Black in the Muslim Students Association

In 2010, I was a fresh faced first-year Muslim student at Virginia Commonwealth University. I began my time at VCU with a sanguine outlook and an eagerness to bond with my fellow Muslim students, but the four years that followed would turn out to be the worst of my short life. During my time at VCU, I faced the most concentrated and cruelest forms of racism I had ever encountered as a black American. And no, the hate did not come from white people, but rather from my Muslim “friends.”

The racism in the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at VCU, both among students and alumni, was rampant, and a few of these incidents remain seared into my brain even today, encounters whose cruelty cleaved me in half and forced me to rebuild into a stronger self.

Towards the end of my time at VCU,  a respected alumnus of Indian origin who had been the president of the MSA before I arrived at college and who held a leadership position at our local Sunday school said something abhorrent. Two weeks before my graduation, as she and I stood together at an event, she gleefully admitted to me that she often referred to her husband as nigger. I stared at her in horror,  too disgusted to even reply. Her husband, who was standing beside her, flinched as soon as the word left her lips. He must have seen me recoil in antipathy and furtively shushed his wife. She smiled sweetly at him and said, “It’s okay. Ruqayyah doesn’t care.” I did care. I was seething. How dare she jokingly toss outa word that had been used to demean my people for centuries? And how dare she share this dirty secret with me as through she was admitting to something innocent like taking an extra slice of cheesecake? I bit my tongue before a tirade flew out and reminded myself that the husband had made it clear they knew it was wrong to throw around an hateful, racist term in jest, and yet they continued to do so anyway. They clearly saw me as less than human and it was neither my responsibility nor my desire to educate them to the truth.

I can count dozens of exchanges like these during my time at college, and so I became wary of socializing with new people, not straying far from my tightknit cohort of four best friends. One day, however, I decided to spend some time with a group of Muslims I didn’t know very well. Well, not even an hour passed before the first offense occurred.

The driver of the car we had all piled into received a call from one of his roommates asking him to return to their apartment. He sighed irritably and complained, “I don’t want to [because] all those kallus are there.” When I heard him use the dismissive Urdu word “blackies” for my people, I felt the heat rising up my neck making its way to my cheeks. Everyone in the car, with the exception of one Palestinian girl and one Pakistani girl, burst into a fit of laughter at the word “kallu.”

This memory is particularly vivid because I can still recall the sting of humiliation I felt sitting in that packed car. “So this is how they speak of us when we aren’t there,” I thought, my worst suspicions confirmed. I didn’t confront the group because it was all I could do to push down the lump burning in my throat and blink back the tears that threatened to spill any second.  I wondered if they knew what it was like to mentally wrestle with yourself over such a thing—do I keep sitting or do I take a stand? Fortunately, someone stood up for me. The Pakistani girl quickly admonished the group for their insensitivity and racism, and when  the Palestinian girl asked for a translation and received one, her face twisted in shock and disgust. As the realization that they had been exposed hit the others, the laughter died down. One person who had been howling the loudest at the racial slur had the audacity to feign shock.

The walk home was one of the most humiliating of my life. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but still I wanted to disappear. They had made me feel small and less than. I also resented myself for remaining silent and even allowing one of the girls who had snickered in the car to walk home with me. All the while she pretended to be outraged on my behalf.

Though the four years at VCU left me with some scars and a healthy dose of cynicism and caution, they also gave me four best friends–three from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh. These girls helped to restore my faith in humanity and decency every time someone cracked it a little with their prejudice. I graduated from college having learned a painful lesson—that the racism against blacks in the Muslim community is no different than the kind found in white spaces. In fact, it often more pernicious because Muslim refuse to acknowledge it, insisting that we are a color-blind, faith-based community. And until we confront this racism, black Muslims will continue to feel alienated and debased in the very community where they ought to feel most safe and welcome.

Ruqayyah Daud is a 25-year-old graduate student of African American and Amazigh descent, currently pursuing a career in publishing.

 

(Photo by: Emilio Madrid-Kuser for PBS)

4 Comments

  • Susette says:

    I sit here in utter shock as you describe your experience. This story underscores the reasons why muslims must assimilate and not limit their interactions to muslim groups, societies, etc. I like to say: “why stay in jail when the door is wide open?” Do yourself a favor…throw off the hijab, engage in the freedoms of American life, and make your mark on humanity. You can still practice your religion, but in American society, we prefer that religion not enter every aspect of our cultural experiences. The hijab is a universal symbol of misogyny, oppression, and religious superiority, which may limit non-muslims from being forthcoming and engaging with you. You are a gifted writer, consider using this talent to promote peace and equality in race and gender relations.

    • Aaaliyah says:

      Susette, your comments show that you didn’t understand the article or the author at all, You may interpret your own comment as being meaningful and compassionate, but all I see is patronising arrogance – and I am someone who does not wear the hijab. This is not about hijab or non-Muslim perception of Muslims. Muslims shouldn’t have to change aspects of their faith that they hold dear to soothe your ignorance, prejudice and personal discomfort. And pray tell…what has hijab got to do with this article? The message is simple. Muslims need to confront the rampant racism in our ranks. We preach the message of racial equality which is a teaching of our faith, yet our actions say otherwise. There is strong need for reform amongst Muslims when it comes to race issues; in this way we are no different than racist whites who need to learn to take stock of their attitudes.

  • Mara Sand says:

    Gifted writer, indeed. Awful situation when someone is too polite to say something, especially for the fault of …skin color. Just awful.

  • Elizabeth says:

    This reminds me of my experiences of anti-antisemitism in high school, coming from black Muslims. I would be sitting in class, heat rising to my face, feeling frightened and angry at those who spoke degradingly of my people, and incredibly hurt that, almost invariably, no one stood up against this kind of speech. Not even the teachers. I can totally understand why you wouldn’t want to speak up when people say racist and bigoted things about you. It’s terrible to experience such things and unfair to be expected to stand up against it all on your own. That part of my high school experience was awful, but it showed me how important it is to stand against bigotry. Today, I use what power I have to speak for those who are being targeted. Recognizing my power in this way, and putting it to good use, is my silver lining. It sounds like your 4 friends are yours. Wishing you peace and love in your current community.

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