When I was growing up, I, like so many other kids living in America, could sense a very clear connection between what people called “ghetto” neighborhoods and the predominately black and Latino neighborhoods. Likewise, the “nice” neighborhoods were always where the white families were.
As the only Arab kid navigating both of these spaces, I never knew how I fit in, or even how I wanted to fit in. What I did know was that I didn’t want to be thought of as “ghetto.” Because to label something “ghetto” was to assign it a lower class status, particularly because it evoked a black stereotype. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, ghetto and black were one and the same.
Many minority children try to shed their individual culture to avoid standing out, especially when the dominant culture is rooted in the whiteness we see in Hollywood and in magazines. I felt like my teenager years were spent reframing and reexplaining my identity depending on the person in front of me.
My freshman year at UC Berkeley for college was a welcome awakening. I had never seen an environment where people could be so unapologetic about their brownness, blackness, or whatever set them apart from the white norm. I attended multicultural events with student associations representing many cultures and religions, including my own. These synergic spaces were surprising, almost relieving. They allowed me to share feelings of inadequacy and underrepresentation with people who were not exactly like me.
It is in those moments when you attempt to pass successfully as a member of your culture, and then suddenly, you realize that you have passed into something else. I truly admired the diverse Muslim student body I met at Cal, and their remixed love for Talib Kweli and Aishwarya Rai.
We praised those in the Middle East, who have so masterfully blended hip-hop culture with the traditions of our ancestors. Palestinian rappers, Syrian-American spoken word poets, Persian graffiti artists, and others cited Black American history and art as the impetus for their creative expressions of the violent oppression people faced abroad.
But somehow, I started to see how young Muslim Americans tended to not only bridge these cultures through the arts, but also through a manner of speech and an “urban” aesthetic for which Black people have been historically mocked and negatively stereotyped.
It reminded me of being in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Palestinian kids freely use the n-word. They were never told that it was wrong by their peers or their parents. There was a sense of entitlement to such a loaded word, given by the amount of times we were called sand n***ers in the school hallways, on the subway, and online.
I’ve met people from all ethnic groups, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds who joke, even assert, that they are “from the hood” or have done something “ratchet.” As someone who is not Black, I have trouble articulating why hearing these phrases from them make me feel personally uncomfortable.
But I am concerned by the fact that these individuals feel totally okay evoking African American Vernacular English (AAVE), despite having never dealt with the very real discrimination Black people can face when they come from low-income neighborhoods, speak a certain way, or don’t conform to a socially dominant culture.
Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mos Def and many more have shaped the public perception of Islam in a American context, showing the world that one’s blackness does not compromise his or her faith, and vice versa. We’ve all tried to follow their examples leading lives as Muslims and as Americans without conflict.
While some of us non-Black Muslims feel that we are expressing our alliance with our black brothers and sisters by affirming their culture, there is a fine line between solidarity and appropriation. We need to continue supporting Black Americans especially in today’s political climate, but we need to be careful to not contribute to, as Lauren McEwen eloquently phrased it: “the erasure of black people, while using words [they’ve] created.”