Monthly Archives: March 2008

[Black] West Indian and African-American Tension: My Two Cents

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the tension that exists between Black West Indian immigrants and African-Americans. I started thinking about this subject after reading Moving Back to Jamaica’s blog and finding myself in a heated debate with a fellow Jamaican on a message board. As a Jamerican, I feel like I’m the rope in a game of tug-o-war. I’ve always argued that African-Americans and West Indians have far more in common than some people like to acknowledge or admit. Yes, there are differences in culture, language, and sometimes in perspective but in the end we’re both Black people coming from a legacy of slavery. In America we are both affected by the sting of racism.

Caught in the Middle
When I was younger, being Jamaican/West Indian was not considered exotic or beautiful. To be Jamaican invoked images of a very dark-skinned person with dreads who smoked ganja incessantly, listened to nothing but reggae music and spoke with a “funny accent.” People (more pointedly, African-Americans) would ask me if Jamaicans lived in trees and wore grass skirts. I remember being called a “West Indian monkey” or “coconut.” People cracked jokes about my family members having three jobs (courtesy of the ‘In Living Color’ skits.) In fact, I was told that we came over here and took jobs from the African-Americans who needed them. To add insult to the injury, we behaved as if we were better than other Black people. (A friend of my family actually went into a rage when we were discussing the subject. He eventually told me to ‘go back to where I come from.’) I can’t count the amount of times I’ve listened to African-American women characterize Jamaican and other West Indian men as crazy, abusive, possessive and backwards. Similarly, I’ve heard African-American men say that Jamaican and other West Indian women are psycho, lustful, and the type you need to keep your eye on since they (we) practice voodoo.

By the same token, some of the Jamaican/West Indian family and friends I was around had their own thoughts. I was told that African-Americans were criminals. You had to be careful when around “them.” Rather than work hard and invest in their (our) communities, they (we) were content to live on welfare. They (we) blamed racism for their condition when it was clear all they really needed to do was sacrifice and work hard for what they wanted. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some of us had come here with nothing but we were making a living, why couldn’t they? I was warned away from African-American men who would surely impregnate me and run away, leaving me with a baby to care for on my own.

Passing: My Identity Crisis
Despite the negative images of African-Americans I was given by other West Indians, I made a choice about my how I was going to identify. Sadly, as a young person, I didn’t want to associate myself with my Jamaican heritage. I was in the Midwest where there were few Jamaicans or West Indian families. To embrace that identity meant to mark myself as permanently “different.” I wanted to have friends, date boys and be accepted by my peer group. As shameful as it is to admit (even now), I didn’t want to be Jamaican. I didn’t want to be associated with the nappy-headed, ganja smoking representations of Jamaicans in the United States (even if I knew it was untrue.) I shunned any connection to my Jamaican heritage. I didn’t want to speak Pawta or take trips back home. It was hard enough being poor (which meant not having the latest clothes), being accused of “talking White”, and being considered a nerd. Adding another layer of difference to my identity? No thank you.

Once I was in college I began to rethink my choice. I was learning about Marcus Garvey (and other West Indian contributions to the Black American liberation struggle), the history of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States and the Pan-African movement. At the same time I was embarking on a study of my family history (which meant frequent conversations with my grandmother- the unofficial preserver of the family’s Jamaican heritage). Slowly, I was forging the bonds again. I spent hours on the phone and in person speaking with my grandmother about our family. With her encouragement I took trips back home in order to reconnect with my family. By the time she passed away, I had become completely absorbed in my Jamaican culture. Shamefully, I admit to shunning my African-American side just as I had done previously with my Jamaican side. (You’d think I had learned).

Moving to South Florida didn’t help my predicament at all. The tension between West Indian immigrants and African-Americans down there was worse than anything I’d seen in the Midwest. If I ever felt like I had to choose between my two cultures it was then. Since I had reconnected with my Caribbean identity, it was only fitting that I chose to identify myself as Jamaican instead of African-American. (If you had met me during that time, you’d swear I’d just stepped off the plane from Jamaica. You’d never guess I had African-American family or that I’d previously passed as African-American).

Once I was living as a “full Jamaican” I realized how much insensitivity there was towards the plight of African-American people. I remember having lunch with a few of my co-workers who were from Latin America and the Caribbean. Somehow we started discussing race. Pretty much everyone agreed that African-Americans were “too sensitive” when it came to the subject. They wondered why African-Americans couldn’t simply “get over it”. We were in a new age where opportunity was abundant. Instead of complaining, African-Americans needed to apply their energy towards a career or an education and stop using race as a crutch. I quickly figured out the ethnic/racial hierarchy in South Florida. It went like this: White Americans (on top), White Latinos (starting with Cubans) followed next, Black Latinos and other Caribbean Blacks (minus Haitians) were after that, followed by African-Americans and lastly Haitians.

Yes, I was enjoying the status of being a West Indian but my soul was troubled. I was bothered by the way people freely promoted stereotypes about African-American people or spoke about them (us) as if they (we) were the most depraved people on the earth. Close friends of mine made comments about not wanting to be associated with “those people” and said they’d be upset if their children ever brought home someone who is African-American. I saw how some friends of mine did everything they could to distinguish themselves from African-Americans (even if it meant trying to hold on to their Caribbean accent with all their might.) The very same people never seemed to recognize the achievements of African-Americans locally or nationally. Most of the West Indians I was around clung to their view of African-Americans as ghetto, criminal, violent and lazy. West Indians who engaged in drug trafficking or violence were dismissed as exceptions to the rule.

To be fair, I’m sure there are African-Americans in South Florida who also have negative views of West Indian immigrants. Since I was passing I was not privy to those conversations.

The Broker
Like many bi-cultural and bi-racial people, I eventually came to place where I reconciled my two identities. Passing was not only emotionally taxing but dishonest. In some ways I felt like an ethnic voyeur. I realized I owed it to myself and to my family to proudly represent both cultures. More importantly, I needed to challenge stereotypes and prejudices displayed by both groups. (Otherwise I was complicit in the behavior). In some situations I have been called a traitor for being honest about the prejudice I’ve seen on both sides. In the spirit of political correctness, people don’t want to admit to the horrible things they say or think about each other. They definitely don’t take kindly to interlopers like me revealing their behind-closed-door discussions to the other party or to the public. But I’ve never been a fan of denial and certainly don’t believe in sugar coating things.

As I said in the beginning, I feel that African-Americans and Black West Indians have more in common than not. Both of us suffered the traumatic experience of slavery (slaves were often shipped back and forth between the Caribbean and the United States), were cut off from our African homelands (forcing us to create a new identity in the new world), and both of us have Black skin in a racist society. Jockeying for White attention and acceptance is not going to change the racist power structure in any way. Perpetuating stereotypes about one another won’t help us either. What we need is to build alliances with one another. Though I am prone to skepticism, in this situation I actually believe there’s hope. After all, I’m here aren’t I?

I’m interested in hearing your feedback…

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Who is Jamerican?

Sometimes I don’t know, lol.

Am I a Black Nationalist?

Absolutely not. I have an appreciation for both of my cultures- Jamaican and African-American. I don’t believe that either of my cultures are superior to anyone else’s. However, loving my Blackness is in and of itself a political act. So much has been done to destroy the self-esteem and self-worth of Black people. It has become obvious to me that if I don’t love blackness or work for the betterment of the Black community than no one else will. Just because I’m Muslim doesn’t mean that I can ignore the meaning that skin color or race has in American society. By the same token, I can’t ignore the fact that it has meaning in the Muslim community either.

Also, I don’t think that being a Muslim means that I have to become absorbed in Arab or other cultures that are dominant in the Muslim community. I can appreciate Kufta, the Arabic language, Biryani or Abayas with the best of them but it doesn’t make either of those things an Islamic obligation on me. I’m not a Blackistani nor am I a Black Arab…

Am I a Feminist?

I don’t identity myself as a feminist. Yes, I’m all for the rights of women and will stand up for them whenever I can. I am sickened by the amount of sexism I see in American society and also in the Muslim community. I feel it is my duty as Muslim and as woman to challenge sexism whenever it rears its ugly head. I am bothered by non-Muslims who wish to “liberate” me by persuading me to “de-hijab.” At the same time I’m irritated by Muslims who place too much emphasis on hijab and purdah. No one’s strictly enforcing men’s dress codes.

TRUE STORY: After Jumah last Friday I was about to offer my sunnahs. I happened to look down into the brother’s area (from the balcony where the women pray behind a two-way mirror)and was faced with a horrid sight! A full view of a brother’s butt crack as he went into sujud! Yuck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Obviously some brothers could benefit from a discussion on dress requirements for Muslim men.

What is my educational background?

I have a BA in African-American Studies from the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities.) Insha’allah, I’ll complete my thesis someday soon. Then I’ll have an MA in African New World Studies from Florida International University(Miami.) As you can tell, I’m pretty interested in the study of Black people across the Diaspora. Up until recently, I was a facilitator for small group discussions on race.

What is my Islamic leaning?

As you know by now, when I first took shahadah I was heavily influenced by the Salafi movement. I never called myself Salafi and didn’t even know such an ideology existed but it governed my complete understanding of Islam. (I also had close friends who were in the Tablighi Jamaat so I had that influence as well). After “taking a break” from Islam for nearly five years, I began practicing again in 2000. Now I’m striving to be a person “of the middle way.” I don’t want to be too strict or too loose. You could say that I’m still trying to find the balance.

Do I think I’m a weird person?

Sometimes. I have eclectic set of tastes in food, music, and hobbies. I like to think I’m as quirky as the average person. I’m probably a bit too studious for my own good. (Even as a child my mom said she’d always find me in a corner curled up with a book and a writing pad). Admittedly, I can be a bit of a perfectionist (just ask my friends) and I can be quite demanding (just ask my husband) but I mean well…

Something I’ve some to accept about myself:

I’m Bourgeois or “Booshie” as Black folks folks call it. Unlike a good friend of mine (you know who you are!) I realize that paying five dollars for a single cupcake, preferring Gelato to regular old ice cream, and refusing to go to bed without my sleep mask are instant qualifiers.

What improvements would I like to see in the ummah?

In a nutshell I’d like to see all of us (that includes me) make a conscious effort to live up to the Islamic ideals the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) has set forth for us. It’s difficult but I think we can all do more.

That’ll be all for now.

"Muslim" converts to Catholicism on Easter


So, the media is making a big deal about the fact that a “Muslim”, Magdi Allam, converted to Catholicism this weekend. Find the story here. According to CNN, Allam has angered us (his fellow Muslims) by converting on Easter of all days. (Gasp!) Apparently, the media is waiting to see how the “Muslim world” is going to react to the announcement that “one of theirs” has left the ranks. Naturally, the press is speculating as to whether or not death threats will be issued to Allam by Muslims. I pray- Ya Allah- that not one single person reacts in a violent way to this news whatsoever. (That includes, the threat of violence by the way). At the same time I know if you’re looking for a wacko you can always find one if you search hard enough. So, I won’t be the surprised if I turn on the television, open a newspaper, or scroll through one of the online news sources and find that the media has successfully dredged up a group of people who who want Allam dead in no uncertain terms. *sigh*

As a Muslim, I don’t know about you, but of the many concerns I have- gas prices, the housing market, the scarcity of jobs, racism, sexism, the war in Iraq- this dude doesn’t even make the list. He has the right to decide what lifestyle is best for him. If he wants to worship Jesus, saints, the Pope and whoever else then that’s his business. And you know what, I dislike the way the media is marveling at such a conversion to begin with. For the record, I know plenty of people who have left the Catholic church and became Muslims. Perhaps they did so on Christmas, Easter, or during Lent. Who knows? The point is, it happens. That’s life.

By Magdi Allam’s own admission, he was “never practicing”, “never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca” and “never fasted during Ramadan.” An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed when it comes to Muslim apostates (especially when they’re highly critical of Islam or Muslims) is that they’re allowed to enjoy the privilege (that’s right I said privilege) of calling themselves Muslims and can claim to speak from within the Muslim community. (Here I am thinking of characters like Ayaan Hirsi Ali). But I digress…

Personally, I don’t subscribe to the belief that a person is automatically, instantly, permanently and forever Muslim (no matter what) simply because they were born into a Muslim family. Yes, everyone is born with an inclination towards the fitrah (the natural belief in one God) and it is their parents who make them otherwise. However, Islam is a proactive way of life. You can’t simply be, you have to do. Therefore, even if you’re born to Muslim parents and were raised as a Muslim, at some point in your life you have to decide if you want to practice Islam. If you make the decision not to practice Islam then what does that make you? Hmm…

Insha’allah when my husband and I have children, we have already agreed that our children, will make an official, conscious decision to be Muslims. Insha’allah, they will take shahadah (just as we did) to declare their position. I pray (Ya Allah) that my children will not walk around bragging about how they were “born Muslim” and how their mother and father are devout Muslims but when it comes down to it, they don’t even practice the basic tenets of Islam. Does that make any sense? I don’t know…I may be wrong here. I ask Allah’s forgiveness if I am. I just think our perspective needs to change. But I digress again…

Good luck to Magdi Allam. Enjoy your shirk!

Anger

I’m pissed off about some things. I can’t say what because I don’t want to “out” the offending parties. But at the same time I feel compelled to blog about the fact that I’m upset. (You follow me?) This is all a shame because I recall hearing a beautiful kutbah about anger just two weeks ago. But I digress…I am not the kind of person who gets angry often. Maybe I get irritable from time to time but not ANGRY. However, when I do get angry I become eerily silent. Over the years, I’ve discovered that “silent angry” makes people more uncomfortable than “going-off angry.” When a person is going off at least they’re saying what’s on their mind. With me, the offending party is like, “Am I going to be driving my car one day and discover she’s tampered with my brakes?” (Of course I would never do anything like that- insha’allah- but I know it creeps people out).

The thing is, I just need time to think about things and choose my words wisely before I say something I can never take back. I know myself and I know that’s exactly what could happen. Make no mistake, my Jamaican grandmother has told me plenty of times that my “mout’ too hot” for my own good. (Hot mouth= sharp tongue).

So here I am, pissed off and blogging to keep myself from cussing out some people. More than anything, I hate when people are disrespectful towards me. I try, no matter how much I dislike someone, to be respectful of them as fellow human beings. Can some people at least extend me the same courtesy? Mi rahtid

 

The Mind Wonders…

Normally, I don’t care too much about politicians. And I’m not suprised to find out that they’re corrupt. With that said, what must it feel like to be the wife of Governor Eliot Spitzer right now? I mean, she might’ve known her husband was cheating but what does it feel like to stand beside him as he PUBLICALLY admits to paying for prostitutes? That’s the ultimate slap in the face.

Profiting off of misery: Muslim Immigrants Selling Haram in the ‘Hood

The first contact I ever had with Arabs was on the Southside of Chicago. Every summer and school vacation I went there to visit my father, siblings and paternal grandparents. When I wanted to buy potato chips, soda or other candy, my sisters and I would make our way to the corner store. (I realize now we actually called it ‘the A-rab’ store). If anyone in the neighborhood wanted to play the lotto, buy a forty or bootleg videos, the corner store was there. By the same token, if we wanted to sink our teeth into a pizza puff or have a gyro, we’d go to the local fast food joint. Both places were owned by Muslim immigrants. I remember seeing Suras from the Quran hanging in the back, behind the bulletproof glass. (At the time I didn’t know it was Quran, I just saw some funny-looking gold writing scrawled on a shiny black background).

I quickly learned that none of the people who owned the store actually lived in the neighborhood. They’d come early in the morning to open their business and they’d leave late at night. (Some of the businesses stayed open all night). On occasion, the store or fast food owners would hire a person from the neighborhood to work in the place. Maybe they’d sweep the floor, take out the trash or wipe down the windows. (They were never allowed to work the cash register). More often than not, the person acted as a kind of broker between us (the patrons) and the store or restaurant owners. If there was a dispute between one of the patrons and the owner, the person would try to resolve the dispute by relating to both sides. They’d assure the patron that the store/restaurant owners were “good people” and vice versa. “Just a little misunderstanding.” Tension diffused! When I look back on it now, I realize people in the neighborhood felt better about the presence of Arab store/restaurant owners when they saw “one of our own” working in store.

Nonetheless, it was clear that the store/restaurant owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons. They loved for people to spend their money in the stores or fast food joints but they didn’t seem to have much respect for the people they served. They looked down on us. We were Black, poor, and some of us were uneducated. There were frequent shootings in the neighborhood, drugs, teenage pregnancy and so many other vices. We continued to patronize businesses who sold us inferior products, whose owners treated us with disrespect and suspicion. More often than not, they wouldn’t even extend us the courtesy of saying hello. (A big no-no in African-American culture. You always speak to people!)

It was no secret that some of the store/restaurant owners slept with women and girls in the neighborhood. After all, they’d hit on us constantly. They’d make rude, sexual comments to us. I’d seen young girls pushing a stroller with a half “A-rab” baby in it. There was no talk of marriage or courtship. And I’m sure the “relationship” existed only in the ‘hood. Outside of that, there were no trips to the mall, fine dining at restaurants or late nights at the movies. And certainly no introductions to family members. However, when their women would work in the store it was clear that the men were not to interact with them whatsoever. The veiled woman would quietly work behind the counter uttering a “thank you” or “come again” on occasion. When she did speak it was in their language to her family members who owned the store.

If the Arab business owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons, it was the same with us. I’d heard my grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people in the neighborhood complain about “them A-rabs.” They didn’t like the way they were being treated when they went into the store. Someone from the neighborhood (one of the few who had a car and could venture out) had seen one of the store owners on the other side of town buying products which they would later mark up and sell at an exorbitant rate in their store. Words like exploitation, oppression, boycotting and Black ownership floated around my head. On the other hand, some people said if we didn’t like the way we were treated we should open our own business. The store/restaurant owners had come from other countries. Some of them barely spoke English yet they had managed to open up a small business. They were only trying to make a living like the rest of us. Could you blame them?

Fast forward

I had accepted Islam and was attending college. By then, I had interacted with Arab and other Muslim immigrants in the masjid and in the Muslim Student Association (MSA). I felt like I had a different perspective and a better understanding of their cultures and religion. By then I knew that selling pork, lottery tickets, alcohol, pornographic magazines, and bootleg videos was against the very religion that the Arab store/restaurant owners claimed was so dear to them. (They actually had the nerve to display portions of the Quran amongst all of the haram!) I also knew that some of them rationalized their actions by saying that their patrons were “kaafirs” who were killing themselves anyway. The women were loose and immoral. The men were lazy and criminal. The store/restaurant owners were “helping them” by setting up businesses in the neighborhood. Otherwise people would have to catch the bus or the train out of the neighborhood in order to get provisions like milk or a pack of cigarettes. If they wanted a quick meal, they’d have to do the same.

So there I was, in Chicago visiting my family again. This time I was in hijab. My sister and I journeyed to corner store so she could get a few things. When we entered the store, the owner’s gaze immediately landed on me. He looked stunned. Eventually his surprise turned into a warm smile. “As salaam alaikum sister!” he yelled to me from behind the bulletproof glass. I returned his salaam. An older man had come from the back of the store and he also looked stunned. They proceeded to ask me where I was from, which masjid I attended etc. They explained that they were from Palestine. They told me they were my brothers in Islam. (From the corner of my eye I could see my sister, hand on hip, eyebrow raised, looking back and forth from me to the store owners). I must’ve looked doubtful or conflicted because before I knew it, the older man had come from behind the bullet proof glass to show me his copy of the Quran. In broken English he said, “We both Muslims. You our sister.” When I tried to pay for my items they refused to accept my money. “We cannot charge you,” they said. Once we got outside my sister was so upset she was shaking.

“Their sister!” she spat. “How are you their sister? I’m your sister. They don’t even like us. They come into our neighborhoods, treat us all like criminals and now you’re their sister? She paused before speaking again. “You’re not the same kind of Muslim they are. I know that! And they didn’t even speak to me. They didn’t even acknowledge me until you said something. Was I there? ”

I agreed with her. I expressed my surprise at the new way I was being treated. I told her if I didn’t have the hijab on I’d go back to being “one of them” and no one would be rushing from behind the bulletproof glass to call me sister. We laughed about it. Yet, during the course of my stay in Chicago, similar incidents would happen every time we went into a convenience store, gas station or fast food restaurant. My shock eventually became disgust.

Profiting off of misery (continued)

The Stores and Restaurants

Chicago is not the only place where Muslim immigrants have set up convenience stores. I’ve lived in South Florida, the Twin Cities, Ohio, and in Southern California. I’ve also visited other cities where I’ve seen the same thing. Sometimes Pakistanis or Indians own the stores, other times it’s Arabs. I’ve even met a few Turkish immigrants in corner stores. (And I’m excluding non-Muslim store owners like Koreans). Whatever the ethnicity of the Muslim immigrant, one thing was clear to me- there are Muslims who are making a profit off of selling haram to people in historically oppressed communities. Rather than using their presence in the community to empower people, give dawah and build alliances they are taking advantage of people, exploiting them and mistreating them all in the same breath. And even if they don’t mistreat people in terms of the way they interact with them, Muslim store/restaurant owners are selling Black and Chicano/Latino people products that they wouldn’t even eat, drink or use themselves. How Islamic is that? It shocked me to see Palestinians participating in this nonsense. After all, every Palestinian Muslim I’ve met has talked about the oppression of their people and the need for me, as a Muslim, to lend my voice to their cause. How can some of them turn around and exploit people in my community when they know what it feels like to be oppressed? And then they expect people to be sympathetic to their cause? I’m just sayin’…

As a result of the way they’ve been treated in the ‘hood, some Black people have come to despise Arabs, Indians/Pakistanis and/or Muslims. After 9/11 and the subsequent targeting of Muslims (esp. immigrant Muslims) many people in the Black community had little to no sympathy for them. (Us?) I’ve heard my own family members or friends of the family say as much. “Now they know what it’s like to be treated like us” was the common response I’d hear. Though I try to explain that it’s unfair for them to blame all Arabs, SE Asians or Muslims for what a few individuals are doing, I know how difficult it is for some of my family members and friends to see it that way. The only contact they have with Arabs (who they usually see as Muslims whether they are or not) has been through the corner stores and fast food restaurants. I cannot completely blame them for the way they feel even as I try to connect the mistreatment of Arabs, SE Asians and Muslims to the larger struggle against racism.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A friend of mine called me from the west coast. She had something very exciting to tell me; a diverse group of Muslims (including immigrant and second generation immigrant Muslims) were formulating a plan to approach the Muslims who were selling haram and exploiting the people in predominately Black and Chicano communities. The group was going to give the owners a choice- stop selling haram or they would be shut down. The store owners would not find any support in the Muslim community. They would be boycotted. (My friend told me that she’d heard a similar movement was taking place in Chicago).

I couldn’t believe it! For years African-American Muslims had talked about it amongst ourselves. I’d heard about different groups of people (from specific neighborhoods) approaching store owners in New York and Philadelphia. The only missing piece for me was for immigrant and second generation immigrant Muslims to step up to the plate. I’d been in masjids where wealthy store and restaurant owners were proudly accepted into the community. People knew how they made their living but no one said anything. They even contributed to the masjid with their haram money! But now my friend was giving me hope.

So I suppose that is what needs to happen. As Muslims we cannot simply shake our heads and say, “how unfortunate.” Or worse, live in a state of denial. We have a responsibility to speak out against the injustice that Muslims are committing against other people. I think we will find that different cities and communities are at various stages of development in regards to this issue. Some people need to start by “outing” Muslim business owners who are committing the wrong. No more protection, acceptance, denial or burying heads in the sand. It might mean venturing out into poor communities to witness the harm they’re doing. Some people, who are aware of what is going on may be at the stage where they have enough people to support the cause and can approach Muslim store and restaurant owners about their behavior. The bottom line is that I want to see something happen and I want to be a part of it…