Elmhurst College’s Black Student Union (BSU) and Muslim Student Association (MSA) collaborated for an event as part of BSU’s “Building Bridges and Breaking Misconceptions” series on Feb 9th.
The event was an open discussion of what it means to be African-American, what it means to be Muslim, and how the two intersect. It was scheduled to end at 5:30, but students chose to stay well after 6 o’clock as a result of the “genuine conversation”. Members of both organizations said the event taught them a lot about the other group.
Junior Tristan Duff of BSU was surprised when he learned an attendee’s parent worked in an area with a large population of black Muslims. “When Mariam said her dad works in South Chicago and there are predominantly black mosques down there, that surprised me," he said. "Because when I think of black Muslims, for some reason, I usually think outside of this country."
Junior Salma Jabri of MSA was surprised by the personal choice to identify as either “black” or “African-American”. “I didn’t know there was a difference in being black vs. being African-American, and how it’s more of an individual thing for some people,” she said.
Junior Uroosa Nafasat, MSA’s Vice President, extended the notion of choosing to identify a specific way to discuss the larger social construct of labels.
“A lot of times, people just look at your skin color and say ‘you’re black’. But there are so many ways that people identify themselves, and it’s just so ridiculous that people try to fit you into a label or a box [to make it easier for themselves],” she said.
This concept of self-identity was discussed largely between both organizations as it was discovered that they shared similar frustrations. Jabri, who is ethnically Syrian, said it has become increasingly difficult for her to identify as either Syrian or American.
“I used to identify as a Syrian, but ever since the war, it’s been really hard to identify with my Syrian side, so there’s a disconnect there," he said, "And there’s also a disconnect with my American identity because of the Islamophobia and everything you see in the news. How can I identify as an American when my group is so hated on right now?”
This idea of a disconnection from American culture was shared across the board. Duff, who is racially black, explained his personal experiences with it. “The disconnect for me has to do with the brutality towards black people in America and its cover-up," he said. "It’s clear that it’s happening and it’s right here in everyone’s faces, but the majority is content with denying it. And that makes me think, how can I identify with a person who doesn’t care about me or who thinks so little of me, that sometimes a dog matters more than black lives do?”
Nafasat said that some of the uncertainty that comes with self-identifying may be attributed to appearance. She claimed society expects an identification other than “American” from people of color.
“When they ask you where you’re from, they’re not satisfied with the answer if you say ‘Chicago’, even if you’ve been here your entire life,” she said. “My parents are from India and Pakistan, and that’s what society wants to hear. But I don’t identify that much with being Indian or Pakistani. The last time I’ve even been there was when I was 5 years old, so I don’t even remember it.”
Duff took this a step further, claiming people of color are not allowed to be “just American”.
“You can’t identify as American if you’re not white. You’re just not allowed that privilege," he said. "You have to be from somewhere else if you’re not part of that dominant white culture."
Jabri added that this applies to all people whose appearance deviates from the dominant culture, regardless of their skin color. Jabri, who appears to be white and is technically considered Caucasian, does not look “different” because of her ethnic background, but because she wears a hijab, the Islamic headscarf for women.
“I always have to explain myself and where I’m from because I wear the headscarf," she said. "If I didn’t, people would probably just think I’m white, but because I do, they’re looking at me as a Muslim first and foremost. In their eyes, I represent all Muslims."
The group also discussed the experiences they have had with racism and discrimination. They agreed that blatantly obvious discrimination is not as common as it used to be years ago, but expressed their concerns with a newer, subtler version.
“I feel like we’re in a really sheltered community here in the suburbs and people don’t generally say anything, but sometimes you feel those vibes," said Jabri. "The way they look at you or treat you tells you what they think of you."
Nafasat stated the discrimination she faces is usually indirect, but that it can actually be more harmful.
“I think that people are afraid to say anything, but a part of me would rather they say something to my face so that I have the chance to correct it," she said. "But with the invention of the Internet and forums, people have a screen to hide behind and it’s much more toxic and it feels so much more aggressive."
Members of both organizations agreed that uniting their groups is a way of progressing towards a more understanding and inclusive society. Junior Callen Williams, BSA’s Vice President, said the objective of the event was to bring two communities together in an effort to ignite change.
“What I had in mind for this was to create a space where we can address these issues and create possibilities for change somewhere in our communities, because we have to start somewhere,” he said.
Duff expressed hope for the future of oppressed groups.
“I think if we keep going like this and having these events and moving forward, eventually- maybe way later on down the line- but eventually, I do think things will change," he said.