White privilege and the white convert

Sister Brooke has called for posts on the topic “White Privilege and the Ummah: what does it mean to you, them and us?” for a blog carnival. The subject of racial divisions within the Muslim community is something which will doubtless be familiar to other Muslim coverts, regardless of their race; most of us have found that these divisions mysteriously appear after conversion, often after we have been fed a line about how Islam offers freedom from such prejudices. I write from the perspective of a white, male convert to Islam, who grew up, converted and still lives in south London. (Also see this previous post; the posts from Ginny’s blog referenced there are now here and here.)

I first heard of the notion of “privilege” when I was at college, and even then it was not in the course I took on feminism, but from an online, American source: a discussion on one of the old Usenet forums about the Michigan Womyn’s (sic) Music Festival and their policy of not admitting transsexuals. The policy was, and remains, heavily controversial; it was suggested during that discussion that the event has had a practice of expelling suspected transexual women without cause or recourse … if they don’t like you all it takes is someone calling you TS and your out”. An example of the reasoning used to justify the policy (which was not offered as the management’s own reason) was that the transsexuals had experienced “male privilege” and were therefore socialised differently from other women.

This struck me as a rather silly, flimsy reason for excluding transsexuals from a music festival. There is the excessively deep significance being attached to an event which is surely attended by a lot of women for the same reason for which they might attend, say, Glastonbury, and the obvious and hilarious oxymoron “womyn born womyn”, which no contributor to that discussion remarked on. I am sure many readers will perfectly understand excluding transsexuals from an event aimed solely at their “target” gender, particularly when (as was mentioned) some attendees choose to strip off, but it would seem more logical to stick to that simple argument than to throw “male privilege” at a group which might not have benefited from that privilege much, particularly if they had given a “feminine” impression, by intention or otherwise, or been for some other reason at the bottom of a male pecking order. That’s not a privilege by anybody’s standards.

So, male privilege is complicated, and some men enjoy it to a greater extent than others. It also varies from community to community, even within one society. For example, whatever advantages usually come with being male could be drastically outweighed if you live in an area in which there are territorial gangs which threaten men when they walk out of their own neighbourhood into theirs. In London, there are young black men who say they cannot go from one neighbourhood to another — say, Walworth to Peckham — without fear of being attacked by the local youths (the same problem affects white youths in some urban areas of Scotland, and the territories involved are much smaller). This often means that they cannot easily find work, as it would mean taking the bus and travelling into someone else’s “patch”. Anyone not affected — older people, women, those of a different race — wouldn’t even notice the dividing lines, but it might be their Berlin Wall.

Probably the best-known short article on this topic is the essay by Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley college, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, published in 1988. You can read it as a PDF here and see the author explain it here (she doesn’t read the fifty examples of privilege; after the first minute and a half there’s just words on screen and music). They include such advantages most white people do not even think of, such as being able to criticise the government without being seen as a cultural outsider, or that she can “count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of [her] financial reliability”. A few of the observations, relating to being able to get “your own” food or music or hair styles, are also somewhat trivial and not “systemic”, but related to simple market forces: you won’t be able to buy “ethnic” food in a place where there is almost nobody of a given ethnicity, not because the staff are ignorant or prejudiced, but because there is no demand for it, and the same is true of hairdressing and music. The same would be true for white visitors from the Continent looking for black bread or German-language music (as for Black music in English, particularly American or American-influenced Black music, it is widely listened to by white youth and widely available).

Privilege is typically unconscious; McIntosh notes that both white people and men are taught not to recognise their privilege, such that it becomes “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”. Actually, male privilege — or the attitude of male privilege (and I get the impression from some American uses of the term that the attitude is what they mean by the term) — is rather less subtle, in my experience. I have come across males who display contempt for women fairly openly, and use the word ‘woman’ as an insult, as if maleness was its own reward (a brief look in the mirror should convince a lot of the males concerned otherwise, but sadly it’s not). But certainly, a lot of whites don’t really know of some of the difficulties non-whites, particularly black men, face in this country. I was personally unaware, for example, that my cousin’s boyfriend (who is black) had been stopped in the street by the police, demanding to know what he was doing in that area, where there were not many blacks. Some middle-class whites are content with this sort of thing going on, allowing themselves to be convinced that it is for general safety. (The same is often true of anti-terrorist stances which penalise whole ethnic minorities for the actions of a minority of extremists; I’m sure there is a whole thesis to be written on fear-based political stances on crime or terrorism aimed at the people least likely to be affected by either.)

Having said that the notion of privilege was not something I had heard of until I heard it from Americans, it has to be said that the English are privileged even by white standards. The British, particularly the English, have both an imperial history, with the result that our language is known the world over, and the benefit of never having our lands invaded or occupied, or having been subjected to an enforced mass migration. With the exception of Spain and Portugal, both of which were under dictatorship until the mid-1970s, no other country in Europe has both of these benefits. I have often had the notion to tell Muslims with offensive attitudes that this is my country, but many of them were in fact born here and do not have any other country themselves (and it would be a lot harder for me to survive as a Muslim without them being here). I also conveniently forget that part of my family is not, by heritage, British; had my mother’s parents moved here from Barbados, say, rather than Ireland, I would certainly not be able to rely on my skin colour to communicate that this was my country.

When it comes to the Muslim community in the UK, a few details might not go amiss for my American readers. Most of our Muslims come from South Asia, and their migrations started in the 1950s, along with the waves of Black immigration from the Caribbean. At that time, natives of the Empire were British citizens, and citizens of the newly independent countries in south Asia also had British citizenship, so there was no impediment to their immigration until a separate category of “overseas citizen” was introduced in the 1960s. Different Muslim populations in the UK come from different parts of South Asia: some from Gujarat, some from the Mirpur region of Kashmir, some from elsewhere in Pakistan, and some from Bangladesh. A second major group consists of Somalis; there are also Ugandan and other East African Asians, who fled in response to persecution and expropriation in the 1970s, and minorities of Arabs, Turks, Iranians and West Africans.

A significant difference with the US community is that British Muslims tend to be poorer than the Arab immigrants who dominate the American Muslim community, and to associate with the Labour party. the traditional left-wing party, rather than the Conservatives (this allegiance partly changed after 9/11, but only in terms of spreading to other centre-left parties such as the Liberal Democrats as the Labour government was tarnished by its association with the Bush wars); traditional Islam is much stronger, and political-Islamic movements are less strong in terms of adherents, although they are still strong in community representation. British Asian Muslims never had the illusion of being white, as was the case with the Arab immigrants in the USA before 9/11. In fact, there was a movement in the 1970s to call everyone who was not “white”, in the European sense, black. This persists in the race relations establishment, but most Asians identify as Asian.

Converts often have to either fit into one of these communities, as it is they (usually the Pakistanis, Gujaratis and Bangladeshis) who dominate the community at the local mosque. They can choose to either accept the norms of the local community, or be an outsider who prays and then goes home. There are organisations set up to help converts, such as the New Muslims’ Project, and a few communities (jama’ats) which mainly consist of converts: these include the Murabitun, a Sufi-inspired group, and the Salafiyya, who have various bases around the country including one in Brixton, south London, and at least one in Birmingham. They are particularly popular among black converts.

In terms of integrating into the Muslim community, converts all face a lot of the same problems. One is a less than welcoming attitude among the established Muslim community, which may consist of being “put on a pedestal” and introduced as the trophy convert, but finding it a bit difficult to penetrate much further, let alone marry one of one’s Asian friends’ daughters. There are various reasons for this: it is no secret that a lot of spouses are brought from “back home”, both husbands and wives, a great hope for many who still live out there; there is supposedly the fear of a cultural clash (I have heard this excuse twice from Bengali women who told me their families would not consider me as I was not Bengali); there are considerations of “what their friends might say”, of caste (this is a problem for existing Muslims from the “wrong” caste, of course) and, sometimes, of downright racism (this includes the presumption that a convert is not as pure as someone from a Muslim family. a highly offensive presumption). Converts are often told they should find a mate from among “their own”, i.e. a fellow convert, but all too often they want to marry into a Muslim family, so they can have the support of an extended family, particularly if their own family does not support them or has disowned them; a convert without this attitude may well run into one with it, and I have heard it said that many converted women want to marry Arabic-speaking men. Converts are also currently few enough that many of them can afford to have this attitude; if there were more of us, it would not be realistic for all of us to desire to marry born Muslims.

I’ve heard it said, by an African Muslim friend, that black converts do find it harder to find spouses, and to integrate into established Muslim communities, than whites, but that does not mean that whites do not face any difficulty, or be expected to do things which no other Muslim would do. Converts are expected to be good da’ees, or somehow better than most practising born Muslims, and on numerous occasions I have been told I should make other people Muslims, as if it was as easy as saying it (as if people make other people Muslims, indeed). Besides the expectation that I should “settle” for a convert rather than expect to marry an Arab or a Pakistani, I have had it suggested it to me by staff at an Arab-run local café that I should marry one of their Polish or Slovakian waitresses and “make her Muslim”! They would never suggest such a thing to a fellow Algerian. (An Egyptian I once knew — who used to run a rival restaurant to that one — did have a happy marriage to a Slovakian convert, but I’m sure he didn’t marry her over the counter before she converted.) Female converts sometimes report pressure to engage in polygynous marriages (and there is material out there written by convert women lecturing other women on how impious it is to resist polygamy), yet as sister Safiya points out, “there are many Muslim families who would throw a fit if this was even suggested to their daughter”. Some born Muslims also presume that we must be rich or powerful, assuming we can do favours for them, such as to help them immigrate (actually, most white people have never had to deal with the immigration system; you are better off asking the advice of any non-white British person).

Both black and white converts have the option of entering established communities of “their own kind”. However, these communities are usually heterodox and sectarian, holding Muslims outside their community in some contempt. The gatherings of normal Muslims in which English is spoken and attendees are of mixed backgrounds are few and held quietly, and word of them spreads by word of mouth. At least one has closed in recent years. The “sectarian option” does lend the convert the support of Muslims of their own kind who have made a similar journey to them, but it may also result in men (especially) with similarly troubled backgrounds being pushed together, and those problems eventually coming to the fore as has been seen in the American “salafi” communities recently. These communities are often unbalanced, often consisting entirely of middle-class people or entirely of people of disadvantaged backgrounds, when a community really needs all classes to thrive. It also cuts the convert off from other Muslims.

As for whether “white privilege” disappears when someone converts to Islam, I would say that for a male convert, it does not, at least, not immediately. In the eleven years I have been a Muslim, I would say that I have had negative experiences which I could possibly trace to prejudice against my religion which I could count on my fingers. It is altogether different for female converts who wear the hijab, they often face the presumption that they are foreigners, and outright hostility based on the presumption that they are “terrorists” (when, in fact, most terrorists are male) or “traitors”, and hostility from some white women who regard the hijab as some sort of instrument of oppression. Cases of men being refused jobs because they refused to shake hands with a female colleague or (potential) superior are well-known, and I have experienced this myself. Of course, some converts refuse to accept this opportunity to “pass” as it would involve what they regard as “imitating the kuffaar”. A convert who hides his religion may come unstuck if a religious issue presents itself as he goes, as he would then need to tell people, possibly total strangers, that he is a Muslim and therefore cannot shake the lady’s hand or must go to lunch at 1pm rather than an hour earlier so he can make the Friday prayer.

Of course, a male convert who had passed unnoticed as a single man, without making much adjustment to his appearance beyond growing a beard, may get a rude awakening when he marries and has children; he may be ill-equipped to deal with the fact that his children, if they are not white, don’t enjoy the privileges he did before he married. He will have to deal with the fact that people now know he is a Muslim when he walks with his wife and children, and there is the issue of where to live and where they can go as a family. Britain’s ethnic minorities are not at all well-represented in the British countryside or in most provincial towns, and many locals might never have seen a non-white person other than on TV, and certainly not in their area. When I wrote once on my blog about one of my trips to the countryside, a sister commented that the only countryside she would be visiting was that of Algeria, and this was a fellow convert.

Muslims generally want to live in an area where there are plenty of Muslims, which in London does not present much of a problem as there are several such areas, although there are also definite white-dominated, racist areas (a large chunk of the south-eastern suburbia away from the Thames is a good example). The first two examples of white privilege mentioned in the McIntosh paper (the second obviously being related to wealth as well as race) are:

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

These do not just apply to race, but to religion as well. The presence of so-called ghettoes are a much remarked on phenomenon and are generally considered a “bad thing”; in the case of Muslims, they are often perceived as alien entities full of turbans and burkas in which everybody hates the British. Melanie Phillips opens her infamous, moronic book Londonistan with the complaint that “the urban landscape is punctuated by women wearing not just the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, but burkas (sic) and niqabs … in conformity with strict Islamic codes of female modesty”. She goes on to speculate that all this might be “a political statement of antagonism towards the British state” rather than obedience to a commandment, before alleging that “as you travel across London you notice that district after district seems to have become a distinctive Muslim neighbourhood”, and that if you travel to the “rundown” towns of the north, “the concentration of mosques, Islamic bookshops and other Muslim-run stores, the Islamic dress on the streets, the voices talking not in English but in the dialects of the Indian subcontinent make you feel that you have stepped into a village in the Punjab that has somehow been transported into the gray, drizzly setting of an English mill town”. Melanie Phillips is Jewish, and Jews themselves do not spread themselves evenly across the country or even London, but mostly concentrate themselves in a few districts in north London (although she does not live in one of them herself).

It is important to note that most so-called ghettoes in the UK are nothing of the kind; even Brixton in fact has a white majority, and the same is true of most areas where there is a high proportion of non-white (including Muslim) settlement. Even on streets with a lot of Asian shops, for example, there may well be a white majority in the houses behind them. However, besides the obvious logcal benefits of a community with particular sartorial or dietary preferences or needs settling where there are shops catering to those needs, London has a racist history and there is safety in numbers, and minority populations who settle in a “ghetto” are only seeking to enjoy what the majority enjoy everywhere else: the company of people similar to themselves on a day-to-day basis, and the ability to dress the way they are used to dressing without it being unusual. The privileged majority does not even think about this benefit when they enjoy it, but they begrudge it to a minority, accusing them of “not mixing”, even though they themselves do not make much effort to mix (they might not mix much with any of their neighbours, in fact). Speaking as a white person living in a district with a high Korean population, the only occasions I have much contact with them is buying a can of Pepsi from the Seoul Plaza shop at the Fountain bus stop. Of course, “store-front” minority-towns — Bangla Town, China Town and so forth — are good for tourism, but the people in them are not so well appreciated.

When it comes to converts retaining a “privileged attitude” in relation to other Muslims, I do think that this is a significant problem, particularly for middle-class converts. I once coined a term “whititude” — the first I is short, as in which, but it is an amalgam of “white attitude” and describes the attitude that they have a certain enlightenment that is lacking in the established Muslim community. A particularly egregious version is what I call the “mark of Norwich”, Norwich being the former seat of the a particular “Sufi-based” political movement and, last I heard, where a lot of them still live, and it refers to the palpable contempt that some of these people, and even some former members of the movement, have for “ethnic” Muslims, an attitude which goes right to the top of the movement. Their gold dinar is what really matters; everything the other Muslims are concerned about, such as “halal biscuits”, beards and hijab, is just a trifling distraction. I once mentioned the idea of studying Islam at an Indian-run Darul Uloom in the UK with a middle-class white convert, headmaster of an Islamic school no less, and he told me in effect not to bother with such institutions, as they were attempts to re-create institutions from back home in the West. The attitude that the immigrant and immigrant-descended Muslim population is benighted and needs to be shown the light by western converts is the height of arrogance, particularly coming from people whose adherence to the Shari’ah and Sunnah is as lax as some of these people’s. I can understand western converts having some impatience with some of the attitudes they might find among that population and not wanting to exchange their culture wholesale, but it does not justify having a down-the-nose view of their whole culture. Admittedly, not all converts who display attitudes like this are white, but the attitude as displayed by this particular type of middle-class convert is unmistakeable. With others, it is often a reaction to bitter experiences with the established community.

In conclusion, a white person who converts to Islam in the UK right now (and no doubt elsewhere) is likely to have his or her first experiences of being part of a minority, and at that, a minority against which prejudice is considered in many quarters to be perfectly acceptable because of what some Muslims do in the name of religion. This does not mean that they entirely give up the advantages of being white (and middle-class, if indeed they are), but they do acquire additional problems the established, even if non-white, community has not had to deal with, such as having to adjust to the norms of an unfamiliar community, which may not trust and never really accept them, and in which a foreign language might be the language of instruction and even conversation, while also dealing with a family which does not share their new belief, or accept or understand it. It also may bring their first experience of attention from the security forces. How much of their former advantages they give up depends on how much they practise, what adjustment they make to their dress, if and whom they marry and which Muslims they choose to befriend. I am well aware of white, middle-class Muslims in southern England who have clearly given up as little of that privilege as they possibly can, but they are a very small minority. I would also add that the presence of Muslims who are “native” rather than obviously foreign in character may help to lessen the foreign perception of Islam per se; it is my thesis that, only when Islam acquires a presence in rural Britain and among the indigenous population rather than just being an urban minority phenomenon, will we be able to say that Islam has really “arrived”, but that is a topic for another day, insha Allah.

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