Being Black and Muslim in America isn’t easy. Whenever I meet someone new, curious about my racially ambiguous features dressed in modest Islamic clothing, including the hijab, they usually ask where are you from? I say Massachusetts. And then they say no, where are you from from? And I answer, I’m American, Black and Latina, and Muslim. Then they say, oh, when did you convert? I reply, I didn’t. I was born and raised Muslim. Sometimes they leave it alone, but oftentimes they keep prodding me, trying to conceive my existence, given that most Muslims inherit their Islamic identity from countries like Somalia, Pakistan or Egypt. People forget about the existence of the Black American Muslims, like Malcom X, who inspired my grandmother to convert to Islam decades ago.
Because I represent two very marginalized groups, Black Americans and Muslim Americans, I must prepare myself to experience the burn of racism in pretty much anything I do. For example, the summer before law school when I started wearing hijab in the suburbs of Dallas, I should have been prepared to face rejection after rejection for the entry-level retail positions I interviewed for. Similarly, when I went apartment hunting in the very white suburbs of Boston, I should have known that the old Irish landlord would give me the once-over and spit out, I don’t accept Section 8. And yet, these were mild bouts of prejudice and racism compared to the difficulties I would later encounter in a more personal aspect of my life: dating while Black and Muslim.
I was twenty-four when I actively began to search for marriage potentials. I had just graduated from law school and started working in downtown Boston. Because Islam has strict rules about how one interacts with the opposite gender, places to meet single Muslims are few and far between. I figured the best place to start was the mosque. So, over the next year, I became a regular congregant, making new friends while volunteering or attending classes to increase my Islamic knowledge and deepen my spiritual practice. As I got more familiar with the community, I started asking my new friends to help me find a Muslim bachelor that was around my age (mid to late twenties), educated, and religious. I thought it would be easy. The city was brimming with graduates from MIT or Harvard who would often pass through the mosque to at least attend Friday prayer. Surley, one of those guys had to be a good fit.
Because Islam has strict rules about how one interacts with the opposite gender, places to meet single Muslims are few and far between. I figured the best place to start was the mosque.
Then, in the summer of 2017, I met this guy named M. We were introduced one night, after taraweeh, the late night prayers held during Ramadan, by a mutual friend who offered us both a ride home. Over the course of the car ride, we did the usual back and forth introductory chatter. I was drawn to him. He was charming, with this huge, wide-toothed grin, a clean shaved head, and a 5 o’clock shadow. I learned that he was thirty, originally from Lebanon, but had been living in the U.S for the last ten years for school and then work. He was smart– a computer analyst turned entrepreneur, with a quick tongue, and a bold sense of humor. As soon as he found out I was a newly minted lawyer, he was all about the compliments, asking for my business card and promising to send me clients, friends of his needing help with immigration issues. However, when we pulled up to my apartment, no other contact info was exchanged. So my only hope was to bump into him again at the mosque.
And bump into him I did. Just like when I studied Roman architecture in college and began noticing Roman influence everywhere, I grew accustomed to picking him out in a sea of people. I wanted to know more about him. I needed to know about his past, his family, and his religious practice to determine if this was someone worthy of entering into marriage talks with. So I used my channels of information (my friends, his friends, the imam) to gather intel and more importantly find out if he was talking to anyone (the code word for dating with the intention of marrying). When the reliable sources came back to me saying there was no one, I bravely admitted I was interested, and asked if they thought we would make a good match (fulfilling the concept of taking shura). Much to my dismay, they all said I shouldn’t bother because he was only looking to marry an Arab girl. In fact, one of the sources actually laughed in my face when I said I was interested in him. She told me he would never seriously consider me for marriage.
Just like when I studied Roman architecture in college and began noticing Roman influence everywhere, I grew accustomed to picking him out in a sea of people. I wanted to know more about him.
Yet, because I’m stubborn and very seldomly take no for an answer, I spent the next few months trying to get him to realize I mattered. He, of course, loved the attention (as players usually do), and sent me mixed signals as we worked together on various projects at the mosque. Finally, news broke in late December that he was engaged to an American Lebanese girl. I never even had a chance.
Sadly, that encounter wasn’t my only hint that my race and ethnicity was a barrier to marriage within the Muslim community. I had a few married friends whose husbands had a fair amount of single friends that fit my bare bones requirements (similar age, educated, and religious). Although I was open with them about my search, they never brought me any potential suitors. I later discovered they mostly knew American born, South Asian and Arab bachelors who only wanted to marry someone that shared their culture. This would happen again and again when I worked with professional Muslim matchmakers who would only ever give me a few options because most of their clientel weren’t open to marrying outside their ethnic group.
Within such an ethnically diverse community I was completely shocked by how strong the stench of ethnocentrism and racism (though it’s always implicit) pervades such delicate matters like love and marriage. I should have known though. Our ummah in the U.S has a reputation for being segregated. In my hometown in Dallas, my family would masjid hop during Ramadan between the Sudani masjid, the Pakistani masjid, and then the Arab masjid. All were beautiful representations of Islamic tradition, but all very insular, and not always the most welcoming to outsiders. Even going to Islamic conventions with thousands of Muslims, I find that there is an overwhelming majority of one ethnic group (usually South Asian or Arab).
At first glance it seems like a harmless occurrence. We form groups as coping mechanisms in an Anglo-Saxon land where traditions can easily get lost in a sea of whiteness. However, these ethnic enclaves aren’t simply tools to build institutions and grow social capital, they are symbolic of cultures that have historically always been haunted by phantoms of racism, colorism and tribalism. Now, especially when we live in the time of the infamous marriage crisis where religious leaders are constantly fielding questions from young people and their parents about how to find/marry good Muslims, we as a community must be more cognizant of shunning the phantom isms.
After the announcement of M’s engagement, I was in a funk for months. Although it’s possible M could have rejected me on another basis–my looks or my tell-it-like-it-is personality– that encounter left me with a sense of foreboding of the cultural rejections to come. I felt like all the warning signs on my road to seeking marriage were screaming DO NOT ENTER and NO BLACKS ALLOWED. It led me to spiral a bit, torturing myself with self-hating thoughts like if only I had been born with lighter skin or to Arab or Desi parents I’d have more options, I’d be married by now. These feelings led me to a deeper shame in realizing I was being ungrateful for the blessings God had bestowed upon me.
Now, especially when we live in the time of the infamous marriage crisis where religious leaders are constantly fielding questions from young people and their parents about how to find/marry good Muslims, we as a community must be more cognizant of shunning the phantom isms.
Then in January, I went on Umrah. During the pilgrimage, I found myself surrounded by thousands and thousands of worshippers from across the world. In the moments when I wasn’t in prayer, I sat alone with my tasbeeh, making dua, and reflecting on the enormity of the Divine. In Medina, under the sci-fi like enormous, mechanical umbrellas that guard against the glaring desert sun, I would sit in the harem of the Prophet’s Mosque and people-watch. I was captivated by the various colors and styles of the women in hijab. All around me there were pools of pink, blue, green, and white hijabs with matching djellaba, abaya, or niqab. The variety of styles represented the multitude of countries, skin colors and languages that made up the diverse group of pilgrams that gathered to walk in the footsteps of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Witnessing how everyone stood together in prayer, or packed into small spaces to pay homage to sacred places with no regard to national origin, ancestry, or skin pigment, I was reminded of the verse, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted [ 49:13].”
After two weeks on that blessed journey, I returned home with a newfound sense of peace. Recognizing the beauty of that verse, and having lived it while in that holy place, I came to realize that the man I was destined to be with was someone who really practiced the words of our Creator. He would be someone who understood that biases and prejudices from cultural traditions, should not play a part in dictating marriage partners. Anyone who embraces true Islamic principles wouldn’t write me off because of our differences, but would love me in spite of them.
I hope and pray that our community comes to realize the danger of perpetuating the isms and instead acts to serve as a beacon of inclusivity and acceptance.
Nailah Dean lives in San Francisco. She’s a member of the SF Writers Workshop and recipient of a 2019 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Fellowship. Nailah has had her short story about faith and career published in an anthology, One Nation, Indivisible, and serves as a contributor to various columns on Medium. Her current project is a memoir about the Muslim dating world.