Sans Cilice

Icon

White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Feminism in Black American Islam: Intro

Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam

I’m currently reading Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam by Carolyn Moxley Rouse. I highly recommend it. Everything I had learned about Islam from grade school through college was situated in one of three very distinct settings: the Middle Ages, romanticized portrayals of the Black Nationalist movement, or the United States’ current war with the Middle East. Because of this, my understanding of the religion was neither cohesive nor flexible. Not only has this book taught me more about the “praxis” (in the Marxist sense as the conscious practice of belief or “synthesis of mental and manual labor”) of Islam in a context relevant to my own life, it has reinvigorated and broadened my engagement with feminism. I want to learn more about African American Islam because of its prevalence within the school where I work. As I learn I’ll post new thoughts on the subject. The next books I plan on reading are Black Routes to Islam edited by Manning Marabel and Hishaam Aidi, and Islam and Blackamerican by Sherman Jackson.

Though I’m sure that most of the families in my school are Christian (either in faith or culture), Islam is a very visible part of the community. It is literally visible, in that many of the kids’ mothers wear hijab and/or niqaab, some girls wear hijab and some fathers wear kurtas or dishadashas. I think that those in the community who practice Qu’ranic dress are practicing Sunni Muslims, although I’m not totally sure. I also have the sense that, especially in the realm of clothing, different individuals feel free to apply Qu’ranic advice as they see fit. For instance, I know one mother who wears a hijab but her daughter does not, and another mother who wears a long curly hairstyle but whose daughter wears a hijab.

5 out of the 40 kids I work with have at least one practicing Muslim parent. While I would be surprised if more than 20% of the school’s families are Muslim, the secular/cultural manifestations of Islam are far more prevalent and point to a great variety of degrees to which families are influenced by Muslim culture. 9 out of the 15 boys and 8 of the 25 girls I work with have first names that are etymologically Arabic or Aramaic with European last names. There are also some students in the school who have Arabic first and last names, some of whom I believe are practicing Muslims and others not. The religious lifestyle is even manifest in a secular form; “no pork” is by far the most frequently listed dietary restriction. I bet it is listed on 1/3 of our students’ medical forms.

A few years ago I encountered the idea that for some African Americans, converting to Islam presents an opportunity to adopt an ethnicity or ethnic culture distinct from mainstream African American culture. I’m sure that the religion appeals to converters for a variety of reasons, but Islam–as a religion and way of life– may have special appeal to blacks who seek to differentiate their personal history and identity from the African American identity which has been significantly influenced by white oppression. The trauma of slavery and the ensuing centuries of familial instability have made it incredibly difficult for many blacks to trace their geneology back to a city or country like most white Americans are able to do. And, although there are many sources of pride within the African American culture and history, I have sensed and heard that this culture and history can also be a source of shame. Though I do not blame the problems ascribed uniquely to the black American community, writ large, on individuals’ apathy or moral failures, I can understand why some blacks disavow the culture which produces the individuals who add to negative stereotypes.

Black people searching for a more specific personal history and/or new cultural identity may find conversion to Islam appealing as it can address both concerns. The US is skeptical and fearful of Islam. To most of America–even liberals– Islam is decidedly “Other.” Americans associate it with a totally different part of the world and frequently assume that, as a religion, it is in stark opposition to the “uniquely” Christian values on which the country was supposedly founded. These differences– real or perceived–make conversion to Islam much more than a change in faith or a spiritual re-awakening; the conversion becomes a process whereby one can choose to identify with a part and ethnically and culturally different part of the world while also eschewing the system of values which was imprecated in the construction of the country which racially oppressed black people for centuries.

By thinking about African American Islam in this way, I became more sympathetic to conversion as a legitimate and authentic act of individual agency whereas previously I had only thought about blacks’ conversion to Islam as a largely political statement following the Nationalist movement. Clearly, at that point I knew very little about Islam in America. Even after becoming comfortable with conversion as potentially empowering to the individual who chooses it, I still viewed such a conversion as lamentable (especially for women) and detrimental to feminism much in the same way I lament the existence of conservative feminism; I was glad that women were at least consciously asserting their identities and grappling with the meaning of womanhood (maybe they’ll come around!) but was not in support of breathing new life into traditional gender roles. Conservative Feminism, whose female supporters strive to be exemplars of the subordinate yet (re)productive American housewife, remains anathema to me because I am not convinced by its members’ desire for women’s empowerment (which I believe is the one definite goal of all feminisms) and am disgusted by the way their proud servility feeds (literally and figuratively) white male capitalism.

Reading Rouse’s Engaged Surrender has completely changed my view of black women’s conversion to Islam. Although there are still some gender-related limitations which I think are morally wrong (homophobia in particular) I am very much in favor of the inherently feminist discourse which naturally emerges from the African American Sunni Muslim community. And, now that I have a better idea of the praxis of Sunni Muslims, I believe that feminist praxis has great potential to improve its local community and perhaps the black American community at large. In the next few posts in this thread I intend to examine the feminist discourses and attitudes facilitated by Islam as they have been written about by Rouse. I also intend to deal with other examinations of black Islam in different contexts. I am particularly interested to learn about the experience of black Muslims who were born into the religion and its way of life, as opposed to choosing it as an act of independence.

Please note that, as white atheist or not, I do NOT intend my attitude toward and individual understanding of African American Sunni Islam to be seen as advice to group of which I am not a part to convert to a religion of which I am not a part. Instead, I am working to understand how women in different communities create different routes to empowerment. Though some strains of feminism resonate more strongly with me personally, I believe that the development of a greater variety of effective feminisms will result in a greater variety of empowered women. I do not envision utopias, but I see no logical reason to disbelieve that if one half of our population is granted the same respect, support and validity as the other, much less distrust will hinder our progress and vastly more capable individuals will contribute to the greater good.

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Huffington Post Starts a Religion Section

I am 100% ambivalent about Huffpo’s new Religion section. While I am in favor of a section for important religion related NEWS, I have been bothered by statements that are dismissive of the atheist population while trying to be inclusive. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Journalism, Personal, , , ,

Texas Public Intoxication Laws

Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones unearths the racist and homophobic uses of Texas’s public intoxication law which permits the arrest of anyone for public intoxication, even in a restaurant or bar:

Since 2006, when Texas overtook California as the state with the most drunk-driving fatalities, cops and a beefed-up task force from the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission have used a 1993 law as a pretext to enter any bar and arrest its patrons on the spot. The public intoxication standard, backed by the Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is so broad that you can be arrested on just a police officer’s hunch, without being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test.

Despite the law’s aim against drunk driving, Weinstein and others point out that it is mostly used as an outlet for racism and homophobia, or to quickly fulfill arrest quotas. While I am VERY against drunk driving, the logic behind this “anti-drunk driving law” is absurd; drunk driving is illegal and police don’t need any other law to legitimate the arrest of a drunk driver. Weinstein quotes Dallas defense attorney Robert Guest who says that “Having no standard allows the police to arrest whoever pisses them off and call it PI,…If you have a violent, homophobic, or just an asshole of a cop and you give him the arbitrary power to arrest anyone for PI, you can expect violent, homophobic, and asshole-ic behavior.”

My husband and I are going to his little brother’s bar mitzvah in Houston in August. I will drink my champagne in a semi-sober awareness of what a privilege it is to not be arrested.

Filed under: Current Events, Politics, , , , , ,

On Avatar: My one and only post

See Huffpo’s full article.

Responding to the question of why the Na’vi in Avatar have boobs, despite the fact that they don’t even have genitals, director James Cameron told Playboy:

“Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals,”

Additionally, Cameron said that in creating the Na’vi, he wanted to “focus on things that can create otherness that are not off-putting.” 

Now, there are so many reasons to criticize this movie (it sucks, it’s too long, its story is lacking, its acting is lacking, it’s a simplistic interpretation of colonial narratives, it’s a reductive allegory for American foreign policy, etc) that I don’t really want to go into it too much, but as food for thought, I will be pondering two questions:

1. Why does Cameron call the Na’vi as a ‘race’ not a species if they are ‘non-placental mammals’? (obviously the answer to this is that a degree of relatability is necessary cinematically) Considering the presence of multiple human races in the cast, did you view the Na’vi as a race or a species?

2. What can be said about Cameron’s implication that there are features of “otherness” that are not “off-putting”? Isn’t part of the “essence” of “otherness” a degree of off-puttingness? Would eliminating the breasts have turned the Na’vi from Others to something actually different?

Filed under: Movies, Pop Culture, , , , , ,

Stanford’s Progressive Policies

In addition to having an amazing financial policy which pays 100% tuition for students whose families make less than $100K, Stanford University now has the most progressive student health care plan I’ve ever heard of. The university’s mandatory health plan will now provide coverage for students’ transgender surgery. Wow.

Filed under: Current Events, education, , , , ,

Good Hair Comes from India!!!

Chris Rock’s trip to Chennai, India was one of the most intriguing parts of Good Hair. Apparently, the vast majority of hair used in human hair weaves comes from India. Most of it is bought from Hindu temples that perform sacrificial tonsures (head shavings). (An interviewee did speak about the black market hair trade but I found him to be a less than credible source.) The hair is then bought by weave manufacturers who sort it, wash it, comb it and assemble it into tracks of hair.

thanks to sunnyshairandwigs.blogspot.com for the great photo!

I had an unnecessarily negative reaction to this information. Because I associate most products made in India or Southeast Asia solely for American consumption with capitalism, colonialism and destruction of local environments and knowledge, I hastily assumed that evil was at play within this transnational hair trade. After thinking more though, I really can’t see any problem with this. Tonsuring has existed as a Hindu ritual for much much longer than human hair weaves have become a profitable commodityCitizens choose to be tonsured as a self-sacrifice to Lord Vishnu, so one can’t really argue that they forced into this or unfairly compensated. The temples do profit off of hair sales, but the profit defrays overhead costs and supports charitable operations. I suppose the temples are not always upfront with the shavees about the fact they sell the hair, but the hair-buying weave-making industry isn’t underground so no one is being duped. Moreover, Indian people own and operate the weave companies which ensures that the profits go back to the community. Whether or not said profit is fairly distributed, I don’t know, but either way it doesn’t seem to be a capitalist enterprise more evil than any other.

To learn more about the collection, manufacturing and distribution, go to Sunny’s Hair Blogit has a great Q&A by an American online hair vendor traveling to India to see the process first hand.

Filed under: Movies, Pop Culture, , , , , , , , , ,

Good Hair

I just watched  Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Rock does a good job of exploring the aspects of black women’s hair choices that he finds problematic, especially the fact that most black American women’s styles emulate European hair. The meme that black styles emulate white hair has a legitimately problematic history. The racially fraught nature of the ‘straighter is better’ meme becomes more apparent when partnered with the colorist meme that blacks with lighter skin are more beautiful). At one point in the movie, a hair-stylist mentions that moms want their young daughters’ hair relaxed because its unmanageable. I’ve heard this defense before and it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Thinking about my own hair though, I think the manageability issue has a degree of salience.

I have super thick, coarse, curly, frizzy dark blond hair. It’s not nappy like black hair, but– to give you a sense of how far away it is from being straight and silky– if I brush out my hair (styled in a bob) it will stand on end in what can best be described as a Euro Afro. I’ve always worn my hair curly. I blow dry and iron it straight two or three times a year, but I’ve never had it chemically straightened and am sure that I never will. Though I think my curly hair is beautiful (even gorgeous!) when I wash, dry and style it properly, sleeping on it transforms it into crazy-person hair. It really annoys me that I can’t just comb it in order to make it look sane. I’m about 80% Irish, 5% Welsh, 5% English, 5% Dutch and 5% French and I too have occasional dreams of silky straight shiny locks that lay down.

Filed under: Movies, Personal, Society, , , , , , ,

Reconsidering Content of Earlier Post Re: Desmond Tutu’s Decoded Genome

It’s such a complex issue! So many questions are raised by the motivations of the research, the scientific results and the media’s reporting of it.

The one thing I am absolutely confident about, is that this research will encourage positive health outcomes for people of African descent in the future. With the addition of Archbishop Tutu and the Bushmen, the human genome project includes 5 of European descent (two of whom are James Watson and Craig Venter– both prominent geneticists), 3 of Asian descent (2 Korean, 1 Chinease) and 3 of African descent (Desmond Tutu, Bushman, Yoruban) plus another three partially decoded Bushman genomes. This distribution is not reflective of the actual percentage breakdown of the global population. VERY importantly, it is not representative of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the Pacific Islands.

Read these for background: 1.  Time– “What Secrets Lie in Archbishop Tutu’s Genome?” 2. Sydney Morning Herald– Cracking an ancient code: Scientist believes Africa can unlock the secrets of disease. (what a headline!) 3. LA Times– Scientists find great genetic differences among southern Africans 4. Newsweek Blog–Desmond Tutu’s Sequenced Genes: How Increased Diversity Helps Doctors Heal

More thoughts to come!

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, News, Philosophy & Theory, , , , , ,

Race and Obesity in Philly

Soda, Candy, Hoagies!

Nia-Malika Henderson of Politico reports on Michelle Obama’s appearance in Philadelphia yesterday to discuss the national obesity epidemic as it is manifested in Philadelphia.

Though I know childhood obesity is a problem for Americans of all races, my localized experiences  have lead me to associate the issues of race and obesity. Whites are not the majority in my city (most estimates as of 2000 say 41% of Philadelphians are white though others say up to 45%) but–not surprisingly–they enjoy better housing, employment, education and health than others. Blacks are approximately 43% (44% if the mixed race population is added) of the city’s population and account for about 40% of the city’s workforce. Despite the essential contributions the black population makes to the city, it experiences twice the unemployment rate of whites and considerably worse health.

Philadelphia has a long history of obesity. Its longstanding position on Top 10 Fattest City lists (#1 in 1999!) is usually explained by excessive consumption of cheese steaks and soft pretzels. These ‘delicacies’ originated in South Philly, originally a melting pot of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Current Events, education, Personal, Philadelphia News, , , , , , , , ,

Real Time is Back!

Real Time with Bill Maher is back!

Watch!

Elizabeth Warren, Elliot Spitzer, Nora O’Donnel, Seth McFarlane, and Wanda Sykes

Filed under: Current Events, On TV, Pop Culture,

Dear Mr. President– Yes, You Can!

Ms. Hamedah Hasan’s official plea website.

Filed under: activism, Current Events, Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Support Hameda Hasan

From Ms. Hamedah HasanHuffingtonPost comes Hameda Hasan’s impassioned plea for clemency from President Obama. She is now serving the 17th year of her 27 (!!!) year sentence for a non-violent, first time, drug-related offense involving crack cocaine which she never used or dealt. As Hasan rightly points out “Had I been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, I would be home with my three daughters and two grandchildren by now.”

Please read Hasan’s whole letter. It is an amazing personal story, one which has moved many organizations, including the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and the ACLU, to act on her behalf. I hope President Obama is compelled. My one fear is that her Muslim name will make clemency a politically unpopular move. Obama and his team (and media outlets other than Fox News) have finally quieted most of the racist and anti-Muslim shit spewed by Tea-Baggers and the like. At this point I’d be surprised if the “secret Muslim/socialist/racist” memes regained strength, but I hope that Obama’s memory of such malicious lies doesn’t interfere with his consideration of Hasan’s clemency plea.

For some background on the issue: Systemic racism is perpetuated by the unequal prosecution of crack and cocaine cases.

Filed under: activism, Current Events, News, Politics, , , , , , , ,