I have often stated that I went to sleep as an African American woman on September 10, 2011 and woke up Muslim on 9/11. It may seem odd to say this since I am a third-generation Muslim; however, my reason for doing so is that my life as an American Muslim now has two main eras: 1) pre-9/11 and 2) post-9/11.
In the pre-9/11 era of my life, I felt more black than Muslim because my color was a point of conflict and controversy throughout my life. I grew up in two areas as a child—an urban area with majority Latinos/as and then in a very rural area with majority whites. In both areas, being black was not so popular. I was called “mayate,”which is a bug but also the Mexican term for “nigger.” I was also called, “tar baby,” “nigger,” “African booty scratcher,” and a host of other hurtful names as a young black child.
In the post-9/11 era of my life, the main part of my identity that people focus on is my religion instead of my color. On 9/11, I went from being a nigger to being a “towel head,” from being a tar baby to being a “terrorist,” and from being the stereotype of an unruly and angry, loudmouthed black woman to being the stereotypically seen-but-not heard, oppressed Muslim woman in need of saving. As a Muslim, I suddenly was a potential threat and un-American, while as a Muslim woman I was also pitied and looked down on as misfortunate for being in a religion that oppresses me. In my life, white privilege and white monoculturalism have turned into Christian privilege and Christian monoculturalism.
On 9/11, I was not sure if I should go to work, especially since I was an identifiable Muslim woman and I was sure that all would think the culprits of the attacks were Muslim even before the facts were in. I went in to work and saw my co-workers throwing pens and sharpened pencils at a printout of an Arab man on the wall as they listened to the news on the television. The sight I saw sickened me. For the next few weeks, I endured occasional heckles, was often told that I was not wanted here and to “go back to [my] fuckin’ country!” The most memorable event was being followed and almost forced off the shoulder by a white man in a large pick-up truck on the freeway. When I dialed 9-1-1, the Highway Patrol advised me to take the next exit. I did that at the last moment so that the truck would not have time to adjust and exit behind me. That night was the first night that I questioned wearing my headscarf. Had I not had it on, I would not have been targeted that day and any of the other days I had endured hatred for being an identifiable Muslim. What if he had run me off the road? What if he had a gun and shot me? All sorts of questions haunted me, but none more than: If I remove my headscarf, will I be like those African Americans who, in the past, had light enough skin and straight enough hair to pass for white? Do I want to be a closet Muslim and “pass” for non-Muslim just so I can walk the sidewalks on Easy Street? My answer was: I will not deny any part of me just to make someone else comfortable and able to accept me.
I endured the stares and glares, as well as the screams of “aren’t you HOT in that?” and “why do you let your husband make you dress that way?” I traveled frequently by plane and got to know the ins and outs of the post-9/11 airport culture. I saw how nervous many people were around me in the security line, how I was subjected to secondary checks in the line and even “random checks” at the gate before boarding, and how many people would appear to be holding their breath wishing ‘please don’t have the seat next to me’ as I made my way down the center aisle to my row and seat. On the other hand, wearing a headscarf after 9/11 has facilitated welcomed encounters with non-Muslims when I am out in public. Often, older white women with a Christian faith tradition approach me in lines at stores and have questions about my headscarf and Islam. I love these encounters because they are so genuine and they allow me to speak for myself rather than have a mainstream narrative imposed upon me.
In short, although the theme of my post 9/11 era has been the experience of religious bigotry, being seen as a paradox for being Muslim and American, and often treated as a homegrown outcast; I refuse to perform circus tricks or remove my headscarf in order to prove that I am no threat, that I belong in this country, or that I am patriotic. Being American is my national identity while being Muslim is my religion; the two are not conflicting identities. I am indigenously American and completely Muslim with citizenship in several mythical lands—Black America, Muslim America, Female America, Obese America, Disabled America, and 99% America.
Jameelah X. Medina is a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University. She is also an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.