Very, very, very interesting study. Take the time to read it if you can.
“Marriage in Color: Race, Religious Authority and Spouse Selection in Four Muslim Communities in Michigan”
By: Zareena A Grewal
University of Michigan
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ruth Behar and Erik Mueggler, who served as advisors for the original research project this article is based on, for their time, guidance and thoughtful comments. Daniel Moerman and Hamada Hamid generously read earlier versions and offered helpful suggestions. The Honors Program at the University of Michigan generously provided funding to cover the costs of my research.
Abstract: In this study, marriage serves as the point of entry into discussions about race, religion and identity in Muslim American communities. For immigrant Muslims the experience of minority status in the U.S. and the corresponding politics of citizenship and identity fundamentally transform their constructions of difference outside of and within their communities. As Muslim American youth challenge their parents’ ideologies of color and racial prejudices, they develop a new language of religious authority that undermines their parents’ cultures. Muslim American youth turn to Islam as a discursive resource to challenge the racial discourses that permeate their communities and American society. [Muslim Americans, Arab, South Asian, diaspora, Islam, race, marriage]
In some ways, Rashid’s relationship with his parents is not all that different from many twenty-two year old Americans. His parents worry that he doesn’t spend enough time on his schoolwork. They don’t like the way he dresses. They don’t like his friends. And they don’t approve of the woman he is in love with.
Rashid is the son of Pakistani immigrants who came to Ann Arbor, Michigan almost thirty years ago. However, he rejects the word Pakistani wedged between hyphens in his identity. He identifies only as a Muslim. He would much rather pour over his books on Islam than those for his classes. He has grown a beard and wears a kufi, a Muslim skullcap. He carries a Quran with him at all times. Most of his friends are African American Muslims, as is the woman he wants to marry.
Rashid: The reason I use the term “so-called Pakistani” is because . . . I don’t like to identify myself on a basic race or nationality. . . As long as we carry the cultural baggage that comes with us, ‘We’re Pakistani, we’re Iraqi, Arab, or Arab-American,’ this and that-- those are all the terms that the British gave us--we’re identifying ourselves with the artificial names of geography. Once we get over that, we’re Muslim first. Then we can relieve all the problems we have in our community. Not the “so-called problems” of who my kids can and cannot marry. These are things our parents distract themselves with. I mean real problems, like carrying this din [religion, Islam] here in this country.”
The spirit of religious reform that underscores Rashid’s critique is echoed by Muslim American youth throughout the mosque-based communities in the U.S., communities established by their immigrant parents. Most of these immigrants, typically Arabs from the Middle East and Desi immigrants from South Asia, arrived during the sixties and seventies included large numbers of educated professionals who, largely, realized their dreams of financial success and quiet family life in American suburbs. (Sowell 1996) Many of the American-born children, like Rashid, are of marriageable age and often have different ideas than their parents about the measure of a good spouse. This generational conflict plays out in the context of contending cultures and multiple, competing claims to religious authority. The second-generation, since they were raised in the U.S., often find certain eastern values, practices and traditions contradictory to their understanding of Islam. The first generation, on the other hand, grew up in Muslim societies where these cultural elements are naturalized and taken for granted. As Muslim American youth challenge their parents on issues of identity and race, they develop a new language of religious authority that undermines their parents’ cultures. For the immigrants the experience of minority status in the U.S. and the corresponding politics of citizenship and identity fundamentally transform their constructions of difference outside of and within their communities. Muslim American youth in these communities turn to Islam as a discursive resource to challenge their parents’ ideologies of color and racial prejudices as well as the racism that envelops the contemporary U.S.
Many Muslim American mosque-based communities are undergoing a religious re-awakening. The rediscovery of Islam in diaspora takes a range of interesting forms, including the privileging of religious identity. Multiple religious discourses exist in mosque communities, some harmoniously interpenetrating one another, and others competing as different ways of understanding Islam and being Muslim. (Horvatich 1994) Religion and tradition are not static, frozen imports, but serve as dynamic resources of beliefs, values and ways of understanding the world. (Nanji 1988: 229) Religious references emerge again and again, penetrating a whole range of problems and debates. The four Sunni mosque-based communities in Michigan examined here are scattered throughout the greater Detroit area and overlap in terms of membership. The mosques in Ann Arbor, Canton, Troy and Franklin, Michigan serve as social and religious centers for middle class immigrant communities from the Middle East and South Asia. All four communities also include black and white Muslim Americans and smaller numbers of immigrants from other parts of the world. Mosque-based communities like the ones examined here represent only a small segment of Muslim Americans; however, examining their perspectives on interracial marriage and intra-racial color preferences sheds light not only on the nature of the generational tug-of-war between “cultural” parents and “religious” children, but also on the complex ways that constructions of identity are transformed in culturally fragmentary contexts like the U.S.
Transformations in Diaspora
In this study, marriage serves as a window into the ways the experience of diaspora transforms constructions of race, religious authority and identity in American mosque communities. For many Muslim immigrants their religious identity takes on a prominence it did not have when they lived in Muslim societies. The “Muslim first” identification is often even stronger in the second generation. (Schmidt 2002) This privileging of religious identity is related to transformations of religious authority. By setting their parents’ cultures in opposition to Islam, Muslim American youth assume a moral higher ground. Interestingly, the term “culture” takes on a negative connotation in reference to immigrant Muslims. The constructions of difference within and outside of these communities are also transformed as Muslim Americans negotiate their status as minorities in the racially stratified U.S.
Muslim Americans often construct racial differences that other Americans might dismiss as merely ethnic. However, making ethnicity the master concept over race often glosses over exclusions and hostilities with racial undercurrents.(Sanjek 1994: 109) Forcing the category of ethnicity on a subjected group can distort their social position in relation to other groups, and obscures their history of exclusion. Sanjek argues that placing “ethnicity at the center of analysis . . . regularly leads to treating [these people] as merely an exception to general processes that” have affected other waves of immigrants and to underplaying the history of inequality. (109) First and second generation Muslim Americans in the communities examined here feel that they are racially marked in contrast to white Americans, however, their constructions of race are far from fixed. Muslim immigrants’ anxiety about their position in the racial hierarchy of the U.S. creates racial identifications that are constantly in flux.
The notion of the inherent instability of race is valuable in understanding this phenomenon. Jacobsen argues that “certain groups undergo a process of racial redefinition as shifting social and political circumstances require, but varying systems of ‘difference’ can coexist and compete with one another at a given moment” (Jacobsen 1998: 140). Although most Arabs and some Desis regularly check the “white” box on official forms, they reject that identification in other situations.
Nayef: I think the way being Arab manifests itself racially is [that] we see ourselves as different [from whites] . . . as Arab Muslims, different culture, different everything. And we want to stay the way we are and that manifests itself in the youth, too. To be labeled a white boy, it’s the worst. You’re like, “I ain’t white. . . I’m Arab!” And everyone that’s teasing you is pretty much light skinned or blond or whatever but it’s irrelevant. It’s white, meaning American [whites].
Even those Arabs who have physical characteristics typically considered definitive attributes of whiteness (blond or red hair, light skin, etc.) often reject whiteness as their racial identity. One reason Arab Americans sometimes reject whiteness may be because of particular political circumstances and social tensions felt in contemporary U.S. society. Throughout the twentieth century, Arab Americans experienced racially motivated hatred, although it intensified in the last half of the century due to the tenor of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. (Morsy 1994: 190) Contemporary anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices have their roots in this political racism. Recent political and historical events, most notably the aftermath of September 11th, have increased racial hostility towards Muslims and Arabs demonstrated by the dramatic rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes.(CAIR 2003) Muslims with physical markers of their faith (i.e. men with beards, women who wear hijab, the Muslim veil) are particularly vulnerable. Muslim Americans who are discriminated against often naturalize the difference and exclusion they feel by drawing on the language of race.
Constructions of difference are never static. Jacobsen defines race as a “tablet whose most recent inscriptions only imperfectly cover those that had come before, and whose inscriptions can never be regarded as final” (Jacobsen 1998: 142). The analogy of a tablet seems especially fitting for Muslim Americans whose racial constructions seem to be shaped by particular political and social conditions. Many Muslim immigrants covet whiteness and want to follow the paths of earlier waves of European immigrants who achieved ethnic whiteness over generations.
Rashid: I have an aunt that’s darker than, you know, dark (loudly) and she [wants to] be white. I said, “Sarah Auntie, you must be out your mind.” But that’s [her] mentality. . . It’s [a kind of] racism but I can deal with it. It’s not Islam.
Rashid disapproves of his aunt’s desire for the security and privilege associated with whiteness but frames his unsympathetic critique in religious terms. Throughout the twentieth century, European immigrants suffered discrimination in the U.S. and as an act of self-preservation “became white-‘by deciding they were white’ [which] powerfully directs our attention to the fact that white ethnics . . . chose whiteness, and even struggled to be recognized as white” (Roediger 1994: 185). However, many Muslim immigrants believe that strategy is not an option for them due to the current racial climate in the U.S. and the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiments. Therefore, they often identify themselves in other ways.
Even some community members who trace their lineage to Europe reject whiteness in certain circumstances. One young woman in Franklin, who wears the Muslim veil or hijab, explains that although she is very light-skinned, any ethnic identity would not accurately express her experience.
Ahoo: We have Turkish, Bosnian, Russian and Arab influences in our family. . . Its much more European than Middle Eastern, so, yes, I’m Turkish but I don’t identify as Turkish. I don’t feel Turkish. I feel Muslim; maybe because I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere, I just classify myself as Muslim, not Turkish or Arab. . . . And, of course, I’m not . . . like these [American] white women.
Although religion is never constructed as biological, some Muslim Americans talk about religious identity in vaguely racial terms. Jacobsen argues that conflations like these do not “denote a mere sloppiness or imprecision in the language of race; such contradictions” often reveal the significant consciousness of constructions of difference. (Jacobsen 1998: 170) Similarly, Janet, a white American convert who wears the hijab, constructs her racial identity differently after becoming (visibly) Muslim.
Janet: Of course, I know I’m still white and [Muslims] in the community think of me as white but in my head I really identify myself as a minority now. I mean, I feel like my hijab has turned me into a minority in the sense that other white Americans don’t see me as white. They are always trying to figure out this imaginary accent and before this [indicating her veil] nobody used to ask me where I was born, or what kind of accent I have. When I tell them I was born in Detroit, they act all confused. A lot of white people see me as a traitor, even in my family, so that makes me identify much more as a Muslim than as white. I have to worry about discrimination just like any other minority; I stick out in crowds and stuff. So, how am I any whiter than some Syrian girl with blue eyes?
For Janet her “cultural apostasy” and the ensuing sense of alienation from other whites has led her to construct her racial identity differently after converting and becoming visibly Muslim by wearing hijab. Although religious symbols are not racial markers, they may take on a racial cast. This construction of racial difference as a sociopolitical response is uncommon among white converts; most continue to identify as white. However, they note that when confronting anti-Arab or anti-Muslim prejudice their religious identity becomes more salient than their racial one.
Although constructions of difference are transformed as Muslim immigrant communities assimilate the racial discourse in the U.S., race is hardly new to them. As formerly colonized peoples, they have an intimate history with regimes of white supremacy, which is reflected not only in the ways they construct racial difference in relation to others, but also the ways they link privilege and color amongst themselves. These intra-racist constructions of difference are also transformed in diaspora. Intra-racism is a term describing the phenomenon of a racialized group that internalizes white supremacy and redirects it at its own members. Since each racial group contains a wide spectrum of individual skin colors, people are stratified along this color line. Those individuals at the lighter end of the spectrum are considered more attractive, and are therefore privileged. This privilege is much less marked and systematic than the privilege of whiteness in the U.S. However, the two are comparable in that both are embedded in ways that are not readily apparent, and the benefits, elisions, and racial myths that accompany that privilege are reinscribed in everyday social interactions.(Harris 1995: 277) Individuals at the other end of the spectrum are considered unattractive. Dark skin is thus stigmatized in parallel, often imperceptible, ways.
Post-colonial people continue to acquiesce to the rhetoric of white supremacy in their countries as well as in diaspora. The very system of colonial rule was dependent on subjected peoples’ internalization of European racial rhetoric. The colonial subject becomes “overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to be white, . . . because he lives in a society that makes his inferiority complex possible, in a society that derives its stability from the perpetuation of this complex, in a society that proclaims the superiority of one race” (Fanon 1967: 100). Not all colonial subjects absorbed European notions of racial hierarchy or suffered from self-hate; however, this discourse left its mark and continues to be reflected in the ways some formerly colonized people talk about color. The imperial legacy of attitudes concerning race and beauty is made painfully obvious in even a superficial analysis of the media in the former colonies. White models are omnipresent in advertising, selling imported goods as well as indigenous products. Morsy describes the electronic media in the Middle East.
The mass information media . . . promote . . . a standard of physical attributes that defines fair skin, light eyes, and blond hair as admirable. [Western] TV commercials . . . feature blond women. When local actresses are involved, many of them either have their hair dyed or wear blond wigs. Indeed, in urban areas, a noticeable correlate . . . is the increased number of women with dyed light hair . . . [and] colored contact lenses. (Morsy 1994: 186)
The globalization of Western media transforms beauty standards in the post-colonial world. Although literary references to the preference for fair skin are ubiquitous in pre-modern literature from the Middle East and South Asia, these constructions of beauty took on new significance once they encountered regimes of white supremacy.
I would argue that the ideologies of color in the post-colonial Muslim world are racial, although they are categorically different from Western racism. The preference for light skin is not random. Intra-racism is the reflection of self-hatred, the internalization of notions of inferiority and defect, perhaps the most tragic scar left by a system of racism. Some scholars read pre-modern preferences for fair skin as evidence of a historical continuum of race, although this poses a number of methodological problems. Physical anthropologists, for example, have tried to determine whether race was a determinant factor in the Indian caste system.
In India, for example, anthropometric records have shown that on the whole high-caste individuals had lighter skins and narrower noses than others; but there is nothing infallible about this test, even in restricted areas. There is no inconsistency between high cast and a dark skin or a flat nose. If race ever was the original basis of caste in India, it did not remain so. (Gossett 1997: 7)
The problems with reading race into history make it impossible to know whether the social hierarchies of the Indian caste system and skin coloring were related. Reading skin color and nose width into Indian history risks simply projecting contemporary, Western signs of race backwards onto another time and place. However, treating modern preferences for fair skin as echoes of pre-modern constructions of beauty is equally reductionist. Trautmann, a historical anthropologist of India, demonstrates that Indians of all historical periods have preferred fair complexions. (Trautmann 1997: 214) A problem arises when scholars like Trautmann, in their zeal to prevent their modern racialized sensibilities from shaping their historical inquiry, fail to read the very real phenomenon of intra-racism in modern post-colonial India as connected to race. He notes that “Indians have a lively interest in complexion . . . [and] prize a fair complexion over a dark one. Complexion is not race in and of itself, but it may be construed as a sign of race” (214). The argument that modern Indian complexion preferences are unconnected to race has dangerous implications. While race should not be reduced to color, treating the fetishization of fair skin among formerly colonized peoples as coincidental neglects the power and continuing vitality of the rhetoric of white supremacy in the post-colonial world. Although every culture prizes certain elements of physical appearance over others, their fetishization of fair color cannot be compared to the random, benign feature preferences among whites. The concept of race is certainly not static or unchanging in India, just as it is not in the U.S.; however, intra-racism corresponds to the rhetoric of white supremacy in suggestive ways. By trivializing complexion, the impact and power of the colonial project is further entrenched, hidden and legitimized alongside the privilege of fair skin among post-colonial peoples.
As many Arabs and Desis leave their home countries for the US, their intra-racist ideologies emigrate with them and are reinforced and transformed by the racial climate in the U.S. Sultana, an immigrant from India, explains how ideologies of color are reformulated in a society with a white majority.
Sultana: Most [Desis] are samla, neither dark nor fair. So what is fair over there might be samla over here. Like, in India, you would be very fair, but here you won’t because of the white Americans. So it depends on the comparison.
Sultana explicitly refers to white Americans as the standard to be measured against. Interestingly, although most Muslim immigrants in these communities construct whites as racially different from them, for some, like Sultana, whites remain the point of reference. For others, like twenty-year-old Abdullah, the ability to “pass” as white informs their color preferences.
Abdullah: I think [whiteness] is the ultimate beauty standard. “She’s so pretty, she’s white skinned.” That’s always the line [in Franklin] and I think it’s in Syria, too. I mean, my mother is very white and people are always surprised she’s Arab. And she wants me to marry someone who looks like us. I think that’s fine.
The stigma of dark skin and the preference for light coloring are coded racially as immigrants assess their status as minorities in the U.S. and the benefits of “passing” as whites. The fetishizing of light skin is not unrelated to the broader racial climate of the U.S., where Muslim minorities from the Middle East and South Asia regularly experience discrimination. In other words, intra-racism is simultaneously a self-destructive internalization of white supremacy and a strategy for surviving it.
Intra-racism and Spouse Selection
“Sunni Parents of Indian origin seeking suitable match for their two daughters:
(1) Pharmacist, 24 years old, prefer someone in medical field. (2) Degree holder,
31 years old, employed in computer field. Both are U.S. citizens, slim and fair color.” (emphasis mine) (ISNA Horizons 2003)
Matrimonials advertising “fair” skin like the one above are ubiquitous in the “lonely hearts” sections of Muslim American publications and web sites. Although some studies have examined the role matrimonial ads play in facilitating the matchmaking process for Muslim Americans, (Hermansen 1991, Haddad and Smith 1996) my interest is on the significance placed on skin color. Any superficial analysis of Muslim American personal ads demonstrates the extent to which intra-racist ideologies of skin color persist in these communities.
Preference for lighter skin among people of color in the U.S. simply cannot be compared to the random personal preferences of those with a history of racial privilege. Russell et al note in their important work on African Americans that the politics of skin color still govern the most intimate of relationships. Every culture prizes certain physical features over others; however, it is a mistake to assume that skin preferences in the U.S. also work this way; that black preferences for light skin are comparable to white preferences for random features like freckles or blond hair. Rather, skin color and feature preferences in the African American community are not just personal; they are political and coincide with the ways race is coded in the U.S. The skin color of a spouse therefore becomes a statement about social mobility and prestige among African Americans. (Russell et al. 1992: 107-108) More so than in the African-American case, intra-racism among Arabs and Desis in the U.S. has been overlooked by academics. Although the ideologies of intra-racism in African American, Arab and Desi communities all have markedly different histories and manifestations, there are a number of important parallels.
Gender determines the degree to which color is a sign of social prestige. In interviews subjects explain how they evaluate potential mates, as well as what criteria they feel their communities hold them to. Men generally tend to be evaluated on their success more than their looks compared to women. Therefore, a woman’s skin color is often the focal point of scrutiny more than a man’s is. Both men and women note that youth and physical attractiveness carry more weight for determining the eligibility of women compared to men in these communities. However, if women are evaluated on looks more than men are, then they suffer intra-racism more as well. Several subjects suggest that darker skin makes it harder for a woman to get married than for a man.
Not surprisingly, female subjects express much more anxiety about skin color and beauty standards. Khadija, an eighteen-year-old Arab from Ann Arbor, describes an on-going conflict with her mother.
Khadija: My mother is always after me to stay out of the sun [because] she thinks I get too dark. She’s got green eyes and everything and she gets really mad when people think I’m black. She thinks it’s cause I get so samra (dark) and cause I have what I guess you would call curly or kinky hair like suwd (blacks). She always says (in accent) “You’re hair used to be so nice when you were a baby. I don’t know what happened.” Especially when the marriage topic comes up.
Khadija refers not only to the stigma of being darker-skinned but also to other features that are racialized in the U.S., like kinky hair. As they become familiar with the ways race is coded in the U.S., immigrants assimilate these signs of race into their own ideologies of color and race.
Although many Arabs complain about the intra-racism among their own group, they also note that intra-racism is considerably more intense among Desis.
Ahoo: Indo-Paks . . . are just infatuated with the idea: Who is white, whiter, whitest? And now I realize why. It’s a big part of how they were raised. It has a lot to do with who you marry, the way the community perceives you and it’s sad because that is just cultural garbage.
Interestingly, Ahoo refers to intra-racism as “cultural garbage,” distinguishing it from religion. The culture/religion opposition emerges in a number of critical reflections. Although many second generation youth are vocal critics of intra-racism, it is certainly not restricted to the first generation. Nasir, a twenty-two year old from Troy, naturalizes his preference for fair skin.
Nasir: Would I personally be attracted to lighter-skinned Desi girls? Of course. I mean, it’s natural to find those girls more beautiful, to tell you the truth.
Sahar, a nineteen-year-old Desi from Canton, bemoans the plight of the single girl deemed unattractive.
Sahar: If a girl has a major flaw, she’s just stuck. It’s sad but . . . in society, if a girl is extremely overweight or extremely underweight, if she’s very, very dark complected. These are all physical things, just physical abnormalities.
Particular physical qualities are always fetishized in constructions of beauty. However, in these communities, the stigma attached to dark color intersects with broader racial discourses in the U.S. Like Sahar, Sultana, a Desi mother of three daughters in their twenties, explicitly refers to dark coloring as a physical abnormality and deficiency.
Sultana: Well, in [South] Asian communities, because there are so many shades, most everyone prefers light skin. And if they are dark, they have to at least be charming and pleasant looking. If they are not, then they are in big trouble. And it is much, much worse here than in India and Pakistan because over there if you are ugly . . . if you have any kind of deficiency than at least you can make it up with money. “O.K. my daughter’s not beautiful, but I can give you a house.” But here no one needs money. They all have money and so they can’t compensate deficiency with money. See, we parents are afraid [of our children marrying dark skinned mates] because, if not for this generation, then the next generation, our grandchildren. Because dark color is dominant over light color . . . and the children will carry the dark color [because it] is a dominating feature . . . and it stays over the generations.
It is clear in her explanation that being dark is perceived as a defect, a genetic deviation that should be feared. Sultana invokes a racist logic that includes biological dimensions of race, racial degeneracy and fears of miscegenation. Intra-racist notions in Muslim diaspora communities are transformed as they are exposed to the language of American racism. Many immigrants argue that things that are perceived as defects (like unattractiveness) can be compensated for relatively easily in their home countries. For example, Sultana refers to the practice in the subcontinent of marrying a daughter off with a larger dowry to attract more potential mates. Interestingly, she notes that this practice does not work in their U.S. communities. Since suburban communities like Canton are generally homogenous in terms of wealth, a larger dowry is not as attractive as it might have been overseas. This suggests that, like gender, class also intersects with intra-racism. As intra-racist ideologies are reformed in the U.S., they may gain a potency that they may not have overseas because they are conflated with socio-economic endogamy.
Gender and class often work together in systems of intra-racism. Russell’s study documents that color is related to upward mobility for African Americans; that light-skinned women “have the best chance of trading in on their color to flee the ‘hood,’ leaving the predominantly darker-skinned women behind.” (Russell et al. 1992: 116) Similarly, Herskovits’ pioneering study of the marriage patterns of successful black men from Harlem demonstrated that they tend to marry lighter-skinned women. The ability of lighter-skinned women to attract financially successful men may also be present in these communities. Asma, a twenty-three year old Desi woman from Troy, expresses her frustration.
Asma: I know people see me as dark, and I know people don’t ask me [for marriage] because of that. And I want to marry a professional person, so it’s hard.
Sometimes, local theories of coloring are inscribed on nationalist discourses. Twenty- one year old Zainab feels discriminated against because she is Indian American.
Zainab: Everyone in Troy thinks Pakistanis are light and Indians are dark. For instance, I had a [doctor-suitor] once and he actually said to me, “Pakistani women are more beautiful than Indian women.” I was like, “You jack-a**, I’m Indian.”. . . Some people only propose to me because I’m light. Once someone asked me if I bleached [my skin] because how could I be so light naturally, being Indian.
Like in the African American case, financially successful men are perceived as being more eligible and, therefore, able to get the preferred lighter-skinned wives. In these communities, fair skin is often seen as a vehicle of upward mobility since it would presumably attract the most eligible men.
Increasingly, Muslim American youth in these communities draw on Islamic rhetoric to contest intra-racism. The second generation often cast the fetishization of fair color as a kind of racism, which they see as a symptom of colonialism and an eastern, cultural corruption of “pure” or “true” Islam. Twenty-three year old Murtaza explains how a history from an ocean away haunts his community in Ann Arbor.
Murtaza: I don’t think being lighter makes you better looking. I mean, well, I understand where it comes from. Through colonialism, the British are right there in your face everyday and so it gets in your head, that you are dark, bad, bad- looking. So people might think that way but . . . it has nothing to do with Islam.
Like Murtaza, Omar dismisses the beauty ideal that permeates but hardly represents his community in Franklin as baseless on religious grounds.
Omar: My grandmother would make jokes about me getting a blond blue-eyed [Arab] wife and I’m like, “We’re Arabs. What are you talking about? We hardly even know any Arabs like that!” It’s a kind of jahilliya (pre-Islamic ignorance).
Many of the youth dismiss the intra-racism as a form of ignorance that predates Islam or as “culture” infecting people’s views. These critiques of intra-racism often invoke a new understanding of Islam, contrasted with culture, which is human, constructed, and polluted by impure values. Rabia finds the intra-racism in Franklin disturbing.
Rabiah: I hate to admit it, but it’s true. . . One lady . . . was talking about her son. So I said, “There’s a girl who’s my age, Syrian girl, our neighbor and she’s really cute.” And then she goes . . . “Does she have green eyes?” I was like, “Does it matter? She’s a wonderful [Muslim]” . . . She was pretty, but she didn’t, she wasn’t, [pause] she didn’t have the American look that maybe I did. I mean the white sort of look. She was more Arab looking . . . This girl . . . could have the best, most pure heart, and she would be ruled out just [because] she didn’t have light skin and green eyes. And that’s really offensive to me and really wrong.
However, many Muslim American youth challenge and re-inscribe the intra-racism in their communities, sometimes in the same breath.
Rashid: You see Muslim women bleaching their skin, all this. It’s mental sickness. Personally, me, I don’t find that attractive. To me, be yourself . . . On weddings Indians, Pakistanis put [on] that white [make-up]. . . One sister even told me, “Rashid, you’re too dark for me.” And, I was like, “What? Well, O.K., sister, but I’m still lighter than you, sister.” . . . It’s not Islam.
Rashid challenges intra-racism on religious grounds but re-inscribes it when confronted on his own complexion. Like Rashid, Sahar is conflicted about color. She admits being tempted to alter her appearance but her religious convictions prevented her.
Sahar: Aunties, in general, make you feel less pretty if you’re too dark. I mean, I guess I’m medium-dark. And, I know people bleach and get colored contacts and stuff and it looks good and you think about it. But it’s fake and I hate that fake stuff. This is what God gave you. Astugferallah. [God forgive me.]
Nineteen-year-old Yasmeen’s critical reflection invokes the culture/religion opposition.
Yasmeen: Every culture is into . . . white skin . . . I don’t care what they think. Why should I change what Allah gave me? Just because of what some stupid society thinks? So, no, I’m not going to dye my hair or get contacts or any of that stupid stuff. That’s wrong. You should do what’s Islamic, not what’s cultural and its sad that people feel pressured into that. They should get stronger [faith].
Yasmeen criticizes the faith and strength of character of both those who propagate this intra-racism, as well as those who attempt to accommodate it by altering their physical appearance. These young Muslims use Islam as a defense against the intra-racism that permeates their communities. They point out that intra-racism cannot be reconciled with Islam. They criticize those who conform to this intra-racist beauty ideal because it is based on characteristics that are prized by the culture, a human construction, and not Islam, which they hold as the divine standard. In Islam, they argue, individuals ought to be judged by their piety and faith and skin color should be irrelevant. Although other differentiations made in these communities (i.e. class, fetishizing of prestige etc.) are just as artificial as race, subjects rarely challenge those differentiations and, largely, accept them at face value. However, when it comes to cultural preferences and prejudices related to race and color many subjects feel it is necessary to set a historical and political context in order to distinguish them from their religion. Although race is still perceived as natural and fixed in nature, many Muslims in these communities point out that an individual’s worth is determined by faith and righteousness in Islam. This argument could easily be applied to class or gender discrimination in these communities as well but is notably absent. Interestingly, the intersections of the discourses of race and religion are more compelling and obvious to many of these Muslims and so the critique of racism as a cultural pollutant is much more pronounced than other cultural forms.
Discussing marriage allows interviewees to map out their standards of attractiveness. However, what people say or think about marriage does not always directly correspond with whom they marry. Leila, a twenty five year old Arab woman from Ann Arbor, points this out.
Leila: One of the interesting things about Arab culture, and it’s in Indian culture too; marriage is a very practical sort of phenomenon. People go around with checklists. . . I have respect for it because I see that it works a lot of the time and I find that people aren’t as obsessive about looks as they say they are. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot [of this]. If you’re just talking about beauty people will tell you that they consider [light coloring] to be beautiful and [dark coloring] not to be beautiful. But when it comes to marriage, I think people marry because it’s someone they feel good about or it’s a beneficial kind of relationship [for the whole] family . . . I don’t think that looks are way up there.
This is an important insight. Perhaps beauty and coloring are perceived as being much more important and influential factors in spouse selection than they are. One of the risks of doing a focused analysis on a cultural phenomenon like intra-racism is reification. My aim here is not to suggest that color preferences or intra-racist beauty standards are more overtly prominent factors in spouse selection than other qualities. Rather I isolate this phenomenon in order to examine the transformations of ideologies of color in diaspora and the ways they intersect with religious discourses. Regardless of whether color does or does not partly determine an individual’s ability to be considered for marriage, the anxiety about complexion expressed by some of the young women I interviewed certainly is real. Furthermore, the challenges of the second generation are an important dissension in the racial discourses in these communities and index the ways religious reform-oriented critiques sometimes trump the authority of the first generation. Islam becomes a tool for undermining the system of intra-racism that privileges and affirms light skin in numerous, imperceptible ways in mosque-based communities. Religious references lace the discourse on interracial marriage in a parallel ways.