’t feel like White Stuff to them.
OK, I’ve got a feeling this is getting silly here but we’re just blogging after all, so I’ll proceed to my grand conclusion:
Since People of Color are able to experience some aspects of American culture in a race-neutral way, therefore there is such a thing as American culture separate from questions of white privilege and white supremacy, therefore it is meaningful to say “aside from questions of WP, I’m just an American”, and therefore the task in front of us is simply to expand the sphere of American culture that is decracinated until Whiteness is dead for good.
QED. But I’m willing to discuss it…
There’s been a fair amount of meta-commentary on the value and appropriateness of the White Privilege and the Ummah Carnival. Sisters Safiya Outlines and Lucky Fatima have been working overtime defending it against charges of navel-gazing and nafs-indulgence, and so I thought I’d chime in too.
Pain and Confusion over whiteness and American-ness prior or post conversion are big, undeniable contributing factors in the cases of several high-profile white (and poc) converts who are now serving time in the War on Terror. This is true whether or not they were guilty of their crimes. I’m sure they were innocent. But there is no way they would have found themselves in the position they did if they were at peace with who they were as white Americans.
There. I said it. One of the very first blog posts I made, way back in 2002, was about my fellow white boy in Islam John Walker Lindh, and I still think of him a lot, along with yet-to-be-killed-or-incarcerated Adam Gadhan and several others. So I think this conversation is as serious as life and death and that’s why I focused on the aspect I did, rather than delve into the worthwhile topic of the mechanics of white privilege that was the primary focus of this Carnival.