This post contains very old and difficult thoughts and was first published in 2009. I go back and forth loving and hating it. I’ve grown a lot as a Muslim, a blogger and a person since the writing of this post. Especially when it comes to my children and the way they are perceived by others.
The question of cultural appropriation and the difficult position of converts recently came up in conversation on Twitter, and I thought I would revisit this post for myself — but somehow it went to my feeds as a new post. Sorry for any confusion!
I’ve had a few interesting moments recently, where my identity was called in to question. Now that we’re expecting, my day dreaming about baby and inward reflections are on the rise. This morning, these moments crystallized.
Is culture or cultural identity a cloak that we can take on and put off at will?
I was blessed enough to be born into and marry into a mixed family. I’m half German, and half Canadian. The Canadian bits are made up of Irish, Scottish, some more German and Lebanese. But I’m white. I’m German and Irish. That’s pretty white. I don’t look it though. I ended up with green eyes, olive skin and fiercely curly hair. More often than not, before I took on hijab, I was mistaken for Spanish. My parents swear that I was born with a tan, and I keep my tan lines for years.
My husband is half Indian, and half Arab. This means that our lovely baby will be: half white and half brown/arab – or for nationalistic purposes, ¼ Indian, ¼ Arab, ¼ German, ¼ Canadian. Which will be great for multiple team spirit come World Cup.
I’m not so worried about how our child will identify itself — my husband and I are privileged and as such can identify as global citizens. But I’m worried more about how others will identify our child, and how that will affect her sense of Self. Will she feel inadequate in any way because she’s not white enough, or not culturally “Muslim” enough because people will treat her as other? I’m open to everything that she will be made up of — I just don’t want one of our cultural aspects being avoided, or denied at the cost of the others.
Privilege and “whiteness” aside, I don’t think there is a problem for me “being white” and having an appreciation for all cultures. Of course, that is my privilege talking. My proud, black, Jamaican co-worker is pretty adamant about me being white, and doesn’t understand why other people in the office are convinced I’m Jordanian or Palestinian (how did that get there?). Apparently, my headscarf throws them off. Surely only ethnic people wear those things, right? But when my coworker wants to talk about head wraps for when she locks her hair, she comes to me. Because she knows I get it. The head scarf and wrapping hair that is. I could never, ever truly understand her, or anyone elses’ experience of the world.
Not too long ago, a family member had this conversation with me:
“Stop running. You’re pregnant. I don’t care what your doctor. says. We’re not like them… like the Germans. So don’t listen to what she has to say.”
“Um… my doctor is a Muslim woman from Bangladesh….”
“Just stop running.”
I understand that this conversation was more about one’s fear and concern for my safety and the safety of the baby. But I could not help hear how I was excluded from my own culture. We’re not like them. But… I am them.
And then, another family member made a joke while I was cooing with a baby:
Me – “Hello!!! Are you laughing at me? Are you smiling at Gora Khala? (white aunty) Do you like Gora Khala?” (baby laughs incessantly at my silly faces)
Family – “Oh! HAHA! Oh K, you’re not Gora! You’re Arabi now!”
I am? ….Now?
In this case, the comment was made as a joke and in good fun. But again, I couldn’t help but feel slighted. I’m sorry. I’m white. I’m not an Arab. I’m just a white Muslim, and there shouldn’t be a problem with that. But there seems to be. Why can’t I be a white Muslim?
And therein lies the problem.
Because more often than not, white converts are praised for their Muslimness – their Arabness – their non-whiteness (a liminal whiteness? Where they are white, but not really? Clear?).
The implied threat of whiteness in this case, is that being white means: you’re rude, ignorant, promiscuous, drunk, pork-eating, evil, against Islam, hates Muslims, beer guzzling, and a backward redneck.
So when a white person converts, they become non-white. For only a non-white would give up swearing, sex, alcohol, and drugs.
(Let’s not forget all of the Muslims worldwide who are promiscuous, drink, do drugs, lie, cheat, steal, kill, abuse their wives, and use Islam to justify misogyny. Because we can only identify a white convert as non-white if we ignore what also happens in our own communities.)
Part of the appropriation of non-white status is my own fault. When I converted, I went to an extreme and started distancing myself from the parts of my culture that were not permissible in Islam.
When I took on the hijab, then other people — white people stopped seeing me as white. A simple piece of cloth suddenly turned me into a foreigner, a born Muslim. I was congratulated on my mastery of the English language. Young girls gossiping about “Pakis” hushed their voices when they noticed me staring. People told me to go home, to where I came from. And after 911, I was spit on and abused. Some in my community, the ones I defended as not being ignorant, failed me.
Because of a piece of cloth.
White, non-white, half-anything… it suddenly became very important to me to cling to my culture. The good parts of my culture!
Besides, isn’t it the good parts of all cultures that define them? The bad parts, well, they’re just present in all of them, the world over – irrespective of gender, creed, or practice. Aren’t they?
So what am I?
Maybe I am “clear”. Maybe that’s why when I speak a few Urdu words, make daal and eat paan, South Asians call me brown, and when I wear hijab and speak a few Arab words, I’m suddenly an Arab. Do people see through me? Some white people do when I pass them on the street.
But then the Muslim community still says I’m white. In fact, at times my whiteness is embraced, and I find myself placed in situations where I’m raised up to say to the larger world community, “See! She’s white! Islam isn’t bad! It can’t be, if this highly educated, empowered, white woman loves Islam…it must be great!”
And I’m used for conferences as a speaker, or as an emcee for an event, or I’m a key executive of an Muslim group. White is good. Muslim is good. White Muslim interviewing with CTV is EXCELLENT. The best press we can get.
In these cases, I don’t want to be white. I don’t want my colour to be the selling point of my talents. It’s embarrassing. And I can’t get the white imperialist out of my mind when these instances happen.
But when I’m labeled Brown or Arab, I don’t want to deny my whiteness.
On the days where I do deny my whiteness, I still feel betrayal. Not to my people. But to myself. My sense of Self. Me. Sometimes today it’s just easier to say, “I’m German and Lebanese” when someone asks me where I’m from. Because I know they are really asking about the hijab (which tends to be the follow up question). And when I say, “Toronto,” they always ask, “yes.. but originally where are you from?” I confuse them with a piece of cloth — because no white woman would actually wear that thing. So I must therefore, just be a light-skinned foreigner.
The questions could stop in an instance if I just shouted from the rafters, “I’m a white convert. I was born in a booming suburban, multicultural city. As was my father and my grandfather.” But these questions from strangers are too invasive, and I don’t want to share my conversion story with them. It’s mine. It’s my sacred journey.
Do I negotiate Muslim and non-Muslim spaces by going through my closet of cultures? Finding the right robe to wear at the right time? Isn’t this Orientalism? Cultural rape? Who am I to “play” the Arab or the South Asian? Do I have a right to? Should I feel guilty when I do feel a thrill and acceptance among a group that “isn’t mine?”
And finally, why does it matter? It’s just little me, isn’t it?
But I feel the need to know the following:
What do I tell my baby when they ask me “what” I am? Muslim is the first answer. But then what? Does it matter?
Will my child be made fun of?
Will the important parts of my child’s western culture, like Christmas and Halloween, be set aside in favour of another, because it’s just not Muslim enough?
The last is probably the one that worries me the most, and not necessarily because there is privileged in whiteness. What scares me, is the fear that my child will have to experience any hatred or prejudice because of his or her background. And it’s out there