Race, News, Social Justice

No, Muhammad Ali didn’t transcend race

Let's try transcending racism instead.

Fact: It is easier for people to like black people if we’re not “really black,” “Really black” constituting every stereotype they’ve absorbed about black people. If a black person don’t fit these stereotypes, not only are they acceptable, but they’re an anomaly. A unicorn among horses. The first time I was told “Well, you’re not black” it was as if I was being congratulated and reassured of my worth. It was like, It’s okay, Chelsea, you’re not really black. This meant-to-be-complimentary-but-isn’t-really declaration isn’t that different from when black icons are said to “transcend race”.  It happened with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and as of this weekend, with Muhammad Ali. When Ali died, tweets like this one made the rounds.

So what does this mean, and why do people keep saying things like it? Transcending race, not seeing color – these are all meant to be positive things, but how can they be? How can it be a compliment to tell someone you don’t see their race or their religion in their gentleness, their strength or their status as champion? Why must Ali’s achievements be separate from him being a black Muslim to be called achievements? Maybe Chris Meyers can’t imagine a “gentle man who was a strong fighter, a champion you could believe in” who is also a black Muslim, as Muhammad Ali was, but that’s not Muhammad Ali transcending race. That’s Chris Meyers being unable to transcend his own limited thinking surrounding blackness and Islam.

Not to mention that ignoring Ali’s blackness or his Muslim faith is in direct conflict with the man Ali was. 

Contrary to what some may think, Ali didn’t “transcend” his race or his religion. He was proudly steeped in both. This is the man who changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam. This is the man who was convicted and sentenced for draft evasion because he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. This is the man whose boxing titles earned him international fame but were stripped from him, and he couldn’t box for more than three years. His decision cast him out of his chosen sport in the prime of his career, but he maintained his stance. His reasons for doing so were the exact opposite of transcending race or religion:

“But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality …

If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

This is Muhammad Ali as an ultra-political black Muslim, transcending neither race nor religion but certainly transcending America’s expectations that a black man would leap at the chance to die for a country that didn’t respect him.

While people of color are asked to (and expected to) idolize, respect and admire people who don’t look like them, white people never have. For a non-black, non-Muslim person, admitting Muhammad Ali’s importance is more difficult when he doesn’t fit what they’ve been told about people like him. The difference between what’s in front of them and what they’ve been told (about black men, about Muslims, about black Muslims) creates a dissonance so wide that they decide this person must be transcending their race. They must be special in some way to evade those nasty stereotypes of other people who look like them and practice their religion. If they can like and admire them, surely their race and their religion don’t matter because if they did, then they wouldn’t like or admire them at all.

Of course this isn’t what Chris Meyers or people who think like him are saying. They think they’re complimenting Muhammad Ali. But colorblindness is a faulty concept whether the subject is alive or dead. It’s not progressive to ignore the parts of someone you don’t share. It’s not complimentary to discard how their identities have shaped their experiences, their personality, their successes and their failures. It’s just you deciding that you can’t relate to this aspect of them, so it becomes irrelevant. Whether its discomfort or something more sinister, the result is the same: the whitewashing of someone else’s identity so they can be more easily consumed, and more easily claimed, by someone who don’t share them.

Muhammad Ali didn’t transcend or ignore or disguise his race and religion, so now other people will do it for him and scrub away the pieces of him they didn’t relate to, sweeping them under the rug in favor of more pleasing and accessible qualities. Ones that have nothing to do with him being a black Muslim man who was vocal about his grievances with his country and was willing to sacrifice his career for his beliefs. He once said, “I don’t have to be who you want me to be; I’m free to be who I want.” Who he wanted to be, and who he was, was a black Muslim. If you can’t admire him while he’s being those two things, and being them proudly, then you didn’t really admire him at all.