Thinking about Race & Class

When people see me, they think I am black although I’m actually brown but brown enough to be considered black. That’s ok with me as Steve Biko said, “Black is beautiful”.

When people hear my voice and my accent and read some of my writing, they think I am white although there was a time when I was very young that I had a Nigerian accent despite being born and raised in the suburbs of New York. I can speak in and understand slang, ebonics, and pidgin with a good measure of credibility but that isn’t my natural speech pattern. I understand my parents when they speak to me in Ibo yet I respond in English.

When people see my name they think I am either African or Japanese.

Most people are not actually interested in the fact that I am from the Empire State of New York but rather want to know that my parents are from Nigeria.

When I say I grew up in New York, most people think I am talking about New York City and when I say I’m from upstate very few are thinking about the greater Rochester area.

I get offended when people especially other black people (usually immigrants) speak negatively about blackAmericans (meaning more or less indigenous, descendants of slaves, etc.)

I also get offended when blackAmericans speak negatively about immigrants black or otherwise, and criticize those that value education as “acting white”.

I grew up in the suburbs, a college town, it was mostly white with a healthy sprinkling of immigrants, and very few blacks. Kids from “the city” were bussed into my school district in middle school and high school.

I moved in many different groups, I could hang with the black kids, I could hang with the white liberals, I could hang with the white wannabe black kids, I could hang with the goths, I could hang with the preppie athlete-type, I could hang with the orchestra kids, I could hang with the newbies, immigrants or just kids no one liked, although I could never quite stand the religious kids nor the black or Asian kids that thought they were honorary whites (I mean have some self-respect). I’m introverted so I could feel the pain of the loner kids but it’s not much fun hanging out with a bunch of people that are too shy to talk.

At lunch, I usually sat with the black kids at the black tables or with the white liberals, later on I mainly hung with my crew which was mostly intellectually humanist and hedonist and connoisseurs of all things counterculture.

I once worked with people mainly from Baltimore and even though most of us were black and got along quite well there was an ummistakeable gap in our culture and experiences not least of which was because I’m Muslim.

Everytime I get judged at first sight by the color of my skin, when someone uses racial slurs, we get followed around by security, stopped by the police, and so on I’m black although occasionally it’s black and Muslim. I’m black and I don’t feel any need to prove my blackness to anyone.

My parents are immigrants, my mother became a naturalized American citizen, my father has declined to do so, and I don’t feel any need to prove my Ibo-ness or American-ness to anyone. I’m from upstate New York, which some people do not consider to be the real New York but for me the mountains, lakes, canals, farmlands, Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, the Lilac Festival, snow six months out of the year, and colleges everywhere is my homestate.

I like my voice and I like my writing (not all of it but at least some of it) and if it makes me sound like a stereotypical white liberal or the privileged child of highly educated, hard working, and upwardly mobile immigrants so be it.

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

30 thoughts on “Thinking about Race & Class”

  1. I just got off the phone an hour or so ago with a woman at a facility that I hope to do my internship inshaAllah, and she asked me to spell my name out and I did and she goes…well that’s an unusual name! I couldn’t help but giggle, because I assumed she thought I was a white person until I gave her my name…now I’m wondering what she will say when she sees me tomorrow, InshaAllah i’ll try to wear some color. lol

    But yea, a lot of people do assume that i’m a white person on the phone. Or when some people see me, they think that I don’t speak english or am a ‘fresh’ immigrant. It doesn’t bother me, I actually like to see their reaction after I meet them or speak to them. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Alhamdulillah.

  2. Asalamu aleikum wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu,

    Mashallah ,Oh I can’t speak Yourba but I can understand it and I do the same thing I respond in english well I don’t have a choice really.
    In the course of reading ur blog I always took you for a white american revert but then I found out you were a nigerian and I was like hmm maybe that’s why I just couldn’t get enough of Muslim Apple the blog.
    This post reminds me a lot about myself except am more arabized than westernized I live in the suburbs of kuwait so niqabies,sheeps and tents(mostly during the camping season autummn/spring ) outside is quite a familiar scene

    I’ll admit am more proud of being different than just being Nigerian.Down here everyone wants a piece of us how do u do ur hair .what’s that that ur cooking .hmm I like ur outfit what’s that thing on ur head called ……and it goes on from there.But the funny thing is that if a nigerian from back home drops by for a visit he’ll mistaken us for an arab.Plus I noticed one thing Nigerians always look 20times younger ,every arab lady my mum has meet always tend to think that my mum is around her early 30ties and she’s turning 50 this year.Mashallah It’s good to be Nigerian isn’t it.

    Wa aleikum asalam wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu

  3. I love this post. You have to love and accept who you no matter what box people want to put you in.

    BTW, I love Rochester, my favorite part was all the festivals there. Well I liked it in the summer, never spent winters there, I don’t think I could have handled it ๐Ÿ™‚ But it seems like a great place to raise a family.

  4. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Amatullah:
    It’s amazing to me the number of people that think I cannot speak English or are surprised that I read books and know a bit of history.

    Orange Juice:
    I agree the genes are good when it comes to aging, not so great when it comes to lactose intolerance. My father’s mother died around age 92 or so and she looked good, like she was about 50 or so.

    Um Abdullah:
    I agree we have to love ourselves and have some self-respect even if we don’t fit into the preconceived boxes of what others think we should be.

    The spring and summers are nice in upstate, the winters, blizzards, ice storms, etc. have left me completely jaded when it comes to snow. But I still get a kick out of watching my relatives fresh from Nigeria encounter snow for the first time, they play and revel in it just like little kids.

  5. It is new to me, all this race stuff, because of course being white, i didn’t experience racism until i became muslim. So I’m not aware of many of the stereotypes you have in America based on colour. Australians are racist, indiginous Australians are treated appallingly and there is extreme segregation (hidden of course). I have never known an Aboriginal person personally, i find that very sad. But I grew up in Tasmania and the English killed virtually the entire indiginous population.

  6. Why do people automatically say you sound white just because your educated? I have never understood this. Education has nothing to do with being white. Ever been to a trailer park where the majority of people there are white? or the projects where there are both whites and blacks? not all white people are educated.

    we are grown ups and we need to start acting like it. we can’t change the world and how corrupt it is. though we can change ourselves though and the way we think and the way our families think or try to anyway. unfortunately shaytaan is real and this is the state of muslims and its quite sad really. may allah give us tawfeeq.ameen.

  7. Salaam,

    Veyr interesting post.

    My heritage is Pakistani though most people take me for Indian – which is close enough.

    But as soon as I open my mouth to speak I get the “You’re so articulate – where did you learn to speak English?”

    I was born & brought up in the US in a wealthy, educated family so when I hear that (and I even get that from Muslims occasionally) it can be frustrating.

    But you just have to shrug it off & own who you are.

    Warmly,
    Baraka

  8. Baraka — I’ll offer you something from a way-old Doonesburg strip. He’s tutoring a black kid, and comments on the kid’s speaking style. The kid then speaks at length, and quite articulately, about how the speech pattern of the American black person frequently mirrors the language of indigenous Africans, and rather than being slurred or lazy is in fact a manifestation of…and so on. At the end, Doonesburg, stunned, says, weakly “Really?” And the kid shrugs. “Sho’ nuff.”

    You could always try that. The look on their face might be worth it.

  9. Asalamu alaykum,

    Jamila: You remind me in a good way of a white sister I know that was completely shocked when she encountered racism due to her being a recognizable hijabi Muslim for the first time.

    The aboriginal experience is something akin to the devastation visited upon Native or as I prefer to call them indigenous Americans by the white settler Americans that now think they are the real Americans when in fact they are the descendants of Europeans in diaspora. The Dutch Afrikaners referring to themselves as the “white tribe of Africa” is hilarious.

  10. Asalamu alaykum,

    Umm Luqman: Ameen. I think the reasons people say I sound white vary from person to person. When I was a kid and had my Ibo accent, I couldn’t pronounce my ‘th’ or ‘r’ or ‘l’ properly (meaning the American English way)so at my school I had special remedial speech therapy in kindergarten and first grade.

    Bill: I know you like calling me a bigot. When I was in my anti-religion days I used to love calling all religions a cult and religious people members of a cult. It never went over very well even though it fits the dictionary definition.

    Shaz: You’re from the islands, right? So how is your accent? Do you say the Canadian ‘house’?

    Baraka: That “you’re so articulate” one kills me but I’ve learned to just let it go for the most part. By the way, I love the way you sign off on your comments with the word “warmly” I wanted to copy that from you in my emails, hope you don’t mind.

    By the way, I like all of my commenters, well most of them anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Umm Luqman, I don’t think people say a person sounds white because they are educated. I think the environment you were raised in has more of an effect on how you sound than education does. Most educated black people still sound black. Does that mean ignorant, of course not! I’m educated, my sister is highly educated, Oprah and others are too and though we speak proper (well maybe not me) our diction is clearly black. I have a friend who was raised in the suburbs, she isn’t the brightest girl, but she sounds white. I had another friend who was a real dingbat, went through a permanent valley girl stage, she sounds white but is a high school dropout and was raised in my neighborhood but liked to hang out on the Northside of Chicago and practiced really hard to sound white (not intelligent just white).

  12. As salaam alaikum,

    Muslim Apple your experience is like mine in many ways. I have a number of experiences; cultural, racial, ethnic and otherwise. When I was in high school I also associated with everyone. (Still do). I think it’s a good characteristic to have since we’ll be comfortable moving in many different circles.

  13. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Umm Adam: I agree that the environment you are raised in has a big influence on your speech pattern and some people do indeed fake it. I know a girl that when she is with her friends she sounds “black” but at home sounds “white”. By the way, Umm Adam I’ve been enjoying your blog as of late so you’ve been added to my Edumacation list.

    Jamerican Muslimah: I love being able to not fear and get along with almost everyone because you are able to gather a wide range of perspectives and it decreases your stereotypes about everyone else.

  14. as-Salaamu `alaykum…

    Sorry for my rant but I just wanted to share some thoughts.

    When I tell muslims my name (muslim name) they think I am immediately arab because I cover fully. Pakistani women tend to look down upon me asap because we know how some pakis are just darn racist towards arabs and vice versa. When I tell kuffar my name via the phone and I have to meet with them like for a doctor appointment or something… they freak out that I am covered because well my name on paper is soo ‘normal’.

    Anyways, when they see me covered fully, they assume I am from saudi lol. When they hear me talk they think I am white mixed with arab or persian. Then I tell them, well you know I was actually born in mexico and my entire family is from Mexico and they freak out. I also get a lot of comments from Mexicans because we like to go to restaurants or mexican supermarkets and when I turn around and ask them if they have a problem in spanish, without sounding ghetto, they apologize and immediately put their heads down in shame. (Well, I guess speaking shocked them, and understanding them shocked them and then speaking their language shocked them!)

    I remember back in the day before accepting Islaam, even though I was honestly ‘more’ mexican because I was actually born in Mexico then the majority of my friends, they treated me differently. I didn’t look mexican because somewhere in our past generations we have some Spanish in us and I guess I took on that side more. It was weird because it was easier to befriend the white girls and black girls over the hispanic ones.

  15. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Umm Layth, I tried to comment on your blog but it forces to create a MuslimPad account.

    I once knew an older Arab couple that quite casually mentioned to me that when they first came to the US, they were afraid of all black people and proceeded to describe our distinctive features as something to be scared of. And they were like, “but alhamdulillah, we’re not like that anymore.” But I’m sure if one of their children wanted to marry a black person it would be a problem.

    Over here, there are a lot of Latinos and so I make a point to practice my Spanish with them in order to retain my fluency because I don’t get to speak it as much anymore and that seems to be a good way to get past the stereotypes.

    When my parents friends or older relatives come over they think because I was born in NY that I don’t understand Ibo so they often proceed to talk about me in my presence in Ibo and when I answer them, there is always the look of shock and surprised embarrassment on their faces.

  16. All of this discussion reminds me of an incident in high school where I was sitting a table in the lunch room and one of these white liberal kids was talking about an incident he had with a black person and he called that other person the n word.

    And so I spoke up and said, “Just who are talking to and calling the n word.”

    And he looked up sheepishly and said, “Oh I wasn’t talking about you.”

    Muslim Apple: Then who were you talking to?

  17. Great post. I find people judge by voice and need some kind of explanation when they hear a black person speak “white”. Whatever that means. I get judged by my appearance because of my clothes. I wear jilbab and Khimar. (big loose dress and long wide scarf) Here in Egypt people would never guess I was born and raised in the US. In fact I have been told I look “low class” Egyptain. Isn’t that nice? In the US I get the same thing. People would speak loud and slow thinking I don’t speak English, they’d be just gobsmacked when I’d reply.

  18. wa `alaykum as-Salaam

    I’ve gotten a few people who say they don’t want to register to muslimpad and want to comment so I just removed the option. I don’t know if it will do it or not.

    You are right about the stereotypes. I try breaking it as well by speaking spanish whenever possible. The other night actually, we went out to eat with my husband’s mother and his grandfather (they aren’t muslim, may allaah guide them, aameen). They live in a town that is like white and racist, very small and all, down south. We went to a mexican restaurant (mexicans are taking over lol) and I always obviously get stares and people prob think that I am probably some crazy arab. They get confused when they see me with my husband’s family because they look like your common american folk and here is a niqaabi next to them.

    Well, since my mother in laws husband passed away, she has been coming there a lot more. Usually, I make it my habit to order in spanish because it opens the doors to da`wah. The lady who works there came up to me the other day to ask me to translate to my mother in law since she realized I was spanish speaking, and told her our meal was free that day because of what happened to her husband.

    A very nice gesture and it makes me happier that even though I know that people will freak out when I speak spanish, I know it will open the doors to da`wah and feeling comfortable with muslims, insha’Allaah.

  19. Asalaamu alaikum ukhti.

    I think this would be a cool addition to the Erase Racism Blog Carnival whose current issue is to be hosted at my blog (WriteousSisterSpeaks) this month. If you are okay with me using it, drop me an email with the link, inshaAllah. I don’t want to use it without your permission.

  20. Assalamu Alaikum
    First time visiting your blog. MashaAllah, very nice.

    I am white–born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I did not grow up on a farm. I did not rally ’round with the KKK. On the contrary, my father used to sneak his black friends and co-workers onto the all-white campus of Birmingham-Southern College, and attended many a Black Power rally at Miles College. We were always taught that all colors are beautiful, and it was always sort of shameful for me personally to be from one of the most infamously prejudiced cities in the world.

    It is so mind boggling to me how many stereotypes we have about, well, just everyone.

    Anyone who meets me would never guess I’m from the Deep South.

    I think your post really belongs on the Erase Racism Blog Carnival! Keep up the great writing.

  21. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Apologies ladies, I’ve been away from my blog for awhile.

    Mona: When I go out with some of my relatives, I can tell they are embarrassed to be seen with a hijabi, the tighter the clothes the better for some of them.

    Often people judge me and their face darkens when I approach them but when I begin to speak then you can see the confusion on their face.

  22. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Umm Layth:

    Alhamdulillah, I used to require people to have a wordpress account in order to comment but I also removed that option because it kept from commenting.

    I also find speaking in the language or about the issues of concern for a person that may be hostile or have some stereotypes is a great way to open a dialogue for dawah to Muslims and non-Muslims.

    I’ve learned some words of urdu because you can see an aunty’s face light up when I speak it or ask her about her hometown in Pakistan or my favorite traditional foods from that area.

  23. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Ladies, welcome to Muslim Apple.

    Aaminah:
    I didn’t even know there was an Erase Racism Carnival, no doubt in sha Allah I’m in and thanks for letting me know about it.

    Umm Farouq: My dad spent some time at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in the 60’s and his experiences there are fascinating. There are so many stereotypes about people from the south but for every stereotype there large groups of people that don’t match that image.

  24. Salam aleikum,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and i had no idea you were Nigerian! As for my experience with race, no one has been out and out racist to me. I’m born and bred in Nigeria, now i’m in the UK. Everyone i talk to says that i don’t sound Nigerian but i have a unique accent. i take that as a compliment. ๐Ÿ˜€ As for my name everyone has issues with it. One day a Muslim sister told me my name was weird.

  25. Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I was born here. When I see the surprised looks on their faces, I almost feel obligated to tell them my parents are from Libya.

    I also find it insulting because I don’t have an accent. My skin is just a little bit darker and I wear the scarf on my head. That’s about all that is “foreign” about me.

    And my name. My name is pretty foreign. And I really hate it when others feel they have to say my name is pretty, when it’s obvious by the way they scrunch their faces they have no idea where it came from or what it means. How can you think a name is pretty when you don’t even know it means?

    Great post, by the way!

    Tasbeeh

  26. what a beautiful and straight forward self-reflection. people always wanna put us in tight little boxes, yet there are so many of us who just don’t fit, and that makes people angry/uncomfortable. too bad for them. we r beautiful.

    u r a good writer mashallah.

    salaamz and peace

    fatima

  27. Asalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah,

    Rafeeat: Alhamdulillah, you didn’t check out my About page or not since I’ve editted it to include my heritage. People are always telling me my name sounds weird, too.

    Tasbeeh: I don’t mind when people say my name is different or pretty but I hear you on the other two issues. I don’t quite understand why people assume that because I’m wearing hijab that automatically makes me seem like a foreigner that does not speak English.

    Malai: You are very kind, may Allah protect you and we are beautiful, alhamdulillah. I love the differences between people and the quote by Maya Angelou that “we are more alike than unlike”.

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