Black Hair

I used to teach at an Islamic school, situated within a masjid, when I was around 17. There was a lot that didn’t sit well with me; the mosque had a barrier–I also taught students who were about 8 years old, and I believed it to be ludicrous that I was expected to cover my hair around 8-year-old boys. Or that any of the 8-year-old girls were expected to do the same. But I followed the “rules” in terms of my appearance, if only to appease the parents, who I imagine must already have been suspicious of what on earth I might be teaching their children.

One day, for a school-wide event, though I can’t remember what, the boys were pulled out of class. I bid the last one goodbye, closed the door behind him, whirled around and exclaimed, “The boys are gone!” and threw off my hijab. The black waves leapt to the air with the blow of the rising fabric and then fell to my waist. The young girls laughed and did the same, pulling off their headscarves.

Except one.

“Can I leave my hijab on?” she asked me.

I gave her a funny look. “Of course!” I walked back to the front of the room, ready to continue the lesson, but the girls were talking excitedly amongst themselves, clearly distracted, and I thought it was unfair to expect them to study as long as the boys weren’t also in a stuffy classroom learning to read Arabic with them. And to be honest, I had a desire to know these girls. So I walked among them and we spoke while they braided each other’s hair and talked about faeries.

“I love your hair,” said the small hijabi. She ran her fingers through it. “It’s so pretty.” Then she added, “I wish I had hair like this. My hair’s not like other people’s hair.”

The child was black. Something hurtful burst inside me.

“Is this why you didn’t want to remove your hijab?” I gasped.

She nodded. “My hair’s not pretty like yours.”

“Darling, your hair is beautiful!” What else could I have said? I spoke what I knew, to her, must have been empty words.

She made a face. “You haven’t even seen it.”

“I can imagine it.”

She looked worried. “It’s not like you imagine.”

“No, love, it’s not like you imagine.” I sighed and sat on top of a desk. Was it too early to speak to her about white privilege? I looked around at the other girls, none white, but none of them black. Neither was I. I tried to form words but I couldn’t, not over the force of my heart breaking. I wanted to hold her and sob, an act I was certain would alarm her.

“Sometimes, when you help the other girls fix their hijabs, I feel bad,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because you do their hair. And you’re so nice. And no one knows how to do my hair.”

“Your hijab is always on so perfectly, it never needs to be fixed,” I remarked. It was true. The other girls’ hijabs would constantly slide off; they would struggle with it for a few minutes before complaining loudly, at which point I walked over to their desks, did their hair, and neatly fixed their hijabs over it while still teaching off the lesson plan. But this girl’s hijab was always firmly planted wrapped around her head, as though it were a protective second skin. “But if it ever slid off, of course I would help you fix it.”

“Do you want to see my hair?” she asked.

“Do you want me to see it?”

She pulled back the hijab. Her hair was sectioned into five different parts at various heights and braided.

“You see?” I said. “It’s lovely.”

She looked less sorrowful, though I was uncertain whether it was my imagination. She seemed to warm up. I began to align the hijab along her forehead again, and she grinned and tampered with my hair. “You think it’s pretty?”

“Yes.”

Maybe the words weren’t empty to her yet. Maybe she hadn’t yet gotten to the point where white beauty standards were so forcefully bombarded on her person that wouldn’t believe her hair was pretty matter how many times she heard it, to the point where your hair is lovely was just something people said to be kind or even dismissive.

Obviously, I was unequipped to deal with this. I don’t know if I did well at all. There was so much I wanted to say–but I was afraid of overwhelming the situation. My point is that I should have been prepared, that I should have known what to do; that we, as Muslims, majority non-white, ought to know how to handle circumstances pertaining to the comfort of black students in our classrooms, to the struggles of races that are not our own.

And that is the purpose of a caring, giving, and supportive community. Not one that’s just preoccupied with going through the movements, preoccupied with merely discussing Islam with a reluctance to confront the anxieties that deter us from living it in its full compassionate capacity.

4 thoughts on “Black Hair

  1. I loved this post. I know how it feels when you say words that you feel are empty..

    I’m going to diverge a little from your main topic here, but it’s to second what you’ve said on how we are poorly equipped with the ability to deal with black-related issues.

    Teaching in the Arabian gulf, I sometimes struggle with bringing up the mention of the “black” race and racism.. I often end up refering to blackness and racism in an American context because I feel that unlike in Arab countries, Black americans still managed to create a unique identity that is unapologetic about being black..

    Upon my return to the Arabian gulf, I’ve noticed they started replacing the word “aswad” “black” with “asmar” “dark”.. This is often used to express a superficial politeness, i’ve seen a person using it often and at a point when she was provoked she immediately said “Abd”, the Arabic word for “slave”..

    it somewhat troubles me to use the word “asmar (dark)” because by this, we agree that the word “aswad (black)” is a negative term. Even Blacks here use it to describe themselves (self- shame). It shouldn’t be that way.

    I don’t like to use the term “dark” to describe them because that could be said about arabs and south asians! so I often end up using an english word in the middle of my Arabic sentence, “African American”, and i hate myself for saying it so quickly so that it is over with (and yes I realize that not all blacks are African americans).

    It shouldn’t be a shame to say “black” in Arabic, just as much as this girl shouldn’t feel ashamed of having african hair..
    I don’t know if I’m making a point here, but these were some thoughts I wanted to share and unsure on how to handle.

    I love reading your blog btw,

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    1. rootedinbeing

      I’d like to lightly step forward and say this: one way of not playing the shame-game is to not play the shame-game. You already feel the problem in your bones, this is obvious for you. Now you have to take the second step, you have to act.

      Acting on it is to call people what they want you to call them, and asking them so they know you have respect for their claim to their own identity. You are right that being a human being who defines oneself as dark, black, or “African American” should not have to be shameful in this world, but in many societies it is – and you’ve witnessed why. Many racists have swallowed the history whole and have embraced the mentality of supremacy based on the lightness of skin. That woman who yelled “abd” breaks my heart. I’ve seen this level of hate, as well, both in the States and internationally.

      If black peoples in your region prefer to call themselves dark, then that is the label that they are calling themselves and it should be respected. Even if you think it is self-hate or wrong, it is not your say unless you are from that specific race/ethnicity/culture as well. Pushing that onto people just adds another layer. It is a disservice to people to compare their struggle, their history, etc to black peoples in the States. To call them “African American” when they are from the Arabian Peninsula (and not American, I assume) is to make them invisible. Your own shame and discomfort with the subject is creating another problem. I know it is not your intention but it is the reality. If your students call themselves dark, then calling them anything else is disrespectful and takes away their agency. It sends the message that you are superior and know what is best for them. If they call themselves dark, and the text you read uses the word dark – and you refuse to say that word and instead say “African American” – what message does it send to your students? Empowering people is to give them control. Cultural competence is all about being able to adapt and change to the region and culture you are part of at any given moment. You should not take your notions and ideas from the States and then apply them to the Arabian peninsula. It is not culturally nor historically accurate and it makes you appear just as racist as the woman who yelled “abd.” If you are trying to make a statement about racism in that region, and refuse to use the word dark in class or elsewhere because you think it is racist, why not put the power in the hands of your students by asking them what they think these terms mean and how they feel about them? Why have they embraced the term dark as opposed to black? What is the significance for them? How does it make them feel about who they are? Ultimately it is all about how people define themselves and why. How can we ever change a society if we do not know these answers?

      If you are unsure of what to do, meet your students where they are at – not where you think they should be. Only when you meet someone where they are at, with the words and ideas and images they convey of themselves and their own realities, will you truly be able to understand who they are as human beings with individual dignity – and only then understand what change would even mean.

      If you want to make a difference you have to bring up race and racism within the context of the region. The very least you should be doing, as a teacher, is calling your students what they prefer to call themselves and using the text in a way that respects those same definitions.

      I agree that this issue certainly diverges from the original post.

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  2. You seem to have handled it very well. I hope she was at the age where she wouldn’t find the words empty yet. I’ve black friends who “don’t look” black and people often say to them, “But you’re so beautiful!” Because black people can’t be beautiful, so how on earth is she black and beautiful at the same time.

    I used to teach at a mosque during my late teenage years as well. I wasn’t as fun as you, hah, but if I were to go back to teaching a the mosque (no plans due to past experiences, but you never know), I’d raise this issue of race and beauty and making sure that all girls feel confident with themselves and their bodies and skin color and hair and everything else that’s a part of them.

    *I* think you should give talks at mosques and other Islamic centers about things like this!

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    1. Also, I cringed at her statements … self-hatred starts from such a young age, and for most people, it never goes away because not everyone’s lucky enough to have Nahida as a teacher!

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