August 2021

Using Double Consciousness to Make Space for Muslim America

When a dream for democracy can open its eyes to the nightmarish realities of a demonized people, there may be a fighting chance for justice.

by Dr. Noor Ali

Students in a private Muslim American school gather in the prayer room to watch the live streamed funeral service for Muhammad Ali. Proud that they carry the legacy of the champ as they uphold their faith, these students stand a little taller at Jesse Jackson’s (2016) words honoring not only the boxing legend, but the courage it takes to stand up for justice and embrace one’s identity. A few days later, the students follow the news of the Orlando shooting with apprehension that the attacker might be Muslim, and they would once again have to hang their heads in shame.

Criminalized for the crimes of others, Muslim youth face microaggressions, discrimination and hostility in a society where they are consistently judged for not being American enough due to their religious affiliation. Furthermore, Muslim youth shoulder the burden of guilt by association when any act of terror is perpetrated where the criminal was found to be connected to Islam. Regardless of differences in their language, culture, ethnic origin, etc., Muslim American youth are bracketed as “designated Others” due to their religious identity and made “targets of reflexive hatred” by the white mainstream (Suarez-Orzoco in Sirin & Fine, 2008, p. xiii). In the post 9/11 context, the “two cultural identities, “Muslim” and “American” were reinvented,” and this reinvention was situated in a narrative of demonizing Otherness (Sirin & Fine, 2008, p.11). In the light of the attacks on the twin towers, the possible multiplicity of identities of Muslim Americans was not only questioned, but also sabotaged as they were vilified for their religious association. Additionally, the last four years have witnessed a 78% increase in Islamophobic attacks on Muslim Americans due to the climate of bigotry hurled by an irresponsible presidential leadership (Lichtblau, 2016). Each time there is a mass shooting or terrorist attack, the immediate concern of the Muslim American is not where and how it occurred, but an internal plea that it’s not a Muslim who committed it, as that renders itself in a blanket demonization of everyone with that religious affiliation.

Muslim American youth face a dilemma of twoness similar to that which Du Bois (1903) explicated more than a hundred years ago in his discourse on race and national identity, where being Black and being American were antithetical to each other and extorted an unremitting effort of the marginalized demographic to constantly prove how these two aspects of one’s identity could exist in one individual. Being a young Muslim American demands forging “collective identities that honor both their parents’ culture of origin as well as their home” here in America, all the while walking a “tightrope of scrutiny” of their own community and the larger mainstream (Suarez-Orozco in Sirin & Fine, 2008, p. xiii). The Muslim American experience similarly evokes practicing a hyphenated identity that questions the validity of nationality because of the religious guilt by association assigned to it (McCloud, 2010). How one can be truly American if they are Muslim is a question that faces this demographic because of the presumed exclusivity of these two titles.

Muslim woman in a scarf holding American flag during fireworks at night. Image via the Pew Research Center.

More than a century ago Du Bois wished “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” for he had no desire to “Africanize America,” nor “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (1903, pp. 1-4). Muslim American youth stand at similar crossroads, however the experience of this population remains largely unexplored within academia, and unaddressed in a non multi-racial democracy. In my narrative inquiry conducted with fifteen female, Muslim American participants between the ages of 18 and 24, I found that each one of them stood at the thresholds of identity and identifiability. Their identity as Muslim was not merely an internal choice of faith. For those who passed off as white, and did not wear the headscarf, and had a name that was not outrightly Muslim-seeming, did not experience faith-based bigotry and discrimination. But, for all those young female Muslim Americans who were identifiable as Muslim because of the headscarf, or their choice to fast or pray in public, or uphold other tenets of faith publicly, navigating their identity was an externalized effort. This translated itself as always being aware of the awkward space one occupied in predominantly white spaces. It meant assumptions of ethnicity, accents, and male oppression. It meant a terroristic demonization for belonging to Islam. Each of these participants did not require a moment to think when asked the question if they were considered American enough. The answer was always a categorical “no.” 

Herein is where the crisis lies: Muslim Americans sit on the unpopular edge of marginalization. Theirs is not a marginalization alone, but a vilification, a subduing entrenched in invalidation at the hands of silencing and ignoring their narrative which renders them undeserving of democracy.

“Double Consciousness” and Oppression of Muslim Americans

In coining the term “double consciousness,” Du Bois (1903) offered critical race theorists a platform to situate the discussion about the identity of marginalized people. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness can be understood as one in which the individual “dwelt equally in the mind and heart of his oppressor as in his own beset psyche” (Lewis as cited by Dixson, Anderson, and Donnor, 2017, p. 14). Being a marginalized individual necessitates a daily process of seeing oneself through one’s own eyes as well as through those of the oppressor, and often enough, standing at the crossroads of this very dichotomy. Marc E. Black (2012) in his work Meanings and Typologies of Duboisian Double Consciousness within 20th Century United States Racial Dynamics expounds on a representation of double consciousness “when being an ‘American’ means Black Americans have to be integrated, assimilated or marginalized for subordination and invisibility instead of their being included as full citizens on their own equally negotiated terms” (p. 6). The predicament that emerges is the contradiction in how one may perceive one’s own self personally and publicly due to the superimpositions tacked on by the mainstream white ideology (Black, 2012).

Similar to African Americans, other people who sit outside of the norm of the mainstream United States culture, face a struggle of justifying the harmlessness or legitimacy of their identity to the mainstream. Whether Muslim American youth were born before or after 9/11, they are demonized by virtue of holding a Muslim name, their parents’ country of origin, or their choice of clothing (Sirin & Fine, 2008). Meira Levinson in Racial Politics and Double Consciousness: Education for Liberation in an Inescapably Diverse Polity (2011) urges us to contemplate “double consciousness” not as an ailment, but as a standpoint that allows us to see the multiplicity that exists in identities that are not monolithic, rather boldly intersectional and multi-faceted, where it is possible to be Muslim American unapologetically. Mainstream whiteness is unnerved by the possibility of the unapologetic, because it signifies a comfort, a normalizing, an un-othering.

Racism and Religious Oppression

The National Research Council (2006) states that racial discrimination also includes “differential effect or treatment on the basis of factors other than race.” This “broadens its scope to include decisions and processes that may not themselves be racially motivated, but have the ultimate consequence of systematically disadvantaging minority groups” (Pager, 2006, p.2). Therefore, multiple types of oppression may be recognized through the use of racism as a framework, as it pivots on the presence of discrimination which is shared in such experiences.

Religious bigotry, like racism, promulgates supremacist tendencies seeking to dominate all others that may signify fear or threat for the mainstream due to their difference as “Others.” According to the American Law scholar, Jesse H. Choper (1994), just as “race may seem to be a more immutable condition than religion, and religious belief systems may appear to have a more interwoven effect than race on the conduct of people’s lives, both traits have been the object of public (and private) stereotyping, stigma, subordination and persecution in strikingly similar ways” (p. 492). While one’s race may lie on a color binary and therefore evoke stereotypical prejudice, religious identifying markers also are regarded with similar discriminatory reactions. Comparing prejudice based on religion and race, Choper states concisely, “intentionally disadvantaging individuals because of their religion is the constitutional and moral equivalent of invidiously discriminating against people because of their race” (p. 501).

Muslim Americans carrying American flags during a march. Image via CNN.

Muslim Americans are a diverse group that represent several genders, races, languages, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities. Despite these variations, due to discrimination based on their religion, they share a common experience of oppression (Tindongan, 2011). Simpson and Yinger (1985) in their assessment of injustice towards racial and cultural minorities shed light on the commonalities of different minorities’ experience in their contact with the mainstream. They maintain that minorities share these experiences because they are a non-dominant group that holds on to identifiable cultural traits and practices, which are held in low esteem by the mainstream. Similarly, Muslim Americans share the lived experience of oppression with other oppressed groups in the United States. As George Eaton Simpson and J. Milton Yinger (1985) suggest, “relations among [different] races have a great deal in common with relations among groups that think of themselves as different on other grounds-culture, nationality, religion” (p. 24). The markers and implications of prejudice remain similar whether the target is racially or religiously centered. Prejudice seeks to generalize a group, to create a pathway to stereotyping and misjudging broadly (Choper, 1994).

Whiteness

Marginalization finds its roots in the belief of white supremacy, which results in both an ‘othering’ and a shunning of the other as inferior (Leonardo, 2002). In their article on whiteness, Clarke and Watson (2014) describe it as “an invisible and oppressive center: a social norm that is parasitically attached to layers of hidden privileges” (p. 70). While Kress (2009) labels whiteness as a “society shaping force” (p. 70), Leonardo (2002) emphasizes that whiteness is a “social concept” and a “racial category” that has historically been violently oppressive and sought to discriminate, enslave, marginalize, and segregate Others to maintain its own supremacy (p. 32). Additionally, Zeus Leonardo (2002) mentions the common refrain of whiteness to the marginalized when racism is discussed is to tell them to go back where they came from. This refrain is not one used against black folks alone, but also used against Latinos and Muslims today, just as it was used against the Irish and the Japanese. Research for the Muslim demographic in this area is lacking (Abdullah, 2013; Jilani, 2016) and this study through its application of CRT exposes the impact of supremacy on the demonized.

Whiteness makes everything blatantly visible except itself, according to Leonardo (2002), and this holds true for the Muslim women who might consider taking the headscarf off so they would lose the visibility that the whiteness perspective offers them (Fatima, 2011). This perspective is written by whiteness itself and boldly interprets the headscarf as it deems fit, as a symbol of oppression, related to terrorist households, and the like (Housee, 2012). Whiteness thus claims to comprehend people better than they understand themselves, offering a decoding of their worldview and creating a narrative for them, but without them and despite them (Leonardo, 2002). Writer (2008) reminds us that CRT contests the notion that racism is not isolated discriminatory incidents, “but rather historical, systemic, and ideological manifestations of power to serve, maintain and protect white privilege” (p. 2).

In trying to address these injustices, whiteness tends to suggest that the problem does not even exist, or is only marginally present and that non-whites are fussing over nothing (Sue, 2010; Leonardo, 2002; Crenshaw, 1991). Also, whiteness offers to comprehend the experiences of non-whites without offering a space and voice to the oppressed, hence sabotaging their narrative with its own interpretation (Leonardo, 2002).

Enter MusCrit

CRT’s subsets have evolved to make designated spaces for the discussion of the oppression of various groups i.e. DisCrit, LatCrit, AsianCrit, QueerCrit, FemCrit, and TribalCrit. The commonality lies in oppression, and the differences lie not in race alone, but in anything that marginalizes. I have coined MusCrit to claim a space within academia where the lived realities of Muslim Americans can be discussed. In the absence of this micro-theoretical framework, even educational scholarship will continue to demonize, vilify, marginalize, oppress, invalidate, and ignore the realities of this demographic and categorize them as undeserving of democracy by mainstream (whiteness) standards. The tenets of MusCrit include:

  1. The systemic nature of oppression against Muslims is centered around a white, historical, prejudiced, monolithic representation of this population. This is Christian-centric and portrays Muslims as barbaric, oppressive, authoritarian.
  2. Identifiability plays a critical role in how Muslims are treated. Being identifiable as Muslim because of the headscarf, Arabic name, or beard can determine how one will be treated therefore the question of concealing or revealing (celebrating, or just being) identity is always present.
  3. Gender plays a key role in situating oppressive stereotypes on a spectrum. Muslim men will always be seen as irrational and oppressive, and Muslim women will always be portrayed as oppressed and needing white savior-endorsed liberation.
  4. Counter-narratives hold a deep significance for a sharing of the Muslim experience. The narratives of Muslims are hijacked by the mainstream and present skewed portrayals.
  5. Whiteness is property and coveted as the norm. Muslims are perceived as lacking cultural capital who must white-washed to become acceptable. In their own communities Muslims often come from countries with a colonized past, an enslaved present, and a traumatized future.
  6. Essentiality of allies in voicing the prejudice against Muslims is what allows for validation. Discourse on discrimination against Muslims is amplified when other marginalized groups and whites take part in bringing this to attention.

A multi-racial democracy is only possible when it begins from a place of acknowledgment. When a dream for democracy can open its eyes to the nightmarish realities of a demonized people, there may be a fighting chance for justice. The predicament of the Muslim American experience is one centered on a racialization that seeks to other, invalidate, dehumanize, and despise. It pushes Muslim American youth to carry the unfair burden of representing an entire faith, of shouldering a responsibility they did not and should not have to sign up for. Crafting a subset in Critical Race Theory to acknowledge the lived experiences of Muslim Americans through MusCrit is a necessary first step in making space.

Dr. Noor Ali is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Graduate School of Education, College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. She is also the Principal of Al-Hamra Academy. Dr. Ali has published in several academic journals and popular media outlets on the topics of social justice, marginalization, leadership, and curriculum. She earned her Doctorate in Education from Northeastern University in Curriculum, Teaching, Leadership, and Learning. She has a MA in English Literature and an MS Ed in Inclusion Education. Dr. Noor Ali is a veteran K-12 teacher of 15 years.

Further Reading

Abdullah, M. R. (2013). Islamophobia & Muslims’ religious experiences in the Midwest: proposing critical Muslim theory: A Muslim autoethnography (Doctoral dissertation). Kansas State University, Kansas.

Black, M. E. (2012). Meanings and typologies of Duboisian double consciousness within 20th century United States racial dynamics (Master’s theses). UMass, Boston.

Choper, J. H. (1994). Religion and race under the constitution: Similarities and differences. Cornell Law Review, 79 (3), 491-513.

Clarke, V., & Watson, D. (2014). Examining whiteness in a children’s centre. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(1), 69-80.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, (43) 6. 1241-1299.

Dixon, A. D., Anderson, C. K. R., & Donnor, J. K. (Eds.), (2017). Critical race theory in education: All God’s children got a song. NY: Routledge.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. NY: Bantam Books.

Fatima, S. (2011). Who counts as a Muslim? Identity, multiplicity and politics. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 31(3), 339-353. doi:10.1080/13602004.2011.599542.

Housee, S. (2012). What’s the point? Anti-racism and students’ voices against islamophobia. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 15(1), 101-120. doi:10.1080/13613324.2012.638867.

Jilani, I. S. (2016). Muslim American identity under siege: Muslim students’ perspectives of American high schools (Doctoral dissertation). Northeastern University, Boston.

Kress, T. M. (2009). In the shadow of whiteness: (re)exploring connections between history, enacted culture, and identity in a digital divide initiative. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4(1), 41-49. doi:10.1007/s11422-008-9137-6

Levinson, M. (2011). Racial politics and double consciousness: Education for liberation in an inescapably diverse polity. Canadian Issues: Themes Canadiens, Spring: 80-82.

Leonardo, Z. (2002). The souls of white folk: Critical pedagogy, whiteness studies, and globalization discourse. Race Ethnicity and Education, 5(1), pp. 29-50.

Lichtblau, E. (2016, September 17). Hate crimes against Muslim Americans most since 9/11 era. The New York Times, p. A13.

McCloud, A. M. (2010). Muslim American youth: Understanding hyphenated identities through multiple methods. Journal of American Ethnic History, 30.1, 120.

Pager, D. (2006). The dynamics of discrimination. National Poverty Center: Working Paper Series, 6 (11). 1-47.

Simpson, G. E. & Yinger, J. M. (1985). Racial and cultural minorities: An analysis of prejudice and discrimination. NY: Springer.

Sirin, S. R. & Fine, M. (2008). Muslim American youth: Understanding hyphenated identities through multiple methods. NY: New York University Press.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact. Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Tindongan, C. W. (2011). Negotiating Muslim youth identity in a post-9/11 world. High School Journal, 95(1), 72-87.

Writer, J. H. (2008). Unmasking, exposing, and confronting: critical race theory, tribal critical race theory and multicultural education. International Journal of Multicultural Education 10(2). 1-15.

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