Guest post: We Object to Performative, Anti-Black Misuses of the Terms “Intersectionality” and “White Feminism” in the Non-Black Muslim Community

This brilliance was first published over at Nahida Nisa’s blog, The Fatal Feminist. I’m pasting it verbatim with Nahida’s permission.

by Inas Hyatt and TFF

Non-black Muslims often (mis)appropriate the terms “intersectionality” and “white feminism” to the detriment of black Muslim women. This appropriation ranges from coopting the theory of intersectionality to defend Muslim men who threaten or deflect from Muslim women accusing them of assault, to sidetracking from the migrant slave trade by introducing the subject of western imperialism (or white feminism) in Arab nations.

Most recently, non-black Muslims have appallingly claimed that the Libyan slave trade cannot be criticized without including discussions about western imperialism—a call only black victims positioned in the crossfire are equipped to make—employing the very language of black feminists against black feminists and in order to detract from black issues.

Non-black Muslims who assert that excluding critiques of colonialism against the Libyan slave trade would be “imperialist” or “white feminist” coopt the theory of white feminism in order to excuse anti-black racism in the Muslim community. How are non-black Muslims equipped to deem themselves as free of responsibility in anti-blackness, much less do so using black feminist scholarship?

Black women, who coined the term white feminism and introduced explorations of its patterns, routinely and paradoxically confront accusations from men of color that their fight for women’s rights is sourced from white women.

As @delafro_ aptly tweeted, “The whole ‘black women got feminism from white women’ bullshit is a great way to your ass beat by me. I don’t play that shit. You will not credit white women for black women’s intellectual work. I will make you eat your words.”

Yet somehow, even while borrowing liberally from black feminist theory, non-black Muslims continue to reproduce the very conditions against which black feminist theories contend.

Intersectionality Doesn’t Mean Deflecting from Black Issues to Uphold Your Intersections

When anti-blackness in Arab nations results in the enslavement and sale of migrant workers in Libya, non-black Muslims deflect from anti-blackness in Arab nations to the international events that destabilized Libya. To avoid responsibility, it is popular to cite the overthrow of Gaddafi—a known serial rapist who enslaved girls in macabre rape chambers—as underwriting the migrant slave trade.

“The same Gaddafi who devastatingly contributed to the Ugandan-Tanzanian war, supported Mengistu and literally tried to annex part of Chad is being re-written as a protector of African peoples? Lemme sit this one out for the sake of my blood pressure,” tweets Momtaza Mehri. “Framing recent events in Libya as post-revolution crises is beyond disingenuous. During the revolution itself Africans from Somali migrant workers to Tuareg tribes were being rounded up and accused of being mercenaries.”

The poet continues, “I vividly remember Somali websites interviewing migrant workers who were afraid to leave their homes for fear of being hunted down in newly ‘liberated’ areas. This isn’t news to many of us. Italian government been striking deals with Libyan war criminals in the promise that they will ‘aggressively’ stem the flow of migrants. Turning ships back or kidnapping those on board. They don’t care as long as they don’t reach Italy.”

This reflex to hold imperialism accountable at the expense of deflecting from the issue of Arab anti-blackness is, enragingly enough, poorly attributed by non-black Muslims as falsely in the interest of intersectionality, as theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

In the words of Keji Daodu, “Arab racism and anti blackness was flourishing before any western imperialism. Bringing it up is just deflection.” The same non-black Muslims who were initially purporting that “MuslimLivesMatter” (which in itself fails to acknowledge black Muslims) are once again coopting intersectionality to alleviate themselves of accountability.

Deflecting to western imperialism when discussing the Libyan slave trade is just “[non-black] Muslim lives matter” in different words.

Anti-Blackness Through the Exclusion of Black Women

A few months ago, a video circulated on the Internet of a light-skinned woman praying while donning a bikini on the beach. The woman’s race was ambiguous, but the popular position of Muslim men on the matter was not: the woman was not only wrong and in need of correcting, but she was to be belittled for her perceived “immodesty” with a sexist contempt toward feminine “frivolity”—instead of a credible one toward cultural appropriation.

But in a small group dedicated specifically for women of color, one of our writers, Inas, was suspicious of the nature of the criticisms aimed at the woman by non-black women of color in the group. The woman’s race and ethnicity had never been confirmed. There was no approximation of her racial identity. There was the question of why she was being recorded and mocked. But instead of focusing on cultural appropriation, most of the non-black women were adopting the angle of modesty without considering that the yardstick used for appropriate hijab was anti-black.

It was not enough, of course, that the woman was evidently filmed without her knowledge and the video circulated to deride her. Few pointed out that it could be commendable that she was in a bikini on the beach and in the mindset to pray in a busy and crowded space. Muslim men were slut-shaming the woman rather than bringing to light that if it had been a brown and/or a black woman, her harassment wouldn’t have merely stopped at a viral video—she could have been physically attacked or even killed by onlookers.

The criticism directed at the woman was instead about Islamic respectability politics, which consistently races against the perception of black Muslims to exclude them. It was part of Arabs and Desis feeling as though they “own” Islam as part of their culture. This outlook always extends to employing intersectionality against black women, who are not seen as part of Islamic cultures/community.

Arabs and Desi Muslims need to stop with their we-own-Islam. The attitude is supremely selective of the things that anger Arab and Desi Muslims. And it’s hollow when they never come and support black Muslims.

In response to calls to be inclusive of women falling outside of mainstream, colonialist parameters of modesty were retorts of, “Sure, let’s all pray at the masjid with our tits and vaginas out.” (The woman praying in a bikini, just as a reminder, was at the beach, where onlookers would except to see women in swimsuits.) They didn’t recognize that their language was duplicating sexist ideas of modesty. Asking to critique ideas of modesty in the group were met with accusations of white feminism. How is asking to mind whether critiques were exclusionary of BIWoC white feminism, when white feminism is non-intersectional?

“I need non-Black people to stop using our words unless it is needed,” as Dr. Chandra tweets. “Stop stop stop. It is grating. Like don’t say something is on point. Don’t say yaaaaas. Don’t refer to everything as intersectional. Stop it.  You don’t sound cool. We are not a cool thing you put on.” She continues, responding to an inquiry, “It’s Black women theorized based on Black women’s experiences and so people should be conscientious about not including Black women when they use it.”

The argument that we need to critique ideas of modesty, modesty that was brought about by colonization, is not white feminist. It is appropriation of black feminist terminology to leave out black women from Muslim communities, who are never seen as part of the Muslim community.

Responses to “why can’t we focus on her cultural appropriation rather than slut-shaming her?” were met with a “because she’s a white woman!” from non-black, Arab and Desi people of color—resulting in critiquing whiteness in explicitly anti-black ways.

When non-black Muslims apply the theories that black women have constructed for black communities to non-black Muslim men who perpetuate an “ownership” of Islam, it’s at the exclusion of black culture, and is at its core astoundingly anti-black and an appropriation of black feminism. It silences the arguments of BIWoC in the name of protecting non-black Muslim men.

Non-Black Muslims Appropriate Black Feminism to Uphold Patriarchy

As Zoha Batool Khan stated in the thread regarding the woman praying in her bikini, “You’re trying to palm off your internalized misogyny as a critique of white supremacy. You’re just policing Muslim women. If you had lashed out at this saying white women can get away with this but people of color can’t, because they’re sexualized so much as women of color, I would have still been willing to listen. Your whole argument is based off the assumption that women-of-color would just never do this, a blanket statement that many women of color in this very thread are countering, which is internalized benevolent sexism, the idea that they’re ‘too good’ or ‘too smart’ to fall outside your ideas of correctness and respectability. You’re deliberately stripping fellow women of color of autonomy and reinforcing men of color’s inaccurate interpretations of modesty and ~muslim-ness~ for them onto women of color, under the guise of laughing at a white woman.”

Men of color consistently sacrifice BIWoC when pretending to talk about about “white women” (or, in the case of aforementioned video, women they at least perceive as white). They criticize white women only when the “offending action” also applies to BLWoC, like praying in bikinis or …period art. Men of color seem to never critique white femininity when it’s baking cookies for the police; why would they, when it means they can’t take BIWoC down with white women?

Ever since black feminists coined the term “white feminism” for black communities, non-black people of color have opportunely been using it as a thinly veiled attempt to be misogynistic against women of color, and non-black women of color have been using it explicitly to undo the work of black women every time they mischaracterize it in order to silence theories of BIWoC.

We have no time for this particular brand of bullshit. Applying the theories that black women have constructed for black communities to non-black Muslim men who perpetuate an “ownership” of Islam at the exclusion of black people, is at its core astoundingly anti-black, and an appropriation of black feminism.

Non-Black Muslims Disguise “Divisive” as “Dichotomized”

Non-black Muslim women reproduce a sex/race opposition, one incompatible with the lived experiences of women of color, by mischaracterizing the work of women of color who center experiences of BIWoC rather than men of color as “white feminist”—the very term coined by black feminists to describe this exact dismissal of intersectionality in favor of dichotomized perspectives.

In her groundbreaking article, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, Kimberlé Crenshaw references the legislative history in a court case that failed to account for the experiences of black women as unique experiences in their own right, describing that the court had “apparently concluded that Congress either did not contemplate that Black women could be discriminated against as ‘Black women’ or did not intend to protect them when such discrimination occurred. The court’s refusal in DeGraffenreid to acknowledge that Black women encounter combined race and sex discrimination implies that the boundaries of sex and race discrimination doctrine are defined respectively by white women’s and Black men’s experiences. Under this view, Black women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those of either of the two groups.’”

Intersectionality is a theory of oppression. By refusing to acknowledge that non-black Muslim men are in fact not at the intersections of race and sex, non-black Muslim women deliberately choose to misunderstand intersectionality in its entirety. Treating black, indigenous, and/or Muslim women of color as white colonizers or associating them with whiteness implicitly enforces a separation between sex and race. This pattern of association is due to a misappropriation and blatant misunderstanding of intersectionality by non-black people of color to privilege the experiences of men as somehow qualified to discern the experiences of women of color, and at the cost of dismissing the intellectual work black women.

It is especially telling these these sentiments about white feminism arose in response to an article dealing specifically with Muslim men’s lack of knowledge in how to navigate the issue of sexual assault, and one that relied heavily on bell hooks. In the interests of protecting non-black men, the age-old patriarchal arguments that women of color are being divisive were dressed up to be disguised as the application of intersectionality against sex/race dichotomies in response.

Non-black Muslim women who practice anti-blackness rebrand “you’re being divisive” as “you are dichotomizing sex and race” to disguise misogyny as intersectionality. They celebrate the achievements of men of color while characterizing women of color who celebrate achievements of white women as celebrators of white supremacy.

The work of black women cannot be used to give passes to non-black men of color, particularly when this gross misapplication of intersectionality is to the detriment of black women and used instead to further the point that Muslim men of color should be exempt from criticism through a malicious misuse of black feminist theory.

Stop Misusing the Images and Voices of Black Women to the Benefit the Non-Black Muslim Community

Non-black Muslims consistently use black images, voices, and cultures in order to prop themselves up, sometimes under the façade of “allyship.” In an incredulous thread, Mona Haydar tweeted, “The flag of Muhammad, messenger and beloved of The Divine was Black. For the Muslims out there who are engaged in racism, colorism etc—know that YOUR rasūl loved blackness, honored and esteemed it in the faces of those who did not. Even those in his own family.”

It’s bad enough when non-black Muslims tokenize Bilal; concluding that the Prophet had love for black people due to the color of his flag is beyond dehumanizing. But it all falls into character of what non-black Muslims do. As @atribecalledmoe put it, “The only time Muslims know Bilal (RA) is when they need to deflect or derail a conversation directly addressing their country’s anti-blackness/racism. I’m sick of people using his name as a distraction.”

Between these disingenuous gestures to alluding to the black experience (“you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s tools”) in order liberate non-black Muslims, nothing is done about those actual experiences, from appropriation to slavery. Instead, all our non-black “religious leaders” care about is glorifying the Arab slave trade to differentiate it from chattel slavery. The reality of the Libyan slave market is why they’re self-absorbed, dangerous, and wrong.

“How can you talk about the Libyan slave trade without discussing western imperialism and the invasion of Libya?” non-black Muslims ask, holding black feminists hostage through a misappropriation of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work.

“Have you heard of intersectionality?” is a popular mantra for Desi and Arab women when they want you to go easy on non-black Muslim men—they do this as though bell hooks hadn’t dedicated entire books to critiquing the prioritization of oppressions that affect men—the very same men who are anti-black in turn. It is, subsequently, an anti-black mantra in this usage, hollow, entitled, and, in its essence, extremely performative.

The purpose of asking anyone if she has heard of intersectionality should be to curb her anti-blackness, not to use intersectionality as a prop to hold up non-black Muslim men and boast the speaker’s poor familiarity with black feminist theory. If you have to point a BIWoC in the direction of intersectionality when she is centering BIWoC, you don’t understand it.

In other words, leave the work of black women TO THE USE OF black women. Black women have worked hard. Non-black, anti-black Muslim communities cannot adopt the struggle of black women as a means to advance non-black, anti-black agendas.

Inas Hyatt is a femme anti-black-muslim activist. A bay native, she loves spending her time enjoying slam poetry and writing a little on the side. She is over anti-blackness in the muslim community and has no time for fake ass wanna be black muslim bros who feel comfortable using the n-word but have a deep fear and hate of black people.

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About Orbala

I want it to rain on my wedding day, pliss.
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