Representation as a Black Muslim Woman Is Good—And It's a Trap
"Muslim Cool" author Dr. Su'ad Abdul Khabeer shares the "twin truths about representation."
From the way we see ourselves to the way we are seen, being Muslim means so many different things to individual women across the world. In honor of Muslim Women’s Day this year, we’re focusing on the way Muslim identity presents itself differently—in our personal relationships, our professional endeavors, and more—and how no one experience can speak for us all.
Last May, I got a “Congrats!” text message from a friend to which I replied, “Huh?” My friend then promptly sent me a link to CNN’s 25 Influential American Muslims list in which I was identified as defining Muslim Cool because of my book by that title, and nicknamed “The Arrowhead” because I don’t half-step.
This list was a year in the making. That previous May in 2017 I got a call from a CNN editor who explained they had been interviewing American Muslims in order to build a “crowd-sourced” list of 25 influential Muslims in the US. During these interviews my name kept coming up and so they wanted to include me.
I generally hate lists and listicles because they are always incomplete and often inaccurate but this one made me pause because the list was made, at least in part, by my own community. So, I said yes, consulted with my BFFs on what to wear, and did the interview. And then I kind of forgot about it; the release date kept getting pushed due to the crazy news cycle.
That first text was followed by other texts and social media sharing, including my own. A lot had changed for me personally since the interview. I had lost my maternal grandmother right before it, and then my mother suddenly passed away five months later, and eight months after my mother, my beloved aunt passed on. So despite normally hating lists, I celebrated this one, on their behalves. They would have loved it and been so proud, like others still with me in this realm. They would have loved it because I am them and so, when I am somewhere they are too; when they see me, they see themselves—they are represented and that matters. But here’s the thing about representation: It matters and it’s a trap.
While there are at least 3 million Muslims in the US, when it comes to media’s portrayal of the religious group narratives are often riddled in anti-Muslim rhetoric; pigeonholed as terrorists; or criticized for the hijab. The more diverse Muslim representation, like in the example of the film Jinn and the series East of La Brea, still only reach the mainstream in a trickle.
I call this the twin truths about representation. Representation matters because the mainstream media is a powerful space that reaches far and wide and can impact personal and public perception. Like the famous “doll test” of the 1940s, that revealed the damaging effects of racism on Black children, marginalization—both interpersonal and institutional—can produce deep feelings of inferiority and make it a struggle to affirm self-worth.
As a result, when you are otherwise excluded, made marginal, or invisible in broader society, seeing someone who looks like you on a TV screen or magazine cover is really powerful. Media images are powerful in another way, too. They are powerful because they circulate, a lot, and that repetition makes them become common sense—what you see on the screen is how you interpret what you see in real life. And so representation matters because the way you are seen affects what people who are not like you think about you and, more importantly, what can be done to you.
When you are otherwise excluded, made marginal, or invisible in broader society, seeing someone who looks like you on a TV screen or magazine cover is really powerful.
Seeing yourself in the mainstream or rather not seeing yourself is also a source of contention when analyzing who ‘“counts” as a Muslim when it comes to Muslim representation in the mainstream. I teach about Islam in America and have a “Guess Who’s the Muslim” quiz I do with students. It ends with side by side images of comedians Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari. Undoubtedly, although Ansari, unlike Chapelle, does not identify as Muslim, students pick him because he “looks” like a Muslim: He is “brown,” with immigrant parents and a non-English name. Sadly, this classroom exercise points to the broader reality.
In the US popular imagination, Muslims are “brown” and so when the mainstream tries to be inclusive, “Hey guys, let’s add a Muslim!” it seeks only brown Muslims and often anoints them in ways that erase Black Muslims. In the mainstream, Muslim fashion is often credited as being trailblazed by millennial Middle Eastern and South Asian American Muslim women and not the Black Muslim women fashion makers that preceded them. The first Muslim woman to gain major notoriety for rapping in a headscarf was an Arab American woman named Mona Haydar, despite the fact that others like Miss Undastood, a Black woman, have many years ahead of Haydar in the game.
Representation is a trap because mainstream media is a powerful space of recognition—on someone else’s terms and to preserve someone else’s power. This results in a lot of policing and gatekeeping, internal and external.
Mainstream representation is very selective. Not only must the representative “Muslim” be brown but they must have the right story, most often a heart-warming story about how they overcame an East-West culture clash. Of course, this kind of mainstream inclusion is not actually for Muslims, but to make Muslims digestible for white liberals. It is for white liberals because the Muslim who “overcomes” is different but only in quirky ways like Ramadan and Halal Guys. The Muslim who overcomes sheds any Muslim practices that challenge polite liberal sensibilities, like face veils and polygamy, or calling out white supremacy.
Representation is also trap because the quest for recognition makes us police ourselves. Just a few months ago, Rashida Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women in congress was mired in controversy because of her private comments about President Donald Trump. She was not only criticized by Trump supporters, which I had expected, but from within the Muslim community. The main line of critique was basically a less elegant version of “when they go low, we go high.”
Representation is also trap because the quest for recognition makes us police ourselves.
Now, I get that many Muslims are taught not to swear, myself among them, but that’s not really what motivated internal critique. Her Muslim detractors are less concerned about her piety than their own recognition. When you are constantly under a microscope, precisely because you don't have power, you worry constantly about external public perceptions; a worry that causes you to turn that very scrutiny onto yourself. Folks are so concerned about negative representation in the mainstream that they make those standards their own. But the problem with that is this standard is a form of gatekeeping that only lets the acceptable Muslim “in”—the Muslim who does not really challenge the status quo and leaves the rest of us to the wind.
So if representation matters but is also a trap, what is to be done? Two things: First, be selective. My CNN interview didn’t lead to a deluge of requests asking me to “represent” but what I have learned from being on listicles is that we must engage the mainstream wisely. Every invitation is not an opportunity, and mainstream engagement is not always useful; as described earlier being represented can merely result in just being a diversity box that gets “checked off” rather than present a real challenge to a racist status quo.
Second, do for self. Sure, It’s cool to be on CNN but it’s even cooler to be on your own platform. “Do for self” is an old Black Muslim proverb that promotes the practice of claiming your agency and telling your own story. Black Muslims advocate “do for self” because our experience as Black people has taught us the mainstream is, by its very nature, a limited space, and at the end of the day, who better to represent us to the world than us?