Last night, while watching #MuslimsLikeUs (more on that later), I tweeted that I had experienced racism myself since converting to Islam and was promptly told that “it never happened.” There seems to be a misconception that racism is reserved for people who are a shade of brown and that the rest of us are exempt from such discrimination.
Well, as a white British Muslim convert in a biracial marriage with mixed race kids, I’m here to tell you that racism isn’t always black n white – it’s a complex issue, and it’s also alive n kicking in the UK today, along with prejudice, ignorance and a whole heap of hate.
Quite often our beliefs are formed at home, for most of us that means that by the time we’re adults we have an understanding of the world around us, how to interact with our community and a respect for those that are different from us, even if we disagree with their views.
Sadly others have a different upbringing – perhaps their parents are ignorant of the society we live in, too busy reading The Sun and sending the kids down to the local ‘*Paki Shop’ for fags on benefit day or maybe they think they are superior in some way and don’t feel the need to expand their horizon any further than the latest episode of Jeremy Kyle. Whatever the case may be the fact remains that racism is rife in the UK.
*This word has become almost acceptable despite the offensive way in which it is used – why wouldn’t it be when a judge can even use the phrase in a court room and get nothing more than a slap on the wrist?
It starts with the kids…
I have four children and have been married twice – my oldest a boy aged 20 and a girl at 18 are both half Bengali and have very pale skin and blue/green eyes. My son is often mistaken as being mediterranean and my daughter looks white.
My youngest two, aged 11 and 14 are half Pakistani and have inherited dark hair, brown eyes and brown skin. In fact you would struggle to know they were mixed race at all as they both look full Asian.
United Nations could learn a thing or two from my household…
They have all experienced racism in different ways due to their appearance – the younger two have been called ‘Dirty Muslims’, ‘Terrorists’ and, of course, ‘Paki’ on several occasions. The abuse has changed with the times too – when my 14yr old was in Infant School, a kid told him that his skin was ‘the colour of poo’ and he didn’t want to play with him.
In secondary school this progressed to name calling based on his colour/religion and after the Paris attacks they began to call him a terrorist.
I spoke to my son at length about this and was horrified when he went on to tell me about other incidents of racism that were going on at school on a regular basis:
- A Syrian classmate being told to ‘get on his dinghy and f**k off back home’.
- A Jewish girl told that she should have gone in the gas chambers and calling her a ‘dirty Jew’.
- A black lad being told by a group of white boys that, and I quote, ‘You are our slave. Your name is Cotton Picking Joe and we are your masters.”
I called school the next day to report what was going on and was told that they could only act on what they actually hear and that they would look into it and get back to me. This was in July and I am still waiting for their response….
The school did contact me last year, with a form to fill in for my son with questions such as “Do you have respect for other religions?” and “Do you understand how to play a positive part in society?”. When I questioned why he had been given it when many others in his class hadn’t, the reply was rather mind-blowing.
They explained that the council had asked them to give out forms to all the children that had English as a second language and therefore might need extra help. The school, in all their wisdom, had decided the best way to determine this was to go down a list of pupil names and pick out the ones that “didn’t sound English”……
Wow. This crazy method meant that my son got a form due to him having his fathers (Asian) surname while his classmate with exactly the same ethnicity was overlooked because he had his Mums (English) surname.
My daughter on the other hand often finds herself in a position where people start with the whole racist rhetoric while not realising she is actually mixed race herself – being only 18 she describes this as one of the most awkward situations ever. Sometimes she feels confident enough to call them out on it, others she wishes the ground would open up and feels uncomfortable in her own skin. She also said this is happening more and more often after Brexit, with people blaming foreigners and Muslims for all the world problems from lack of housing to benefit cuts.
She recently started her first job and has already faced racism in the workplace. She has this one work ‘mate’ who insists on referring to all Asians as ‘Pakis’. Fully aware of my daughters heritage, she continues to use this offensive term regularly, often backed up by another member of staff – in fact the manager has heard her use this term more than once but has yet to reprimand her.
We had a lengthy conversation where we looked at ways she could respond to people like this and I explained the procedure for making a formal compliant at work. The fact she appears white but is mixed race means that she’s going to encounter this ignorance throughout life and we talked about how she could turn that into a positive. Being Muslim and white but not wearing a hijab means that I am also often in situations where people start Muslim bashing or being ignorant about other races, often they’re shocked when I don’t join in – I use this opportunity to educate them and challenge any xenophobic views they’re sharing and the look on their faces when I tell them that I am ‘one of those bloody Muslims’ is priceless.
I’ve been met with “But you’re white”, “Oh, so did your husband make you convert” and my personal favourite – “Does that mean you speak Muslim then?”
Other times they seem genuinely interested and buzzing to actually get the chance to talk to a ‘real life’ Muslim and are full of questions. I have had several conversations that have started off with an Islamophobic/racist comment and ended on a really positive note – dawah in action 🙂
“You’re not brown enough to be a ‘proper’ Muslim” and other fairy tales
Racism is not exclusively a white people thing – in fact some of the worst racism I have encountered myself has come from Asian Muslim women.
When I converted to Islam a number of years ago I began going to my local mosque which happens to be in a rather nice part of Cheshire. I was met by several Asian women who, whilst appeared welcoming at first, soon made it apparent that I wouldn’t be part of their ‘circle’ any time soon. The reason? I was too white to be a classed as a real Muslim.
Sure, I could attend the prayer meetings but they wouldn’t eat the food I prepared, they would smile as I entered but I wouldn’t be invited to their homes, they would see me struggle to remember the prayer but would offer no help, preferring to talk about my failings in Urdu. I was even asked if I washed my rice three times?! and how my husband managed with a wife that can’t make chapatis. In fact they made me briefly question if Islam was for me after all.
Fortunately I discovered a far more welcoming mosque in Manchester where there were more reverts, less judgment and even prayer classes for beginners on a Sunday afternoon. I also realised that quite often the ones that refer to themselves as Muslim are not a true reflection of the faith – something that should be remembered when you watch #MuslimsLikeUs on catchup…
After avidly awaiting #MuslimsLikeUs on BBC Two this week, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement, at points I found myself shouting at the TV, at others I was shaking my head in disbelief.
It would appear that BBC chose the participants using a controversy scoresheet and boy did they tick all the boxes – We were given racism, white privilege, imperialism, sexism and even a controversy involving an onion.
A varied bunch to say the least, one that stood out to me was Mehreen who, as lovely as she is, was reminiscent of Aliyah, the daughter in Citizen Khan – kind of like an Asian Barbie. She did handle the racist blokes at the homeless shelter with class and eloquence though.
Nabil who was the voice of reason at many point, including the absolute gem – “when in doubt, don’t be a dick.” He was portrayed as a stereotypical angry black man and has been on social media to complain about the way it was edited to cast him in such a light, as has Baraa, the Syrian refugee.
For the record I think they were bang out of order for stealing his onion and he handled it extremely well given the circumstances.
Abdul Haqq….well, and I do have my tin hat at the ready, I don’t agree with everything he said but much of it did sound like Islamic teachings to be fair. He delivered it in a really alienating way and the letters he gave out were on another level but I think he was also edited to fit the whole right-wing, pro-prevent rhetoric the Beeb support.
Talking of agendas, #MuslimsLikeUs was made in conjunction with Love Productions – the same company behind Benefits Street, Make Bradford British and Why Don’t You Speak English? Hardly educational stuff and that sums up #MuslimsLikeUs really, the show left me feeling angry and struggling to identify with any of the participants and if I wasn’t Muslim already I think watching them would have put me off for life and made me even more confused.
I wonder if they will be doing a follow up looking at other religions – say ‘Six Jews in a Gym’ or ‘Five Hindus in a hotel….’
Finally, I would like to end on a slightly more positive note…
Looking at the survey referenced in #MuslimsLikeUs it became clear that whilst there were some worrying responses, on the whole the outlook is quite promising.
The 18-24 yr old demographic have done us proud once again – throughout the whole survey the acceptance of Muslims with this age range was higher than the older ones, in fact the older the respondents are, the less tolerant they become. No surprise there then. In answer to the statement “I would feel comfortable if a Muslim moved in next door to my home” 54% of 18-24 yr olds agreed while only 29% of 65+ felt the same.
One telling response was to the statement “Muslims have failed to integrate into British society” where only 24% of the younger demographic agreed in contrast to 64% of the 65+ group.
Maybe this is because the younger generation ARE integrating, as Mehreen said, “We go to school, we go university, we work. How else do they want us to f*****g integrate?” and the older ones don’t see this. Perhaps they see the parents of these first n second generation Muslims, the ones that do prefer their own community and are less likely to strike up a conversation in the street. The ones that could do more to integrate but are as set in their own ways as much as white old folk can be…
The bottom line is this – racism and ignorance are still as prevalent today as they were when my mum was a kid and we need to talk about it in order to make a change. We need to be more accepting, more forgiving and less judgemental of each other, regardless of race, religion, gender or any other defining features. Each of us have our own path and it can be hard enough to keep your footing without others trying to knock you down so try to play nice eh…