The Long Road Ahead: Why Black Lives Matter For a Muslim American Woman

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By Guest Contributor: Anisa Khalifa (@anisakhalifa_)

After the killings of this past week, it feels on some level as if words have dried up. As though we have cried and screamed in outrage, for justice, for so long that we have nothing left to say. As if our words are no longer weapons, but lie useless and mute in our hands. As with physical illness, there is a numbness that comes after one has experienced so much pain that the brain and the body become overloaded, and can no longer process what is happening to them.

But this is a long road, one that many have walked before us, and we cannot give up and collapse by the side of the road now.

The Civil Rights Movement was a revolution in its time, and its heroes and martyrs achieved great things, but their work is still unfinished; it has become our work. We have a moral obligation to take on our long history of white supremacy: the violence perpetuated upon black and brown bodies without accountability; the erasure of the suffering and injustice faced by victims of police violence in favor of white people’s “fragility”; the inextricable way that gun violence and the gun lobby is interwoven with a mainstream culture that approves of arming white people and killing black people, and yet putting disproportionate numbers of black people in jail.

I had my eyes opened fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. Before September 11, 2001, I had thought that white supremacy was an antiquated notion that had vanished along with South African apartheid. I had believed I had the same rights as everyone else that lived in this country. As a Muslim Canadian-American of Pakistani descent, I was of course aware of the subtle racism that follows any person of color in North America, as I had always been growing up. I had never once imagined, however, that I could be threatened in any way because of my heritage, or that the government, the system, the police—the people who had authority over me and were sworn to protect me—would ever violate my constitutional rights. And yet, in this post-Patriot Act world, we live in an era of unprecedented government surveillance, secret searches and arrests, unconstitutional detention and torture, and an environment of fear and hatred towards Muslims that this country has never seen before. And make no mistake, we are dying from it.

In the days after 9/11, when it became clear that in the eyes of the media and the government, the new “War on Terror” was in fact to be a war on Muslims, I remember hearing a joke about how African-Americans were relieved that finally the heat was on someone else. I laughed, because in dark times, sometimes you need dark humor. But in reality, an increase in bigotry never benefits any group. Rather than making things easier for black people, who have been victimized in every possible way since before America was even America, Islamophobia has only complicated and intensified their oppression.

The removal of checks and balances from law enforcement that once guaranteed us due process, and the rise of a new kind of Islamophobia that is not fueled by ignorant stereotypes but by purposeful, well-funded misinformation, have eroded the rights of all Americans but particularly black and brown people and those who don’t have citizenship status. Whereas before the Patriot Act, the systemic, entrenched racism faced by people of color could be fought on constitutional grounds, even the legal mechanism by which we might contest our rights has now been taken away from us. As in every other instance, it has been African Americans who have suffered in disproportionate numbers from these miscarriages of justice (and imagine, in today’s climate, being a black Muslim).

So we had tanks and helicopters in Ferguson in 2014, because the Homeland Security budget is so bloated they have extra money to arm local police departments with military equipment. Ostensibly these machines of war are to be used to protect people, but we all saw the footage of the Tank Man in Ferguson, which prompted comparisons to Tiananmen. Despite coverage of those protests as reminiscent of a “war zone,” things haven’t really changed. Following Tuesday’s shooting of a Charlotte man, North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency due to protests; the National Guard are still out in force, and the curfew still hasn’t been lifted.

Police brutality against African Americans doesn’t just feel like it’s getting worse because of media coverage, as some have claimed. It actually is getting worse. A 2014 report by the FBI found that violent crimes were at their lowest rate since the 1970s, and yet police violence is at its highest in decades. They have recently overhauled their system of counting police shooting deaths and adopted one similar to the Guardian’s which counted twice as many as the FBI did in 2015. Last year, 300 black people were killed by police, at twice the rate of white people; so far this year, at least 194 have been killed, according to a tally by the Guardian. On Monday, we saw the horrifying video footage of Tulsa man Terence Crutcher, unarmed and with his hands above his head, shot fatally on Friday by police officer Betty Shelby. She has now been charged with first degree manslaughter. (It’s worth noting that the only woman who has shot an unarmed black man is the first to be charged with a crime, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

The next day, as I mentioned above, Charlotte man Keith Lamar Scott was killed because, police claim, he ignored their command to drop his gun. His family and witnesses from the community say he didn’t have a gun, simply a book; but even if he was carrying a weapon, North Carolina is an open-carry state and the police had no right to stop Scott, question him or shoot him. Local police’s refusal to release footage of the shooting, which was filmed by multiple cameras, and their nonsensical statement that “transparency’s in the eye of the beholder” in response to Charlotte mayor’s request for a transparent investigation, inspires serious doubts about what they call their “version of the truth.” Scott’s wife has since released her cell phone footage which does not actually show him getting shot, but raises more questions about CMPD’s story. On Wednesday night over a thousand people poured into the streets to protest Scott’s death, and riot police were out in full force, according to eyewitnesses, using tear gas on the largely peaceful crowd. Last night’s third night of protest was largely peaceful, and the police are no longer enforcing the curfew, but the crowd is still out there, refusing to go home until the tapes are released.

The fact that this is happening in my home state of North Carolina, only a couple of hours’ drive from where I live, underscores for me once again the immediacy, the pain, and the danger that is felt by those victimized by the police on the streets of this country every day. And while black people have been suffering from state violence since the days of slavery, and have been dying unnamed and unmourned from the guns of police officers for decades, we cannot ignore the fact that the unchecked power that has been given to law enforcement since the start of the War on Terror has made it even easier than before to surveil, imprison and kill people of color without consequences than ever before. And our African American brothers and sisters are now, as they always have been, the first targets of such violence, and the last to be mourned in the national narrative.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this country. I can only draw on my own experience of going from being part of the model minority, the land of Bollywood, the delicious if somewhat smelly food, and the stereotypically smart people, to being a member of the most hated group of people in America. Not only that, but  I am a visibly identifiable member of that group—a Muslim woman with brown skin who wears hijab. We are the ones who get harassed in our cars, who get our scarves pulled off in public spaces, who get stabbed to death on an evening walk. I’m not trying to center my own pain, nor do I claim we face greater victimization; what I am saying is I feel the pain of dehumanization, or racism, of having my life portrayed on the news and in entertainment media as valueless, even a threat. Of being told explicitly and implicitly that people like me are not only not worth saving, but that we deserve to be killed. I feel the pain of watching dear friends mourn the loss of their children, their siblings, taken from them so violently simply because of their belief in Islam. Yesterday was the second annual Deah Day at UNC Chapel Hill, held to honor Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, three Muslim students and beloved members of the community who were shot execution-style in their home in February of 2015. That wound is still fresh for their families and for our community. It will never really heal.

Every week or two we hear of another hate crime against Muslims in this country, too many to list here. Murder and arson, shootings and death threats. Muslim children face more bullying in schools than ever before, at twice the average rate, and in a third of those cases their teachers are complicit in the abuse. We feel as though we are constantly under attack, and yet while thoughts about the safety of ourselves and our loved ones never really leave our minds, we are constantly faced with the narrative of Muslims we see on the news. That we are evil and dangerous and don’t belong in America, and certainly don’t deserve the same rights as white Christian Americans.

It doesn’t escape me that this narrative has been used against other groups in this country before. It was said of black people to justify slavery and Jim Crow; of Chinese people, in order to exploit their labor while hobbling them under the Chinese Exclusion Act; of Japanese Americans as they were ripped from their lives and forced into work camps; of Jews, back when they still weren’t considered “white enough.”

It’s an old story, because white supremacy has a long history, and it is a tried and true strategy.

The experience of growing up in a world where the narrative of white privilege has been normalized into invisibility, where people of color are the perpetual other, leaves a person with certain scars on her soul. But it has also given me something else: empathy. Because I have known this pain, I hear with more resonance the words of black mothers who fear seeing their sons leave for school or work every morning, because they might never see them again. My heart hurts more for the young men and women who have been shot without hesitation, simply because of the color of their skin. Empathy stirs an urgency in me to speak up, to declare that we as a society cannot ignore this problem because it doesn’t directly affect us or our families. To firmly believe that only if black lives matter can everyone’s lives matter. Our liberation is tied up together.

9/11 was a dark day, and we have had many dark days since then, but one beautiful thing I have seen both immediately after the attacks and in the fifteen years that followed is a coming together of people who never used to have each other’s backs. Minority communities are politically organizing, and we have finally realized that none of us can win the fight against white supremacy alone. I think the Asian American community is a great example of this. We haven’t always identified as a group this way; in fact, the idea of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as one group, with common goals and a feeling of kinship, is a pretty recent phenomenon, and one that perhaps many in our communities haven’t been on board with. But we have been able to accomplish so much more as a group than we ever did when we were sectioned off in our respective nationalisms, whether due to internal or external forces.

I believe that the only way for Americans to defeat white supremacy and break its hold around our collective necks is for all of us to join together — as Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and white people. (Yes, even white people. Especially white people). Because this is a story that was written for us by others, and it’s time we rewrote it on our own terms.

Anisa Khalifa
Anisa Khalifa

Anisa Khalifa (@anisakhalifa_) is a Canadian-American writer of Pakistani descent who has called many cities home. She has an Honors B. A. in English and Diaspora and Transnational Studies from the University of Toronto, and spends a lot of time thinking and writing about race, culture, issues of social justice, and how one voice might make a difference. Anisa lives in North Carolina with her family.

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  • Ax

    Soooo…. No acknowledgement of all the Americans being threatened with violence and being killed because they AREN’T Muslim? Do you feel their pain as well?