Sans Cilice

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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

On the potential of color talk

“Why you and Ms. Shannon both light-skinned?” asked Alicia (not her real name) last Wednesday. Shannon is one of my employees. I’m white and she’s black. Not only that, I’m about as white as white can be– Irish descent, fair skin that sunburns in minutes, bright blue eyes, dirty blond hair (currently dyed brunette). Shannon has light/medium brown skin and dark brown African American hair. I think some would say she’s light-skinned and others wouldn’t. But, there’s really no need to examine our skin shades further; the point is that while Shannon and I may have any number of things in common, skin color is just not one of them.

—Long post! Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

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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.

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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 »

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Symbolic Reconciliation Between Mother Bethel AME and St. George’s UM

After centuries of separation the congregations of Mother Bethel AME and St. George’s United Methodist will worship together once again as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, at Sixth and Pine, is one of the most historically pregnant places in Philly. I’ve been atheist for a long time now, but I still value the history that I learned through my experiences of the city’s religious institutions. Though we never attended AME on a regular basis (my family went to Old St. Joseph’s Jesuit Church), friends of mine did and a few times I attended with my mom. I’m pretty sure we also attended St. George’s a few times, but I don’t remember it well. My grade school and its church, St. Peter’s Episcopal, was two blocks away from all of these religious institutions and this proximity allowed for great field trips in which we learned about how religious tensions shaped Philadelphia history despite freedom of religion being the law.

Like many other nine year old girls of the early 1990’s, I was obsessed with the American Girls doll collection and their corresponding book series. I had Felicity, the Colonial/Revolutionary War red-headed doll– probably because my mom thought she was the most tastefully styled. Felicity’s books were ok, but Addy’s were captivating. Addy was the runaway slave American girl doll. Her books tell the riveting story of her escape with her mother from the plantation all the way to Philadelphia. When they finally arrived in the city, their mentors took them to AME where they received a warm welcome and were helped to find an apartment, clothes and schooling. This pre-adolescent reading experience was highly formative and is definitely a part of why I love of Philadelphia and its historically progressive institutions, one of which is AME.

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On appreciating Africa

From Loveisntenough:

Do [you] acknowledge that there is no such thing as one African culture–that the continent is one of many nations and peoples with unique cultures? Do you, for instance, work to teach your son about his Ethiopian heritage rather than “generic Africa?”

Do you recognize modern-day Congolese, South Africans or Kenyans as real, living, breathing and nuanced people?

Earlier I posted about my reluctance to teach pre-schoolers to appreciate Africa as part of Black History Month at my school. I don’t like making generalizations about the continent and I don’t think it’s ok to host a project which makes assumptions about each student’s unique heritage and about their families’ attitude towards that heritage. I think the questions asked in the loveisntenough post address this issue quite well.

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“People are Children”

I came across this youtube video on Loveisntenough. What intrigued me most was the difference between the younger kids and the older kids. Some of the little ones do seem to have a vague understanding of the concepts but they don’t seem to connect the concepts to their life experiences. The older kids however seem to understand race and racism solely in terms of their life particular experiences. I’m sure this has something to do with the editorial decisions, but I would still like to think more about how and when we begin to internalize the problems of race.

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