Point of View: What (or rather, Who) defines America?

By Jamiel Abed

“My country, ‘tis of thee, poisonous land of racial injustice”. 

Growing up in America is like watching a puppet show. You get to see the silk curtains, the bright lights, the comedic timing and satire of an inanimate object, everything about it is just so perfect. That is, until you peel back the curtain and see that the puppeteer is subliminally feeding us information to control our views about the world. That America is this place that Columbus found when he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. That we built up a nation and then fought the British for our independence. That we quickly became a global superpower and we are now the world’s biggest force to be reckoned with. The puppeteer tells the story. In America, the puppeteer is White. The puppeteer never told me that this land was never ours, he only told me that the Native Americans fell ill and let us move in with them. He only told me that we owned slaves, not that the slaves were a major reason our country is fully functional. Black people built this country with their bare hands, and it took hundreds of years for them to be able to own the land they built.

It was tough growing up in an all-white elementary in middle school where I was one of the few Arab students. I grew up in a school where yelling the N-word was mainstream. I grew up in a school where I was constantly called a terrorist and referred to as “the dark kid, the Black kid.” I always saw myself as a generally light skinned person so their remarks confused me, but it made me want to do anything in my power to make sure I wasn’t Black. It made me dislike Black people. And then on weekends, I would often go to family gatherings where it was common practice to refer to Black people as “abeed”, which literally translates to “slaves”.

I fell into the trap of systemic racism. I grew a hatred of having dark skin, simply because everyone in my life saw a black skin color as inferior. I never realized I had fallen into the trap until I attended an Islamic school for 7th grade, CPSA. It was a majority South-Asian school, so I was now “the White kid”. I became more confused at CPSA than I was at public school. In public school, kids commented on my skin tone with a tone of disgust, an air of superiority. But in Islamic school, kids commented on my skin tone in an almost envious tone. Although they never intended to sound like that, that’s exactly how they sounded. Like somehow I’m held on a different pedestal in society because of the color of my skin. I didn’t want to be different, so I began to, once again, HATE the color of my skin.

One day in my Human Geography class, my teacher Br. Asim Gaffar, was talking about prejudice against dark skin.  Lighter women are traditionally seen as “more valuable.” I realized that, all this time, I was basing my self worth on the color of my skin and not the content of my character.

The fallacy about a puppet show is that the puppeteer is in control of the entire show. People think that because they peel back the curtain, they’ve discovered the truth. This country’s history isn’t as simple as how the White puppeteer has portrayed it. There’s more to a puppet show than just a puppeteer. The truth of the matter is that in America, the puppeteer got his dialogue lines from Native Americans, the stage and puppets were made by Black People, the theater is owned by Mexicans, the audience members are comprised of Italians, Chinese, Muslims, Arab, South-Asians, Germans, Irish, and any other group your mind could fathom. But because White people control the puppet, they control the narrative. 

So now the question becomes, “How do we undo the narrative and tell the real story?” For us Muslims, the answer is easier said than done. The very creation of Islam was intended to give everyone of every color the freedom to equally worship Allah. You can’t be Muslim and be racist. End of discussion. There’s a story in the Quran that everyone knows and can quickly recall. Allah explicitly tells the story of the first instance of racism. It’s the story of Iblees. Allah showcases Iblees as a horrible creation, the worst of creation. The story of Iblees is that Allah told Iblees to prostrate to Adam (as) and Iblees refused. Iblees asked, “You made me out of fire and him out of a dark mud, is fire not better than mud?” Allah then predestined Iblees to the eternal hellfire because of his ignorance and jealousy. If that doesn’t show us Muslims what Allah thinks of racist people and where he sends racist people to, then I don’t know what will. So to answer the aforementioned question of how do we undo the narrative and tell the real story – we need to become more self aware. We need to not only be careful of what we say, but also how we teach our children the value of people other than ourselves. As the famous American school teacher Jane Elliott once said, “Racism is learned and the only way we can overcome it is by unlearning it.” 

We, as an Islamic society, have delved so deep into trying to fit into “American culture” that it has caused us to compromise our own culture and religion. I put “American culture” in quotations because to say that there is a solidified American culture is fundamentally incorrect. WE made American culture. America is the land of immigrants, WE are Americans. That self awareness of how valuable we are will allow us to confidently teach our children that EVERY race is just as valuable in building this country as the next. It’ll allow them to build better relationships with the Black community (both Muslim and non-Muslim) and help America come one step closer to being able to proudly sing:

“My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty”.

Jamiel Abed is a computer engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a Palestinian. As a hobby, he takes on many forms of political activism, such as being elected as a student senator, organizing the Muslim youth of Chicago for sports events and volunteering, and creates content across multiple social media platforms where he uncovers social injustices.

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