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)