Last week I met with some friends and as we laughed and joked over afternoon tea, the topic of being the “only one in the room” came up. We spoke about our experiences of being the ‘only one’ and how uncomfortable it can feel. I am very familiar with the feeling of being the only one – the only Black person, the only Muslim or both especially in the workplace and have learnt to overcome the challenges that it can bring. Being a Black Muslim can be a strange space to be in because it’s sometimes seen as two seperate identities. I identify strongly with both my racial and religious identity, and I equally get offended by ‘black’ and ‘Muslim’ comments and stereotypes dressed up as jokes. Arab or Asian cultural products and practices are often assumed to be “what Muslims do” and I find myself explaining I am a Muslim not an Arab or an Asian.
I have no idea where to get a really good curry nor do I know how to make falafel. No, I cannot speak Arabic or Urdu- can you speak hausa? I have my own native African language that I am fluent in and yes, there are Muslims in Ghana. Questions like these, stereotypes about the angry black woman or the assumption that samosas and onion bhaji’s are part of my daily meals are snapshots of my experience as Black Muslim woman living in the UK.
While working in one of many workplaces as the only black, covered, Muslim, woman, I often have to explain my lifestyle to well-meaning colleagues. Over the years, I have mastered the art of politely declining nights out to the pub even if I can “just drink orange juice”. I have had to explain that just because I am black, doesn’t mean live in the ghettos of London and no, I cannot ‘twerk’ like the ladies in the hip hop videos.
Finding the courage to pray at work continues to be daily act of bravery for me. A concerned colleague walking in on me mid-prayer, tapping me several times (while I was praying) and proceed to shake the life out of me because I looked “weird and frozen” is just one prayer incident among many. Another colleague walked in on me splashing water on my face in preparation for prayer and spent 15 minutes giving me what she thought were great tips on how I could keep cool in the covered clothes that my dad made me wear – there’s never a dull moment.
As a covered Muslim woman, I sometimes feel misunderstood by other black people who don’t always see me as part of their race simply because of my religious dressing. A hair appointment at a black hair salon resulted in me being asked by the stylist if I was circumcised or had undergone female genital mutilation simply because I wore a headscarf. Aside from feeling confused and disrespected, the certainty in her voice added to my annoyance and I vowed never use that hair salon again!
As overwhelming and annoying as such experiences can be, over the years being the ‘only one’ has forced me to search for courage within myself and to fully own who I am.