By R. David Coolidge
I didn’t know I was “White” until I became Muslim. I always used to think of myself as a human being. Other people were “Black” or “Indian” or some other label I used without even thinking. I, on the other hand, was just a person. And when I looked out at the world of books, television, movies, fantasy, sci-fi, music, politics, business, and so on, I saw the world reflecting back to me the same self understanding. I liked rap a lot, but considered it “Black music,” and felt self-conscious about not having full access to its inner sanctums. It was the aesthetic equivalent of feeling scared when we drove through Cabrini Green on the way to watch the Chicago Bulls – I knew I was out of place. But these were isolated events – I could always retreat rather quickly to the safety and security of my white world.
When I went to Phillips Academy as a sophomore, for the first time I interacted on a daily basis with Black peers. But looking back on it now, I see how boarding school was still a microcosm of the larger society. We would wonder why so many of the Black kids sat together at meals, never once realizing that most of the White kids were sitting together every day. It would have sounded weird to us if you had described it as a “White-majority school,” although we had no problem talking ad nauseam about “minorities.” I had some Black teachers and coaches, but none that I would describe as a serious mentor.
The first time I wrote down the words, “I think I want to become a Muslim” was after finishing the Autobiography of Malcolm X in the summer before my freshman year at Brown University. The way he weaved the American narrative of race and injustice with the Muslim story of brotherhood and redemption struck a deep nerve. Most powerfully, when he spoke of his pilgrimage to Makkah, I felt that it might be something for me.
By the grace of God, I have since been to Makkah three times. Serendipitously, my first teacher of Islam was a black imam/prison chaplain from Brooklyn who studied for many years in Pakistan. You cannot imagine the psychological re-wiring that happens when your living exemplar of a man of God is a person you previously wouldn’t have even paid attention to, let alone spent many hours with. He taught me the basics of classical Arabic, how to read the Qur’anic text, how to improve my prayer, but most importantly, how to be a more God-conscious and self-sacrificing human being. I loved being in his presence so much that many years later, when I was struggling to find my place in graduate school at Princeton University, I drove in the middle of the night to Rhode Island to stay at the mosque for 3 days so that I could spend time with him.
But I will always be a White kid from an all-White suburb. I learned in my early years as a Muslim that I could not be Black nor Pakistani nor Palestinian no matter how much at times I wanted to fully integrate into those Muslim circles. However, I began to realize that whiteness is something white people can only really understand when we realize we embody it.
Malcolm X stated about the white Muslims he met in Makkah that “their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.” By this he meant the negative effects of white supremacy, which is perhaps aptly described as the Original Sin of the United States. In creating a unified national identity through the amalgamation of various light-skinned European immigrants, whiteness provided the primary framework for the enslavement of Africans and the subjugation of Native tribes. Malcolm X’s rebellion against the racialized injustices of American history was simultaneously a search for answers, and he died believing that Islam was part of the solution. I agree with him.
I am well aware of the overt racism found in some segments of the American Muslim community, and the hard collective work that needs to be done for Muslim institutions to live up to Islamic ideals. But that does not discount the fact that I have experienced nothing as deeply transformative of American race relations like being Muslim. It was Islam that caused me to start hanging out on the South Side of Chicago, to visit my brothers at the Inner-City Islamic Center or Masjid al-Faatir, even though I grew up only an hour away. It was Islam that led me to sitting for hours with Black men so that I could learn from their character, spirituality, and wisdom. And it was Islam that ultimately taught me about my own people – white people. For the greatest threat to whiteness is the affirmation that we are not just people, but rather a people. We have a history, culture, cuisine, philosophy and more, if we are only willing to decenter ourselves from the narrative of what it means to be human. And we are a people whom I love, just as the Prophet (upon him and his family peace) loved his own people, the Quraysh, even as he opposed their leadership of an oppressive socio-political hierarchy.
My hope in Islam for the future of America is greater than it has ever been. Contrary to what Islamophobic pundits believe, this is not a hope to overturn the Constitution nor a hope to force Jews and Christians into some form of second-class citizenship. It is a hope to see the United States thrive by embracing the contributions of all peoples, not tear itself apart by the unwillingness of its historical majority to relinquish power. Prophetic history suggest that the struggle will continue for some time, but we hope that pharaohs of contemporary American society will bend more easily than those of the past. As such, I reiterate Malcolm’s prophetic words, “But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.”
The last 18 years of my life have been spent in living out that prophecy, and learning first-hand what it means to try to integrate Islam faithfully into the life of a privileged White boy. For Malcolm could not have done that himself. He can no more be White than I can be Black. His job was only to point the way.
May the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad have mercy on him, forever and ever.
R. David Coolidge is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.