For The Love Of Culture: Racial Hierarchies In Muslim American Dating

The ugly truth is that certain interracial marriages are more accepted than others.
08/14/2017 10:37 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2017

Disclaimer: I am neither a religious scholar nor a sociologist. I’m just a guy who’s tired of the current status quo.

Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari are at the top of their game right now. With the release of The Big Sick and the second season of Master of None, both have reached a level of success in their career that few South Asian actors have come close to. Yet, as these stars continue to rise, they’ve had their fair share of criticism come their way about their choice in romantic partners on the big and small screen. The gist of the critique is that both of these South Asian actors from Muslim backgrounds chose white women as their main love interest, and by doing so, they perpetuate the idea that those with fair skin, and more specifically white women, are the epitome of beauty and desirability. While I agree with this critique about the way Hollywood and the Western media generally depicts beauty, I am also inclined to reflect on how some of the same groups of people that are critical of such unfair depictions of beauty can also be guilty of the same racial biases. Specifically, I’m referring to the dynamics of dating and relationships within the Muslim American community and how my community has absorbed some of the standards that Nanjiani and Ansari are accused of perpetuating in their craft.

Nowadays, dating sucks for everyone. Even though there are vastly more opportunities to meet people now than there ever were in the past, it’s still hard to connect with others. For those like myself who choose to limit their selection, the possibilities exponentially decrease. I am a Nigerian-American Muslim, and now that I am older and more serious about settling down, I have restricted myself to only dating other Muslims. Currently, there are over one billion Muslims worldwide; however, the numbers are far lower in the U.S. with Muslims only making up an estimated one percent of the population or about 3.35 million people. From the way the American conservative media depicts our impending takeover with sharia law, one would think that we were much more numerous.

The same questions that a Joe Schmoe on Coffee Meets Bagel has to navigate are very similar to the ones Muslims ask themselves when looking for a partner. Questions of chemistry, physical attraction, intellectual compatibility, and life goals are all present. We may pay more attention to religious and family compatibilities (or the size of one’s beard), but essentially it is about the same. Unfortunately, a lot of the similar racial trends seen on various dating apps are also present. Specifically, I’m talking about a racial hierarchy of dating that some dating websites, such as OKCupid, have published data on. Except within the Muslim-American community, parents play a much larger role in mitigating potential interracial relationships, which in turn ends up shaping the racial hierarchy that prevails in these dating trends.

Recently, a good friend from college tried setting me up with someone who she thought I would hit it off with. She told me her friend was South Asian, smart, woke, and an all-around awesome person. As a comedian, my first question was instinctively, “Is she funny?” After I was assured that her middle name was “witty” and that she did not look like a gremlin, I gave my friend the okay to set it up. About three days went by and I did not hear anything. In my experience, silence after a few days is a subtle yet definite way of saying “BYE FELICIA.” Therefore, I texted my friend to follow up. Although she assured me not to worry, as the girl was probably still thinking about it, I already started losing interest.

A few days later, I get a text from my friend asking if we could talk on phone so that she could update me on the situation with her friend. She began by saying “I’m so sorry but,” which is never a good sign. She continued to say that the reason for the hold-up was that the girl was trying to talk to her parents first. After trying to talk to her parents about the idea of being introduced to me, she said her parents were not budging on the “racial issue.” To clarify on what she meant by that, I said, “So her parents didn’t want her to talk to me because I am Black.” My friend was quite apologetic over the phone after confirming this as the reason, but she deserved no blame in this situation as she was just trying to help a brother out. Nevertheless, this scenario happens too often within our community.

The Muslim American community is extremely diverse by the numbers. According to a Pew Research Group study in 2017, around 42% of Muslims are native born, while 58% are foreign born. Of the foreign born Muslims, 35% are South Asian, with 25% are of middle eastern/north African descent, with the rest a combination of sub-saharan African, iranian, european, and other parts of the globe. Of the native born Muslims, 32% are Black (combination of African American and children of African immigrants). Taking into account both native and foreign born Muslims, the Pew study suggests that South Asians and Arabs together make up the majority of the Muslims in America, followed by a sizable number of Black Muslims, and the rest comprising a hodge podge of various other Muslim nations as mentioned above.

Despite the inherent diversity within the Muslim American community, these community social spaces tend to remain segregated. The South Asian and Arab communities that immigrated in the 80s and 90s have established themselves in various professions in the US as doctors, store owners, engineers, taxi drivers, and so on. As more people from the same ethnic group gather and form a community, they eventually start to raise money and build a mosque, which serves as a primary space of gathering for those within this specific ethnic community.Various other ethnicities attend these mosques as well for their spiritual fulfillment. Yet, despite the mixing of ethnicities at the mosque during prayer, the social groups that form outside of the mosque are quite homogenous.

However, the same post-mosque social group separation is not as apparent in second generation Muslims compared to first immigrant Muslims. Perhaps because of a more shared American identity, or perhaps because of more interaction and inclusion in college spaces, but social gatherings today are not as divided along ethnic lines as they were in the past. Therefore, you find more interracial dating and marriage within second generation Muslim Americans that was not as present in with first generation immigrants.

Yet, the ugly truth is that certain interracial marriages are more accepted than others. Within the South Asian community, there is strong association with whiteness and beauty. From the casting of very fair Bollywood actors and actresses to advertisements for the infamous Fair and Lovely skin whitening cream, to parents who implore their sons and daughters to avoid spending too much time in the sun to avoid becoming dark, there is a not-so-subtle message that white is right. This preference for lighter skin tone is also present within Arab and other non-Black Muslim communities, but perhaps it is not as blatant as within the South Asian community. Yet, what is common among nearly all non-Black communities is a general dislike of Black skin, and by association Black people.

Concerning the South Asian community, I’ve often heard stories of parents using the excuse of major “cultural” differences that exist between their own culture and others to discourage their children from dating/marrying someone outside of their racial or ethnic community. However, these same parents get excited by the prospects of their son or daughter marrying a white convert, or even a very fair Arab. Yet they revert to the culture excuse in order to save face when the prospects of a Black person is presented.

I’d like to make a distinction here. I am fortunate enough to have friends from various ethnicities within the Muslim American community, and I think each individual has the right to date or marry whoever they want. If people choose to prioritize marrying someone of their same ethnicity because of language, cultural similarities, love for Bollywood or something else that they have decided is important to them, then they should certainly proceed in this manner. What concerns me is when someone chooses to explore an interracial relationship but are eventually discouraged by their parents because of their prospect’s race.

In a hilarious twist of irony, a friend, who is a white Muslim convert that is very involved within my local community and a very trusted individual, discussed on Facebook the issues with this racial hierarchy, which he sees first hand. Often, people will come to him frustrated with the prospects of finding a spouse and ask him to introduce them to good Muslim men or women for the purpose of marriage. As a litmus test to assess their openness, he often starts by stating that there is an amazing Black brother or sister in the community that he thinks would be a great fit. Sadly, these same individuals will often produce an excuse that ranges from “cultural differences” to “parental resistance” as a way to avoid meeting the prospective choices. Situations like these make me wonder whether or not parental resistance had anything to do with an aversion to such an introduction in the first place. Moreover, I wonder to what extent these excuses are actually a cover up for subconscious racism that has been allowed to fester in the name of cultural preservation, which involves worshiping white skin.

During our beloved Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon, he shared several pieces of wisdom. One of his most famous quotes from that sermon stated “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over Black nor a Black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” These simple yet powerful words from the person we Muslims revere the most condemn racism in the strongest terms. Yet the reality is that we live in an imperfect world and racism is alive and well within our community.

I’m not naive, and I am well aware of the challenges many have faced in attempting to change their parents’ mind on this subject matter. Friends have told me tales of their parents giving them the Romeo and Juliet ultimatum when presenting someone to them of a race they did not approve of. Specifically, they had to choose between a romantic interest and keeping ties with their family. This is an unfair ultimatum that often puts the one deciding under immense psychological and emotional distress. Regardless, in order to move forward and make progress in expelling racism from our own communities, we need more people to choose love over complicity with these racist demands. If more South Asian and Arab adults in this generation stand up to their parents about their discriminating tendencies, which are masked under the cloak of cultural maintenance, they can model the kind of racial tolerance to which every community ought to espouse. If not, then we are no better than those who stay complicit with the racist status quo.

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