The Unspeakable R-word

As I tried to brainstorm ideas of what my next blog post would be about, I kept coming back to a book I’ve just finished reading: “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I cannot stress the importance of this book enough. I don’t know why I decided to download the audiobook via my library’s Kindle-esque app, but let me tell you, WOW!

This is a raw, heartfelt, and extremely honest open letter written by Coates to his son explaining the African American experience dealing with the tumultuous racial injustices and social chaos in American society.

Coates captured and exposed what I believe many people are too afraid to write about. His personal narrative is painful and poetic and gives perspective to what it’s like living in fear and being disenfranchised. He poses the question: “How do I live free in this Black body?” And analyzes the historical and cultural context of being Black in America.

But this is not an issue endemic to American society. I saw the stigma attached to skin color living in North Carolina and in Egypt, where bleaching skin whitening beauty regimens are the norm. Even here, half a world away on this tiny island country, my host sisters and host family members constantly note that my “Palagi” (White) skin is better than their dark skin. Or that my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (who are Persons of Color) can’t really be Americans because they’re not White. Or how darker skinned Melanesians—here as result of Blackbirding generations ago—are treated as inferior because of their darker complexions.

So, what do I do? What CAN I do? While this is not an exhaustive list, I feel it’s a start:

  • I reassure my sisters that they are beautiful AND smart and that their worth—to me, at least—isn’t based on something as superficial and out of our control as skin tone.
  • I explain to as many people as I can that Americans are diverse. There is no one way Americans look. While we (Peace Corps Volunteers) each come from various backgrounds, we are all in Sāmoa because we are united in our shared sense of service and the fact that we are ALL Americans.
  • I stress that I am just as diverse as others, albeit not quite as obvious. I am an Arab-American. My skin may be white (with a lowercase “w”), but I do not identify as White (with a capital “W”). I’m the first generation of my family to be born in America. My mom comes from Egypt and my dad from Syria—and like I mentioned before, both places many people in Sāmoa have only read about in their Bibles. I am Muslim. In a time where being a Muslim means marginalization and disembodiment, I take pride in being hyphenated and of my roots and my religion and I will constantly try to counteract what the media portrays “Islam” to be.
  • I acknowledge variances in color and ethnicity. Claiming “color blindness” silences voices, disregards culture, diminishes value of our uniqueness and history, and makes whiteness the default status quo. It is because of that, I strive to learn more about Sāmoan history, speak to locals about their families and backgrounds, as well as other Volunteer’s experiences. I do not judge, nor generalize. I simply listen to what they are willing to share and aim to create a dialogue without blame or bias and strive to be present — in complete sense of the word.

“Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Coates wrote the letter to his teenage son after struggling to help his son deal with Micheal Brown’s killer not being indicted. This was especially poignant because as I was reading the book, I simultaneously was hearing about the shooting of Stephon Clark—a Black Muslim— in Sacramento, CA.

Stephon’s body was so badly mutilated that his community was unable to perform the Islamic cleansing ritual prior to burial. Let that sink in. He was shot so many times that his “body was ripped to pieces” and it was hard to wash him.

I can’t help but agree with Imam Omar Suleiman when he writes that “as a nation, we are guilty of indifference. Our entire nation is entirely guilty. Our American political, economic and social atmosphere is entirely guilty. The system is guilty of atrocity, but the country is guilty of apathy. The problem isn’t that so many people are hurt and angry, the problem is that more aren’t.”

This is the intersection of violence where Black Muslims find themselves: if they are not going to be killed by anti-Muslim hatred, they will undoubtedly be targeted by the color of their skin, as they have been for generations.

I pray for Stephon as I prayed for Trayvon, Michael, Alton, Philando and for all those killed by unnecessary gun violence or as victims of hatred and malice all over the world. And Coates wrote in the book, “when the young are killed, they are haloed by all that was possible, all that was plundered.”

I encourage you all to take time to reflect, discuss, question, synthesize, create, analyze, basically anything besides passively accepting whiteness as the default. This will help us become more “conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world.”

إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return.

On another note, it’s been one year to the day of when I received my Invitation to Serve in Sāmoa. It’s crazy to think that I’m actually here and how much I’ve grown in the past year. I’m happy to share my 1 Second Everyday for the month of March. It’s a quick way to recap my adventures here and I’ve been documenting everyday since my arrival in Sāmoa so I can’t wait to see my entire video once I complete my service. I hope to share more of my monthly videos in future blog posts. I’m VERY excited for what’s to come in April!

Also, I’ve been curating and sharing various “Sāmoan Smiles” images I capture during my time here (Very much inspired by the Humans of New York concept). I share them primarily on my Instagram, so make sure you follow along! (@Leenzy) Here’s my most recent snapshot:

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