Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Like Michelle Obama" - Race and Residence in KL, Part 2

“I was going to say that you favor Michelle Obama,” the Indian stranger said with warm cheer.  She and her friend, who nodded in agreement, ate from curry dishes at a table we shared at the IKEA cafeteria. I smiled and laughed with them, accepting the compliment.     
I had come to expect this kind of encounter. After telling the friendly women that I was from the United States, they were confused about how a person looking like me could be American without recent roots elsewhere. “Like Michelle Obama,” I explained to them. And as usual, my disarming analogy brought great cheer and laughter.

Honestly, I initially thought to use the “Like Michelle Obama” line as an educational tool for people who just didn’t seem to get the idea that Americans are not all white. It was also a way to have this conversation about my origins without giving a history lesson on U.S. slavery. Instead of referring to Kunta Kinte, I could speak of Michelle Obama.

But it wasn’t until I learned a few things from my real estate agent Patricia, a Chinese Malaysian, did I realize that “ Like Michelle Obama” not only educated others but also empowered me, in this case, by increasing my chances of renting a condo of choice.

Yes, the property owners in Malaysia do discriminate based on nationality. And of course, Americans are among the most preferred renters. (We have a reputation of keeping homes well maintained.)  But of course, when Malaysians think of Americans, most think of white people. And, yes, Nigerians are undesirable renters (see earlier post). Due to all of the above, and to avoid any surprises, my agent told condo owners up front that we were black Americans. She often followed with an attempt to persuade them to consider us as renters.

One condo owner told Patricia, “I don’t want any Africans, even if they were migrants to the States first.” Patricia struggled to explain to her that our case was different, that not even our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents migrated from Africa. “So, Jamillah, I told her what you told me. ‘She’s like Michelle Obama.’”

According to Patricia, the owner was overcome with laughter. Apparently she thought it quite “clever” of me to liken myself to the First Lady. I hope that her laughter was also an acknowledgement of her initial ignorance.

After sharing this story with my husband, he remarked, “This begs the question, ‘When do we become just American?’”

My thoughts raced to a memory of a second-generation Egyptian American student at Duke who posed this question to me in class after I kept referring to the children of Muslim immigrants as Arab American, Pakistani American, etc.

I now realize that I didn’t take his question to heart or validate the set of experiences that motivated it. Instead I defended my choice of terms based on my experiences and studies as a black Muslim woman graduate student.

Using the modifier African or black before American has been important to me for many reasons including the way in which it brings attention to the fact that race continues to matter in the United States. In particular, this practice resists notions of America as a colorblind society where racial and ethnic identifiers have no place. To promote the idea that we are “just American” is to conceal the race and class disparities persisting in our society.

In my book I highlight the ways in which immigrants of color downplay structural racism against African Americans and ascribe to ideologies such as color blindness as part of the process of trying to be white. For this reason, I have looked critically at their appeals to be seen as “just American.”  

However, the recurring question about origins—“Where are you really from?”—that I encounter abroad has made me better understand why the children of immigrants in the U.S. find it crucial to call themselves American without referring to their sub-ethnic identities. Because of the discrimination that they have encountered because they do not “look” American, they must assert their American identity, even if at times it means to momentarily drop other ethnic identifiers.

Intellectually I understood this and raised related points in my book. But now I really get their perspective. Certainly I’ve encountered the question about origins before during visits to other places abroad, and even in the U.S. due to my hijab, but I took the question as a sign of ignorance that I could easily brush off suffering no harm or injury.

Now living in a foreign country, it is different because it is the first time I have been denied specific privileges based on others' perceptions of my national origins. In other words, I live in a context in which Americans are granted certain privileges but I am sometimes denied them simply because I don’t look like others’ image of an American and because my ancestors are from Africa.

And is not this what distinguishes racism from prejudice? Racism is the removal of rights and privileges based on people’s prejudices. Not until I experienced racism on account of national origins could I truly identify with my student’s question, “When do we become just American?”

Regarding the condo owner who discriminated against my family, the irony of her remark is that God has placed a family in the White House whose members are both the descendants of enslaved Africans and of a relatively recent African migrant to the United States.

The unimaginable hardship of our ancestors who survived the Middle Passage was not in vain. Their great-great-great grandchildren deserve the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. "Like Michelle Obama" is one way that I claim mine.


  1. I love it. Then that makes Hud "like Barrack Obama" and the kid "like Sasha and Maliha" - our own first family-ISA

  2. Salaams Jamillah - thanks for sharing your journey. This reminds me of the experience my fam and I had living in S. Arabia - Where I often relied on saying I'm like Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali - when I was eventually challenged on the validity of my American Nationality. It's a complex issue. Many internationally only consider white, when they think of American identity. Yet they are also aware of American politicians, singers, actors, athletes etc who don't fit this mold - Yet for some reason the perception of what is American still remains unchanged. And don't even mention being Black American and Muslim.

    Just a few weeks back I was challenged by a Romanian Muslim in the states - that I couldn't possible be born and raised Muslim and American - because there is no such thing.

    I appreciate that we now have Michelle Obama as a recognizable global figure to relate our identity to. My hope is through these individual interactions, we'll help to educate one person at a time. Hopefully the condo owner - learned a bit by your interaction.



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  4. Make sure you don't tell them "Like Farrakhan" or "Like Precious". Even though they probably look at Hud and think "He look like midnight!"

  5. ASA Jamillah, Again, a very well-written and thoughtful post. Your entry makes me think about my time in Syria. The Syrians (and many of our classmates from other nations around the world) didn't understand how we (the black students from America) could be American. Most people guessed that we from Nigeria, or Egypt. We even got guesses of Cambodia! (Now, you know, I do not look Cambodian!) I will never forget going through customs at the Syrian airport and trying to explain that yes, indeed, I am an American and that my parents, grandparents, and greatparents are American. You should have seen the confusion on that guard's face. I had many conversations (in elementary classical Arabic!) in which I tried to explain American history and slavery. I frequently likened our experience to that of Bilal (RA). I remember that one of my Thai roommates finally got it, as she was able to recall her own country's history of occupation and imperialism. She responded that she too was "brown" and that "whites" had done the same to her people.

  6. Truly insightful post! I think the question Hud poses is one that many children of immigrant wonder both at home and abroad. Time will tell if the children of Arabs, Indians, etc become "American" as the Greeks, Italians, Irish, etc.
    Your post makes me wonder if we feel more "American" or feel the need to identify with and share American culture with others, more so abroad than at home.

  7. ASA, Jamillah!

    I LOVE it!! I read all your post and they remind me of my internship in Turkey. I lived with a Turkish family of professors and was asked about my nationality. When I answered American they said what about your parents..American; what about your grand parents...American. Finally I gave up and said my great great great grand parents were African. They looked confused and say not Africa....maybe Egypt (lol).

    I said no...Africa..."Like Bilal". They finally got it and asked how did it make me feel? That was the first time I was really proud of calling myself Bilalian as a child.

    The post also reminded me of being searched at the airport because of "All That" as the TSA rep draws a circle around his face to refer to my hijab...Then I think to myself...I too am American.

    Love you, kiss the babies for me.

  8. What an inciteful (no this is not a mispelling, I meant incite as in "motivate to take action"--after all this is my first blog post ever!)and engaging piece. It is curious that the notion that "American" equals white is so firmly lodged in the psyche of the world that the presence of an African American in the highest office of the land has not obliterated the lie. What will it take?

    Change has come but I guess until change sinks in, I'll do like Jamilah and say "like Michele Obama."

    Daa'iyah S. "

  9. Assalamu-'Alaikum Jamillah! Your blog is awesome! I have a few of my own thoughts to share. When I had my first child with my husband who's father is Egyptian and mother is half Italian and half "black" I began to think about "race". When my daughter started 2nd grade she began to ask me questions about race. I felt extremely guilty for not talking with her about this before she reached 2nd grade and immediately called my mother for advice. Her words to me were the same words I heard throughout my childhood, "tell her she is Muslim". I was frustrated because I thought to myself, "what does that mean? She knows that already!" I immediately began to reflect on how my life was growing up as a Muslim of African descent in America. Looking back at my childhood I realized that my mother's advice actually worked for me. Growing up I saw myself as Muslim and nothing more. I was taught the history of this country in home-school and I learned about my lineage but I never identified myself with anything other than Islaam. I gravitated toward people who were like me, Muslim. Only when I began college did I realize that I knew nothing about "black" culture because my culture was Islaam. My friends in college thought I was crazy when I would tell them about how I didn't even know what "soul food" was until I was about 17 or 18. My sister and I couldn't relate to the "black" people in school because we had nothing in common with them aside from our historical background. Our group of friends were from all over but we felt more comfortable with them because they were Muslim. When asked about my race I informed them that I was "African-American", "What part of Africa are you from?" was usually the question that followed. I had NO IDEA. In fact, I came to realize that I am not from Africa, I am a product of America. I cannot trace my roots back to this country exclusively because my race of people did not exist in Africa. My race came to be as a result of the historical events which took place in this country. I am a Muslim Indigenous American. I am not a hyphenated term which has been given to me by those who lay claim to this land. I am more American than every race in this country other that the natives who were here before the colonialists came. My race is specific to this country and as shameful as it's history is, it is my history. As an Indigenous American I had a unique opportunity to adapt Islaam as my culture because that WAS my culture. When people ask me what I am I tell them I am Muslim, nothing more. When people ask me my race I tell them I am an Indigenous American. When People ask me what that is I tell them my history. My identity is my Islaam and my "race" is in the history of this land, not in Africa. People say I have identity issues but i feel it's just the opposite, I feel that I am blessed to not have grown up thinking of myself as anything other than what I was, everything else was secondary. In other countries Islaam is blended with culture to the point where people believe that their culture is Islaam when, in fact, it is not. Idon't have any "cultural hangups" when it comes to this deen. I was taught Islaam growing up, and I am teaching the same to my kids. It's not just a title or a set of rituals, it is a complete way of life. It was my life growing up and continues to be. It is WHO I AM and it is who my children are.

  10. AsSalaam Alaykium,
    So happy to have found your blog. I'm also an African American Muslim female living as an expact in Kuala Lumpur. I was very upset with the questions of race when we had to look for our condo. Also, being covered kinda confused many people when I told them I was an American. My husband isn't from American(looks Arab) so they were REALLY confused looking at us and our kids.

  11. Salam Hafsa,

    I'd love to meet you. Please contact me on facebook.