My co-workers—God bless their hearts. For every current event that hits, they’re like:
“Did you hear…?”
“I thought about you when I heard….”
“What’s your opinion on…?”
“I wanted to ask what you thought about….”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of the precarious lifespan of Black people in the United States due to increased police brutality, and you’re also probably aware that anti-Muslim rhetoric has been amplified thanks to bigots like Donald Trump, who suggested a “total” ban on Muslims entering the United States. If you happen to be a Black Muslim in the United States, then you’re hit with the double zing of what it feels like to have two very visible aspects of your identity become the daily talking points for everyone from wannabe-politicians to the people who see you wearing a khimar (Islamic head covering) and spark up conversation while on the train.
Somehow, in the past few months, I’ve become both the definitive Black and Muslim voice of my unit at work, which I normally prefer to them getting their information from Fox News or some other fringe source. But lately, it’s tiring. When the video of the Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald sixteen times was finally released for public viewing, my coworkers wanted my opinion. When the media began associating “Muslim-sounding” names with the San Bernardino shootings, my coworkers wanted my opinion. My thoughts on these matters aren’t what I would consider to be workplace-appropriate, so in trying to share my opinions, I’m really just spouting off responses that fall in between safe enough to let them know I’m not a terrorist and politically-correct enough to let them feel like they’re meeting their goal of being “open-minded”.
I’m in the social services field, so the majority of my co-workers, like me, are either social workers or therapists. They’ve completed academic programs where “Multicultural Counseling” and “Cultural Competence” are graduation requirements, so they think they get it. They think by coming directly to the source, they’re defying stereotypes and seeking to learn more about people different than themselves in an attempt at living out social justice. And I get it, too. I usually appreciate their attempts, but with a different video of a Black person being gunned down by a depraved cop being released every other day, and up-to-the-minute updates on how whenever there’s an act of violence, the alleged perpetrators’ religious affiliation is scrutinized and then comes the fragmented conjecture about how they could have become “radicalized”. All of this has me on high alert almost every day. I know my co-workers have good intentions in asking for my perspective, but I’m just exhausted.
On a personal level, the increasing anti-Black and anti-Muslim sentiments we see on the news have real-life implications not only for my personal safety and emotional well-being, but also for my extended network of loved ones. The troublesome portrayals of both Blacks and Muslims in the media aren’t just “hot topics” that cease to have relevance when I close out my internet browser. Being married to a Black (Muslim) man, raising a Black (Muslim) son, having a father and younger brothers who are Black, having a slew of khimar-wearing Muslim girlfriends, and being a Black Muslim woman myself—all of these relationships nuance how impossible it is to distance myself from the constant worry that “current events” will hit home in an incredibly close way.
It’s mental, emotional and spiritual overload—overload that I am forced to address in my personal life with people who I know will “get it”, overload that causes me to literally watch my back when out in public, overload that puts my plan to move out of the U.S. into high gear so I don’t have to raise a son in a place where the very root of his being is hated…so much overload, in fact, that I have had to seek counseling of my own to try and unpack the feelings all of this has brought about. When I am then forced to have to address (and superficially, at that) these issues in the workplace, it adds an additional element of frustration to the already boiling-over pot of emotions. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about “double-consciousness” over a century ago, (the idea that to be Black and American can feel irreconcilable, as if one were at war with oneself) and while he wasn’t referring to being both Black and Muslim in the U.S., sadly, all of these years later, the feeling of “warring ideals” describes what it feels like to be Black and Muslim in America today.
Inaya Salaam is a Muslim, wife, mother, lifetime student and aspiring revolutionary. She is a New Jersey native who currently lives in Chicago, where she works as a licensed counselor.