Monday, July 12, 2010

Race, Class, and Residence in KL (Part 1)

“I hope they do not discriminate against us!” I almost cried out to my husband after speaking on the phone with a real estate agent in Kuala Lumpur for the first time.  She was a Chinese woman.

Before I had the chance to ask more about the condo, she asked a series of questions: “What is your husband’s occupation? And your race? Where are you from?” Black was the first word that came to mind, but I dare not say it. Plus, she really didn’t mean race as we use it in the U.S., I assured myself. She wants to know my nationality. “American,” I responded with confidence.

We had been warned that the color of our skin could make a difference in KL. Our generous host whose condo we currently reside, a Pakistani American, told us to expect racism in Malaysia in more direct forms than what we are accustomed to in the States. He has experienced it as a brown man in KL, my husband should definitely anticipate it as a black man, he promised us.  

I wondered where this racism might come from. From the Malay Muslims who, among black American Muslims, hold the good stereotype as the nicest, most color-blind people in the ummah? Or from Chinese or Indian Malaysians whom I knew very little about?

We also had been warned that black people in Malaysia might be looked upon suspiciously.  It was said that this is because a group of Nigerian immigrants to Malaysia in the mid-90s were known for selling drugs.

Our American friends in KL, a couple of Iraqi and Arab-Indonesian background, reinforced my concern. When they did their apartment search a year ago, several agents directly asked if they were Nigerian.  

Did I have to travel to the other side of the world to face racial profiling on account of my African features, except this time it was not because of the criminal actions of a group of black Americans but black Nigerians?

My connection to Africa always came to the forefront when I traveled abroad. I was accustomed to the question, “But where are you really from?” In Medina a young shop clerk asked where I was from but stole from me the voice to answer.  Immediately he moved his body in to bully me, calling out a series of African countries. In the moment of his harassment, I thought, America, America, America, if only he know. But it would be both futile and hypocritical to correct him. What would I imply: No, I’m not that kind of black; I am a black American.  Without a voice, my American citizenship could not protect me. Instead it was another man who saved me—a stranger who gently moved the ignorant youth away. 

But now, over the phone speaking with KL real estate agents, I could assert my national origin and use it to my advantage, I imagined.  Every agent with whom I spoke, always a Chinese, asked me where I was from.  At some point, I must directly ask them the point of this question. What assumptions do they make when they find out I am American?

A few have been quite direct. One agent told me, “Honestly, this place wouldn’t suit you because it’s where the locals live.“ It is true that Westerners are used to certain amenities that are not available in most Malaysian homes. Even in the expat areas, where I currently reside, people don’t necessarily use a clothes dryer.

When I happened to mention to one agent that I was living in an expat area, she answered, “If you are now living in Mont’ Kiara, the view here will not suit you.  Mont’ Kiara is where middle and upper people live. Here is where medium and low people live.” Trusting her, I crossed out the condo listing.

My thoughts turned to immigrants in the U.S. and how they go about choosing a residence, a topic I explore in my analysis of black and immigrant relations. I anticipated that my status as a “foreigner” in Kuala Lumpur would make me revisit some of the perspectives and points made in my book.

(There I spend a lot of time discussing the way in which choice of residence influences African American and immigrant relations in the American ummah, or Muslim community.  For an idea of this, see an excerpt from my book.)


  1. Very interesting; thanks for sharing!

  2. This post reminds me of what the discrimination my parents encountered when they were overseas in the 80's. Although I was a child my parents, especially my mom was very vocal and had nor problem sharing her thoughts and feelings regarding her challenges being an ex-pat. What even more interesting is I remember my parents encountering very blatant discrimination right here in the Suburbs of Boston, MA. Some of the stories were and experiences were quite amusing now that I think about them, but they weren't at the moment LOL. May Allah be with you both.