People Like You

Key Ballah

Key Ballah

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Muslims use Bilal (rA)’s name to support their theories on why racism cannot or does not exist in the Ummah. As if the Ummah is monolithic, as if it were a small community or a classroom or a place that could be static, even for a moment. As if the act of tokenizing a man as a one size fits all patch to the “non racist” racism that “doesn’t exist” is somehow okay. As if they were capable of naming another black Sahaba and not have to resort to Malcolm X in a desperate attempt not to be labeled the “R word.” As if Twitter and other social media platforms weren’t littered with the word abeed, as if in the mad dash to advocate and mobilize for Syria and Palestine we didn’t forget Somalia, and the war on black men, women and children and non binary folks that is occurring right now in our towns, our cities, our homes.

As Muslims we like to knock ourselves in the head with the idea that we aren’t susceptible to racism, that somehow because we were warned by the Prophet (saws) to beware of oppression and to remember that racial hierarchies are bullshit, we are spared from the parasitic nature of anti-black racism. We give the Ummah this projected identity of a safe and equitable space, void of aunties who want lighter-skinned daughters for their sons; uncles who won’t let black men marry their daughters; and masjids that actively work to keep out “urban culture”, i.e., black culture. As if there aren’t brothers and sisters who forget what private naseeha looks like when they see the blackness of someone’s skin, as if there aren’t entire countries being crushed by the foot of neocolonialism that go unsupported because a significant portion of their populations are black.

A few months ago I went to a masjid that was predominately Pakistani. I stopped on my way home from work, it wasn’t my normal masjid, but it was the closest one to me, so I decided to pray there. I generally have no qualms about praying somewhere on the side of the bus stop or in a quiet place at the subway station, but this day I had a little more time, and so I thought I’d check out this masjid I’d never been to before.

Immediately after I walked in, the women were staring at me. As a black woman, I’m used to this. I was also wearing a merlot colour lipstick and big headphones so I wrote off their looks as inquisitive, or disapproving of my chosen aesthetic (I can see how it may be an acquired taste). Either way, their prying eyes were inconsequential, because as a black woman who has experienced being the only black woman in her class, or at her place of work, staring is something I can generally ignore.

I smiled, said my salaams (which weren’t returned), put my bags on the floor of the musullah and prayed my first two rakahs. A woman came over to me in the middle of my salaah and proceeded to say “excuse me” at least 5 times. I ignored her, disgusted by her disrespect, but eventually so frazzled that I could not continue praying. When she had succeeded in getting my attention she said, “This is an Urdu-speaking mosque.”

I didn’t move. I didn’t respond. I looked at her, waiting until she made her point, shocked at her audacity and disrespect. She waited for me to respond but when she saw that I wasn’t going to, she continued, “There is another mosque where you can go not too far from here. There are more people like you there.”

I was in complete disbelief, I looked around at the other aunties who were smiling and nodding in agreement. It made me think they had drawn straws to see who would come and tell me that I was not welcome, and that they were glad it wasn’t them.

I stood for a moment that felt like a lifetime, bouncing around in my own head, trying to unpack what I had just heard. I turned back to the qibla, finished praying, grabbed my stuff and left. The sound of anger was loud, and it clouded my thoughts. I knew what “people like you” meant. Black people. People whose skin is always dark enough to be offensive, its presence so jarring, so stirring that those women felt compelled to interrupt someone’s communion with God to save themselves from having to be in its presence.

I wish I could say that this experience existed in a vacuum, but it doesn’t. I have experienced overt racism in the masjid on at least three separate occasions, directed at me by other Muslims online more than 50 times, and subtly more times than I can count. It’s frustrating that when black Muslims try to have these conversations they are often shut down immediately by using Bilal (rA)’s name. The only time that anti-black racism in the Ummah is discussed in depth is usually amongst a group of black Muslims, outside of our religious spaces. The kinds of stories I hear from other brothers and sisters about their experiences with racism from other Muslims are stunning.

We need to be able to have these conversations in our masjids, in our other religious spaces, in our homes with our families, in our social groups, whether we have a black friend present or not. We need to check each other when anti-black racism arises. We can’t wear keffiyehs around our necks and stand in the middle of a pro-Palestine protest but go home and use the word abeed, or not stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters and not give them space to share their experiences safely.

Last year I met a black woman who experienced so much emotional and psychological violence in the masjid because of her blackness, that she left Islam. I often wonder if Bilal (rA) would be ashamed to hear the ways in which he is tokenized by clearly racist Muslims to justify their racism. We need to do better and be better. We need to interrogate our anti-blackness, we need to unlearn our language and the stereotypes that we have conceived around black people. We need to be open to critique and challenge when our words or sentiments are triggering and oppressive. We need to shed the defensiveness. When we are able to do this, we will begin to heal the trauma and distrust left by anti-black racism.

I believe that when we can have these conversations, hear these stories, mobilize for change we will truly be an Ummah. As long as we adhere to racial hierarchies or allow racism to parade itself in front of us without challenging it, we will continue to be disjointed, and the trauma and hurt will fester.

We’re capable of closing these wounds and healing, but we have to be dedicated.

Read more by Key, here.

Key Ballah is a Toronto-based writer and Hip Hop enthusiast. She is the author of the poetry collection, ‘Preparing My Daughter For Rain‘, she melts faith, love and her experiences of being a woman of colour navigating the western world in her writing. She believes in empowering the brown girl to reclaim her selves and her body, by connecting and healing collectively, over borders, oceans and time zones, through story telling and poetry. She is currently working on a new project due out this autumn.
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20 Comments on “People Like You”

  1. hussein ghedi says:

    sorry key what you experienced in the house of god is very disrespectfull.
    The truth is that they are against what they are here for. It is what satan has been forbidden the marcy of allah when he refused to pow to adam based on what adam has been created.

    In masajid even non muslim can not predicated. Our massenger mohomed peace be upon him he used to keep his prisoner of war in his masjid and used to serve or dish the best of his food.

    When sahabaha conquered makah, our massenger ordered bilal to stand over the cubic hajru aswad alkacbah and recite athan while noble khureysh was there.

  2. Sara says:

    This makes me so sad! I’m so sorry you, and others with a different skin color, go through that. I hope your post inspires conversation. I know I’ll be sharing this with my friends.

  3. Aicha says:

    Salam, I completely agree! Suphanallah so eloquently written!

  4. jeewan says:

    Sister – I am sorry that you experienced this. You are right. we love to use the examples of Bilal, the examples of women who were leaders etc to say this is what Islam is like and then something else happens. We dont have courageous conversations about these realities, we don’t acknowledge racism, the impact of poverty, the role of women, patriarchy or human rights…. we are satisfied to look back in history to say it doesnt exist while not actually doing anything to address the problems and try to fix it. May Allah bless you and fill your heart with sakinah, may Allah guide them…I wish you made it public the mosque. This is a mosque – a community space for all community. You could protect others from being hurt this way while pushing the mosque to do something about it. There is nothing unislamic in sharing where it was. Thank you for taking it and using it to promote good.

  5. Nusrat says:

    Assalam sister. I am truly saddened and upset by your article. I am aware racial prejudices occur in our society and unfortunately it is rife in my Asian culture. Im sorry to hear about your experience in that mosque that you mentioned. May Allah ta’ala give us love and respect for everyone regardless of race and religion. Jazakallah khair for writing this article

  6. Chelsea says:

    I’m so sorry you had to experience that and quite frankly I am stunned. Alhamdulillah I grew up with very liberal parent who, although non-Muslim, they have always instilled in me a respect for cultural, religious, and racial differences. It really hurts to hear that this came from a Muslim inside of a MASJID at that. I loved your post and I think it’s super important to talk about. I think just because Islam forbids racism and oppression we forget that we don’t represent Islam, because Islam is perfect and Muslims are not. Pretending that it doesn’t exist in the ummah just because it doesn’t exist in the authentic religion is dangerous and in no way helps us to grow and become better. May Allah grant you patience. Keep spreading the word. Your writing is amazing btw =)

  7. umm asiya says:

    The audacity to not even allow a person to finish praying, la hawla wala quwata ila billah. That I am disgusted is an understatement. Wow I have never experienced it myself but all this shows is how uneducated some people are in the matters of the religion, subhanallah the imaams at those masaajids should be ashamed.

  8. utami says:

    Reblogged this on u t a m i.

  9. Ayesha Mehr says:

    Unbelievable! I feel so angry and disappointed myself, can’t imagine how you would have felt. It’s a shame, utter shame and ignorance. This is not Islam !

  10. Isa Abdulbari says:

    Allah does not speak Urdu. He speaks love and acceptance. Many salaams.

  11. Orville says:

    as salaamu 3aleikum wa rahmto Allah wa barakatu sister. How sorry I feel that you’ve experienced such a thing. Only a few people in the Ummah know that our beloved Prophet (saw) was raised by a Habesha (Ethiopian) woman called Umm Aymann. She was with him all of his life, even more than Khadija. Secondly, the first nation of people to save the first followers of Islam were the Habesha people. Before the hijra to Medina there were two hijrahs to Habesha. The first followers stayed there almost for 18 years, some even never returned. King Negus (an Ethiopian/Somali) king saved the Muslims twice. Also the nation of the Habesha King was the first nation to convert to Islam. Even before the Arab tribes converted. Most people don’t want to know or hear this, but all well educated Deen scolars are very aware of this. So peace be unto you Sister, peace be unto all those who have an open heart and mind. Ignorance is the greatest sickness among mankind.

  12. Basmah says:

    AstughfirAllah…it’s a real shame that a person can’t just enter any masjid and pray. It’s so frustrating that people make a big deal out of being with their “own kind” and are so silo-ed into their ethnic and cultural groups. It’s NOT what Islam is about and what the ummah should encourage. On yawm al-qiyaamah, the prophets aren’t going to stand up and intercede based on language or ethnic origin…we won’t be judged by our alignment to a culture…we’ll be held accountable for our actions as muslims and how we lived our lives in accordance to the knowledge we were given. My goal for myself is to strive to be the best Muslim I can be, which means being a good person and welcoming presence in every possible situation, this is especially important in the American-Muslim context where we are often in the company of non-Muslims more than other Muslims. Dawah means more than just trying to teach others about a religion they have little knowledge about, it’s also about adaab and community. May Allah give us the ability and patience to change this sad trend and create a better community at large, inshAllah.

  13. samira says:

    As a black Muslimah and someone who loves this religion and Love all my sisters for the sake of Allah this the worse thing ever. Dear sister I am very sorry this happened to you this gives me hope though that the prophet salahu ayey wasalam was kicked out of the city he was born by his own family, so what do we expect from regular people who do not understand this religion. May Allah bless you!

    your sister- Inslam


  14. Amina says:

    Dear Key, as Salamu alaikum! I am so heartbroken to hear what happened to you. When one Muslim hurts all her brothers and sisters should feel that pain. I pray Allah guides these people and I pray Allah guides us all to being instruments of that guidance. Anyone who reads this should remember thAt if they are present when something like this happens, they should speak up. It is all of our duties to fix this. All the best to you sister and may Allah reward you for your patience and for speaking out against injustice!

  15. arraweelo says:

    Reblogged this on arraweelo and commented:
    The reality of Black Muslims.

  16. maliurj says:

    Ukhti my core hurts…from a stabbing pain as I read and re-read your narrative. And yet I must concur that you are correct. Our brothers and sisters who harbor these kind of sentiments are truly uneducated.They simply lack correct knowledge. Your response to this madness was absolutely influenced by the sunnah of Rasullulah salalahu alahi wa salam. May Allah subhana wa Taala reward you abundantly in this life and in akhirah..ameen. You demonstrated power, wisdom and understanding; never allowing your anger to get the best of you. Accolades to you my sweet ukhti. Loving you for the sake of Allah subhana wa Taala.

  17. Amran Toyo says:

    You got that right! Black people in Muslim community un canada, we are nothing but a number!

  18. Ebrahim says:

    This is a such a sad state that we living in as a ummah. We here in South Africa are fortunate to not experience such ignorance as we “non whites” have been fighting for our freedom. I actually make shukar that we all live in co-existence here in SA. A Bilaal (AS) line is rarely dropped. Allah grant me and the entire ummah hidayat to take off our blinkers and smell the coffee

  19. Shariq says:

    May Allah punish the racist bastards, especially those that come from the countries me and my (immediate) ancestors came from. We need to abandon this Bollywood lead ideal of Satan. It is the legacy, the last testament of our Prophet, pbuh, the most important message he gave to us. We need to fight a jihad consciuosly and break this spell by intentionally marrying across the racial boundaries, choose darker spouses despite of the beauty ideal that we might have been indoctrinated with. In may case, I lead by example and I have made my contribution and dare they disrespect me for that, they get a smack, and I am capable of that! Elder or kid, I don’t care. Kameene, kutte, suar, zalil, kambacht, manhoos. For too long these m”””””’s have held us back and split us into nations, sects, ethnicities, colours, etc. Time to rise up against these munaafiq, hypocrites.

  20. Malik says:

    Asalamulakum. That is very sad that some people in the Ummah would practice racist behavior. A lot of people have racist beliefs based on what was taught to them by some Anglo-Saxon’s on how to view non whites as being inferior to them. This way of thinking goes back to shaitan when he said he is better than Adam (pbuh ) because he was made of fire and Adam of mud. The world may never be cleansed of racism I wish things just weren’t that way.