Love letter to my Black family

And whoever avenges himself after having been wronged – those have not upon them any cause [for blame]. The cause is only against the ones who wrong the people and tyrannize upon the earth without right.

—41-42, Surah ash-Shuraa

I am not Black; I am Brown, I am Muslim, I am a woman, I am an American, I am the daughter of an Indian Tanzanian, but I hear you, my Black family. Or rather, I am not Black, and I hear you; solidarity is not in contrast to my identity. I cannot know fully the pain and trauma you experience now and have experienced for centuries, but I can offer my solidarity, and I push others in my multiple communities do the same. I weep for those who have been murdered and am exhausted by the imperviousness of White male authority, but I recognize that my fatigue is nothing compared to lived realities of death. I force myself to write this because my individual feelings should not be an excuse to shut down.

I write this as a reflection of my own connection with my Black family, but I also write with the hope that it will resonate both with other South Asians and other Muslims. Anti-Black racism and pro-White colorism still exist both in South Asia itself and in South Asian immigrant communities in the U.S. While Islamophobia lumps together all Muslims as a homogenous group, within Muslim communities, there still exist racialized divides. I’m not calling for an erasure of the richness of the multiple Muslim cultures within the U.S., but I am calling for a Muslim solidarity from within, especially needed from the immigrant side with our Black brothers and sisters. In fact, I call for a solidarity with our Black family regardless of religion. 

When I made plans to attend BLM protests, my mother said, “But there will only be Black people there. Why are you going?” I said, “Because the same people who kill Black people also want to kill Muslims.” But what I wanted to say was, “Because people are being murdered in our country for no reason, and we should all protest.” 

I call for a solidarity with our Black family regardless of religion. 

My mother is the same parent who was born and raised in East Africa, poor but happy, who spent her formative years going to school with, working with, and living closely with Black Africans, and who fluently speaks Swahili. She immigrated to the U.S. in her early twenties in 1981, though, and quickly realized that it would be safer for her to publicly say she was Indian rather than Indian Tanzanian or Indian African or African Muslim, even though she remains fiercely proud of these identities in private.  It breaks my heart to know that as a racially Brown immigrant, she selectively disavowed parts of her identity and in the same step internalized the racism she encountered here in order to survive as a Muslim woman with an African history in Texas. As most Muslims and South Asians can attest, though, this distancing did nothing to save her from racism and harassment. 

The geopolitical area known as the West has always had a contentious history both with Africa and Islam. I am indebted to you, my Black family, for introducing Islam to America before South Asians ever did. Roughly half of the people residing on the African continent today identify as Muslims, members of my maternal family included, and approximately forty percent of slaves brought over the Atlantic in the seventeenth century were Muslims. White terrorism attempted to actively erase Muslim identities in order to dehumanize and racialize, but Muslim slaves found a way to preserve and pass on parts of their identities through writing Quranic verses that condemned slavery and engaging in oral histories and songs that incorporated Arabic Muslim vocalizations. In fact, one of the most arguably American styles of music, the blues, has been theorized to have a direct connection to Islam and the azaan

Muslim slaves’ “barbaric” Arabic names were changed to reflect those of their racist oppressors and to enculturate them into the “civilized” ways of Christianity. Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam—in prison, lest we forget—is one of the best-known examples of a Muslim reclaiming their identity by disempowering the authority of their given slave name and returning to their “original” Muslim name. I am indebted to you, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), for devoting your life and your death to raising awareness to the long and complex history this country I call home has with this religion I call my own. Thank you for helping me conceptualize Islam as a force for resistance against injustice. 

I am indebted to you, Black male strangers in Chicago who have called out to me, “Salaam alaykum, sister” or “How’re you doing?” as we crossed paths when I walk home from campus in Hyde Park. While White teenage boys pelted chewed gum at my clothes, hoping the force would flick me back into fictitious sands of some generic desert, you greeted me, made eye contact, and did not look nervously away like so many others. Maybe we are not nervous around each other because we both sense we are threats of a sort to those who are comfortable with a single vision of America: an America that doesn’t realize erasing all the dark markings on its white paper leaves the paper meaningless.

We are part of the same family, Muslim or not. To a lesser degree, I have felt the pressures of White American male authority against the feminized non-White, and it has helped me see a bit more clearly what you battle. I am in the battlefield beside you, fighting for you as you fight for me, because no one should be told they exist only to be dominated and silenced, that they exist without inherent dignity. While we recognize the horrors of injustice happening on this continent, within the confines of our political boundaries, let us remain aware of similar imperial violence being done by the United States government on other Black and Brown bodies across the world as a result of war and capitalism. The same systems that oppress our minds and bodies and voices here are at play against our fellow people in other parts of the world; recognizing the systems here makes it impossible not to see them elsewhere. At the same time, these systems don’t allow us to see the successes of non-White people, something that would change the narrative White imperialism has tried so hard to establish. A global pandemic is happening, but the U.S. looks largely to European nations or nations qualified as Developed to see what they have done, with barely a glance towards Africa. Are you surprised to hear about the success of many African nations in controlling Covid-19? I was. 

Maybe we are not nervous around each other because we both sense we are threats of a sort to those who are comfortable with a single vision of America: an America that doesn’t realize erasing all the dark markings on its white paper leaves the paper meaningless.

I teach intersectional feminist and postcolonial theories, both approaches that highlight interlocking systemic oppressions based on race, gender, and a plethora of other identifiers. While tackling literal governmental and economic systems is indeed important when calling for reform, I suggest intervention at an additional point: the heart. 

Radical love can revolutionize our thinking, and if we revolutionize our thinking, we may be closer to the revolution we desire. Individuals constitute institutions, but by only focusing on the latter, we forget the transformative power love can hold over the former. I don’t believe any given White male police officer is inherently evil, but collectively, their actions liberally terrorize. As we protest injustice, we must also invade and conquer the hearts of those who adhere to oppressive beliefs, forcing them open to their own humanity. 

Radical love can revolutionize our thinking, and if we revolutionize our thinking, we may be closer to the revolution we desire.

White patriarchy has classified love as a lesser emotion, something that must begrudgingly be accepted as part of the human vocabulary. Rational White Man has encouraged a disconnect between mind and heart, while also hypocritically allowing space for White male anger as a rational response. If we respond with anger, which is arguably more rational on the oppressed’s side than the oppressor’s, we only further uphold their broken system. I am angry, but the next question for me becomes what to do with that anger. I am angry, but I am trying desperately to transform it into love; surely there is room for both physical and abstract rioting in the revolution? I choose to respond with a love so forceful that it will shake the very ground they stand on and make their learned hate fall over like dominos. This hate is not learned suddenly when a White man becomes a police officer or president; it is indoctrinated over years and years of cultural and social learning, beginning from childhood. This is the first system we must bring down.

This present essay is not written with a perfect poise; it is written in the midst of panic and anger, but it is an attempt to stab through these emotions with love and an openness to learn and be vulnerable. I am sure I’ve said something stupid and ignorant because of my own biases and enculturation, and I am sure I will again—but I will not be daunted by the fear of embarrassment and ego. 

I write now to bring attention to other voices that have been buried under centuries of White capitalist foundations. I offer my words as both a wrecking ball and a shovel to collapse and move aside the dusty weight of a racialized culture even as our ears still ring with the echoes of the explosions. I cannot unhear the screams from underneath our feet: Move your hands away from your ears and stop pleading ignorance. Let us fall to our knees and begin to dig through the rubble. 

My Black family, I am sorry you have suffered for so long. I demand of myself to support you in any way I can. I hear you and I love you; in solidarity. 

Tasneem Mandviwala is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD from the same, in Comparative Human Development, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Houston. She teaches and writes about cultural psychology, intersectional feminism, adolescent and young adult development, and postcolonial issues.

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1 Comment

  • Fatima says:

    I am not American but, I am black. I was hopeful in reading this piece because it started with the acknowledgment of racism within South Asians and Muslim Asians communities. Then quickly as often when I read pieces addressing the existence of racism within Muslim Communities- the charge is on White people as to distance from the disturbing reality.

    Racism in any form from White, Asian, Arabs Chinese, or whichever population, feels the same. It is painful.

    I am tired, I am sad. We black people never seem to have respite; we are only seen as garbage. We support all sort of nicknames in different communities; we are at the lowest of the lowest level of the non-white group when it comes to racism. At best we are used as ammunition to tackle white men and women or white majority countries politics like in this piece in addressing the covid 19 in Africa.

    Indeed, the hate of black people in societies across the globe is not learnt suddenly, we must indeed go back to history to understand and better unlearn the association of black persons to dangerousity, etc.

    Thank you Tasneem Mandviwala for being vulnerable, for sharing this piece to support the Black family and for opening the reflection on the hard work.

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