Like Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old teenager from Irving, Texas arrested for bringing a clock to school, I grew up Sudanese and Muslim in America, though of a different generation. My family moved to the United States from Khartoum in 1990, when I was 12 years old. In the mid ‘90s, when I attended high school in New York, bringing a home-made clock to school would not have resulted in arrest. Muslims were treated as backward, though rarely dangerous.
Ahmed Mohamed lives in a different time. It wasn’t long after his arrest that social media began debating who he is and what impact his identity had on what transpired. For the most part, news reports referred to him as “a Muslim boy,” his own family emphasizing his religious identity as the reason why, in Ahmed’s words, he was made to feel like “a terrorist.”
Meanwhile, on twitter, black Muslims used the hashtag #beingblackandmuslim to discuss Ahmed’s case and their experiences. Others wondered what would have happened if he was black. Others still called for his blackness not to be ignored. Africa is a country, an influential cultural blog, waded in with a tweet. Even the Washington Post ran an article on the subject.
I have no idea how Ahmed and the rest of his family identify beyond this specific incident. What I do know is how America perceives someone that looks like him and carries his name. The “is it because he is Muslim? Black? Both?” question is an interesting one to ponder, but practically, not an easy one to answer.
Ahmed’s case is a classic example of intersectionality — a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. Building on the work of others before her, Crenshaw grappled with a specific problem: why had women of color been left, in her words, “invisible in plain sight” by both feminist and anti-racist movements? The conclusion she reached was that “the kind of discrimination people have conceptualized is limited because they stop their thinking when the discrimination encounters another kind of discrimination”. In a passage from a 1989 essay that has since become famous, Crenshaw writes:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination...But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.
Taking this analogy and applying it to Ahmed, we find him standing at a dangerous intersection in modern America: Islamophobia meets white supremacy. Black Muslims face, at the very least, a double discrimination in the United States. In the years immediately following 9/11, my sisters and I used to say only half-jokingly that we felt “black in the street, Muslim at the airport.” If we had been veiled, we would have felt Muslim on the street as well.
Things seem to have only gotten worse for black and Muslim communities since, not the least of in my own city, New York, a supposed bastion of liberalism that has in the past two decades routinely and egregiously violated the civil liberties of its black, Muslim and Latino residents.
To me, the debate about whether Ahmed is “Muslim” or “black” and to which part of him the Irving school system and police department responded misses the point. Firstly, because as some have pointed out, “Muslim” and “black” are not mutually exclusive categories.
Secondly, because the debate fails to recognize that it is only because Muslims have been racialized that most Americans have particular ideas of who one is, and what she or he is supposed to look or act like. As Saher Selod writes, Muslims’ “religious identities have acquired racial meanings associating their bodies with terror and violence resulting in their increased experiences with racism.”
Thirdly, and this is the point I’d like to emphasize, the “what is Ahmed” debate is a distraction from a more urgent question. More than one in four Muslim Americans identify as black, and one in three as Asian or Latino. Why isn’t there more solidarity and cross-movement organizing between those fighting Islamophobia and others battling to bring an end to America’s deeply rooted structural racism, which feeds the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration?
As Crenshaw explains in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, “the term [intersectionality] brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them.” This invisibility currently characterizes the position of black Muslims in their own communities.
Islamohophia actively builds on structural racism, at the very least through the use of its tools (aggressive policing, hyper surveillance). Americans face a web of interlocking subjugations that draw on various configurations of class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status. Movements and organizations that have operated largely independently from one another need to do a better job of realizing that discrimination rarely operates along one axis, and to organize accordingly. Otherwise, they risk leaving those they are meant to serve “invisible in plain sight.”
One last point: Much of the media’s focus in the Ahmed Mohamed story, and ours in turn, has been on President Obama’s invitation to the teenager to visit the White House, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s encouraging words. Not insignificant acts by any means, least of all I imagine to Ahmed himself, who was stripped of his dignity and rights in front of his whole school.
But the response is also symptomatic of what America is prone to do: turn these kind of stories into a greeting card — “Sorry you were profiled. Know that you are precious.” That’s just not enough anymore. It never was, otherwise we wouldn’t be facing “outrageous” stories again and again.