My Brother’s Keeper by amina wadud

amina 2014 - cropped

When my son was a teenager, living with his father in another state, he came to visit me in the suburbs of Virginia.  He is nearly 6 feet tall, chestnut brown skinned.  Like many suburbs there is no concept of the corner store.  But about a half mile from our house was a gas station, with the usual quick shop that was pretty much the same thing as the corner store in residential urban centers.  To get to this gas station by car was a short run.  There was a shortcut through the woods behind my house, so that anyone trying to reach the store by foot could cut off some of the distance required in a car. I suggested this out of the way path to him.  He told me in no short order.  “Mom, I’m a Black male.  I can’t be sneaking out of the woods at almost dark in this part of the world.”

I was embarrassed to think I had not considered how potentially perilous this might be, but starkly reminded what it is like to survive as a young Black male in the US, still today.

I remember reading an article that stated unequivocally that the income of the average college graduate Black male was about equal to the income of the average white high school graduate.  I made the point with both my sons: college education was not an option.  It was mandatory, to even begin to compete.  I guess they got the message because both went straight through college directly after high school (and one of them even returned later for a law degree).  My three daughters, on the other hand took a more circular path meanwhile. All of them went to college, but none of them either went directly from high school or route maintained a direct course through to the first degree. 

In all other ways I attempted to raise my boys and my girls with the same, love, attention, compassion, responsibility and engagement.  Both my boys can cook, clean, do their own laundry and yet, I note with some affection these days, now that they are in the same city together, they hang out pumping up to 300 pounds at the gym.  That same son, now a father, will strap his baby girl on his chest and sweep without thinking twice about it.  I love my boys I am very proud of them as young men.

However, I never forget the odds that are against them and the data about the fate of young black men and boys in the context of a system and culture riddled with racism, white supremacy and misogyny.  So on the one hand, I can well understand the Obama initiative My Brother’s Keeper with its intended goal to “help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead”.

Still, I am one of the signatories of a counter proposal started by a collective of women of color to make this important initiative inclusive of girls and young women of color, given the “shared fate that has propelled our historic struggle for racial justice.” To be sure, this letter starts with an applause for the effort on the part of the White House, but expresses a cause for concern over the exclusion of young women and girls of color in this initiative.  The same conditions exists for males and females of color in this country, so how can such an initiative go forward to the point of making girls and young women invisible?

Both males and females suffer from the systemic racism and lack of social justice.  Detailed data is provided in the letter about the effect of injustice on girls of color, but it is also available anywhere one might search: the disparity between the life choices for girls and women of color and our white counterparts is stark.  It does not mean to ignore their brothers, but in this MBK initiative this data seems insignificant while elaboration of the ill effects on males of color is made to stand out.

“Girls and young women must be included in all our efforts to lift up the life chances of youth of color. To those who would urge us to settle for some separate initiative, we need only recall that separate but equal has never worked in conditions of inequality, nor will it work for girls and women of color here.”

“To those who would urge us to take up our concern with the White House Council on Women and Girls, we note that the Council, like many gender-focused initiatives on women, lacks an intersectional frame that would address the race-based challenges faced by young women of color in a racially-stratified society.”

Having worked on gender in the context of Islam and Muslims, I note the number of international initiatives earmarked for women and girls.  I agree with the United Nation’s assessment regarding the enduring impact of gender inequality embedded in even very subtle socialization of women and girls to conclude that access to justice requires the substantive model of equality.  The substantive model seeks to correct the disadvantages that have lingered for generations which make it impossible to perceive of or achieve justice and equality with the ability to start on a level playing field.  So I have seen, participated in, and supported programs that have been initiated exclusively for women.

But the idea that somehow My Brother’s Keeper can expect to achieve justice for men and boys of color while blatantly ignoring women and girls of color in this context needs to rethink one thing: How can men and boys get ahead if we leave women and girls behind or ignore them all together?

I invite you to follow up on this effort and the counter discourses: please read the petition and join us in signing it.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

Author: amina wadud

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

12 thoughts on “My Brother’s Keeper by amina wadud”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more and thanks for this post.

    Just the other day Obama said equal pay for women is not a woman’s issue but a family issue. I would have been happy if he had said equal pay for women is also a family issue, but once again, it seems that he just doesn’t see women as independent souls, sometimes independent workers. Is he suggesting that women who support only or primarily themselves are not “worthy” of equal pay? Give ME a break!

    I suspect he a) believes the myth of the strong black female despite evidence to the contrary in the forms of addicted women of color, homeless women of color, women of color dependent on their pimps, and so forth; or b) he thinks that the solution for people of color–including females of color–is a strong black family headed by a patriarchal father.

    The premise seems to be that all people should be in families and that men should take care of their families. Well his grandfather who raised him was the age of my father, so what should I expect? That he would think of his grandmother and his mother, yes that is what I expected!!!

    You were right in 2008 when you told me I was idealizing Barack Obama. In truth, he has revealed himself to be limited by the blinders of patriarchy (and militarism), Siggghhhhh….

    Who will speak for women if we don’t speak for each other? Is there a petition for women who are not black to sign on this particular issue?


    1. Mr. Obama has the distinct pleasure of being surrounded by such strong Black women, his wife, whom he has on numerous occasions indicated was more competent than he on many fronts, her mother, the mother in law, his two lovely daughters. Meanwhile, he is like others in the world, a man who was raised without a father present most of his life.

      So I also FEEL for the need to address male on male support in the context of racist AmeriKKKa, however, in this particular instance, I–like those who wrote this letter–feel it is misplaced when such an initiative is NOT REALLY addressing systemic racism but ear marked for those who have suffered from racism, which in this case is both boys and men and girls and women of color.

      The boys are not in a inevitable train towards the prison industrial complex because they have not been willing and even tried to “do the hard work”. They and the girls are in trouble because systemic racism effects EVERY aspect of their interaction in the system from the most minute, who gets sent to the principal’s office to the old boy’s network that rewards those most like those already on the top, white male corroborate executives.

      So this effort does not need to exclude women and girls because it is only a token action established to reach individuals and not systems. If it were about systems it would be ear marked for white people and in particular white men to establish irreversible policies that cause them to grow up out of their racist privilege and all of its domino consequences of preferential treatment.

      That’s not what this is about and so what little good it CAN do, needs to embrace the complexities for (again) both girls and boys, both women and men of color.


  2. Why after all this feminism would any woman trust any man to speak to policy issues of concern to women? Barak Obama is just as patriarchal as any man, it’s all about women OWNED by men MY WIFE MY DAUGHTER etc etc. I want equal pay because I want to make as much money if not more money than men. I actually want more money so I don’t have to deal with men at all. In my lesbian community, we don’t have assets to create a truly woman only area of the city, or to own office building with women’s businesses in them. We do have the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the land owned by lesbians, 40 years old next year and it is under brutal attack by male to trans invaders, while liberal het women say come on men with penis’ who claim to be women.

    Women want more money to be free of men. We want more money to create truly women centric spaces and places. That’s why I want lesbian nation to be as wealthy as possible. We need private homes more than het women, because there we can have private gatherings with NO MEN coming in at all, no mean feat in this day and age. Barak Obama is like all men, I want women running the entire country, and I want an end to male supremacy.


  3. thanks Turtlewoman.

    in ADDITION to space AND POLICIES just for women, I do not want policies that EXCLUDE women especially where intersectionality limits their access, development and well being.


  4. Turtlewoman, I long for women-only space, too, and have even dreamed of having a women-only country (!), but while I am a feminist, I’m leery of divisions like this, because the “either/or” paradigm is detrimental to us all. How do we decide who is a “woman?” There are many gray areas – where people have been born with ambiguous genitalia, for instance. If parents decide to label a child “male,” and she decides later that she is more on the “female” end of the spectrum, would a female-only group reject her? If a trans person has had a sex-change operation and takes hormones, is she fully a woman? Would you also reject “two-spirit” people? How much of a purist are you? Where do you draw the lines?


  5. Wow. “AmeriKKKa.” I’ve never seen that word before, but it certainly says a lot. We’re looking, of course, at the anniversaries of significant civil rights legislation dating from the Johnson years. (Even though LBJ was a Texan, I think he was in many ways a good man and would have been a good president if not for that damned war.) But just look at the news on any day and you see what happens to people who are shopping while black or doing anything else while black. It’s awful, but the children of AmeriKKKa are still around……and a whole bunch of them are in Congress. I think we’re living in a dystopia. Excellent blog. Excellent comments about Obama. I’m as disillusioned about him as many other people. I wonder if a female president will be able to succeed. What do y’all think?


    1. Sarah, I’m with you. I love Elizabeth Warren. I desperately wanted a Black POTUS, and got one. Sadly, the conservative Congress has spun their energy blocking his ideals. I fear they will do the same with a woman President, no matter who she is. We need to let our political roots reach closer to home, to the Senators and Representatives so that our next President might have some real clout. As the saying goes, “It’s complicated.”

      The issue of black men vs black women is also complicated. It is still black men who end up on death row, overwhelmingly so. I don’t know if it still holds true, but a few years ago it was statistically more likely that a black woman would be successful over an equally qualified black man. That doesn’t mean that black women don’t need help — goodness knows, yes they do! But if those stats still hold true, I can see where President Obama is coming from. It’s complicated.


  6. Thank you for this concise and thoughtful commentary on MBK. There is a long history within African American political struggles and movements of centralizing black men, with the expectation that black women will support and do the hidden labor. The need for an intersectional framework that acknowledges the gendered manifestations of racism is paramount. I wholeheartedly support the spirit and words of this intervention.


  7. Thank you all for these wise perspectives. As a white American woman who has had so many things come easy, I continue to awaken to and to learn about the importance of our collective voices and our sisterhood in making real change. I’ve been so grateful to have this black man as a change agent, it’s been hard to criticize him as I cringe at the thought of what a Republican pres would have done these last 8 years after the previous ones. But yes, we need a woman and we need to support her and help her continue to awaken. We are all learning and we have to keep educating the young, and teach them to thirst for justice not just “stuff” – materialism and greed are our worst stumbling blocks in this country and the virus of them spreading around the globe. May we support each other’s good work and yes, call out the mistakes loud and clear. Thank you again.


  8. I’m looking forward to seeing a woman as president of the United States before I die, but I got one thing clear long before I lost any favor with Mr. Obama: it is the United States of AmeriKKKa we are talking about, and so NO ONE PERSON can fix all that is wrong with us, in both domestic and foreign matters.

    Since I NEVER expected that I am NOT personally disappointed with Mr. Obama on just about ANY front.

    Instead I am STILL working to be a PART of the change I wish to see in the world.

    I work no more nor any less because a black man is POTUS nor will I if a woman is POTUS. I just work for justice.

    This, by the way is what I learned being Black and female in the US:

    We keep struggling until the last breath as a way to achieve dignity and honor for all.. not just for Blacks, not just for women, and in my case NOT just for Muslims but for ALL.

    For as the book title said: If you are NOT part of the solution, YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM.


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