In this last and final post of the series, I share how I announced my engagement and the racial tensions that became apparent through our engagement, wedding, and now marriage as an interracial couple. Most surprising was not just colorism, but witnessing the remarks of community members who adapted into the racial social structure of the US, proliferating the views that certain racial groups denote certain negative stereotypes.
Announcing the Engagement
It was striking to hear the responses to the announcement of my engagement. I was internally beaming and so excited to share my joy with loved ones, wanting to shout it out from the rooftops. My parents and I sat home one weekend afternoon, and began making phone calls and text messages. However, my excitement slowly waned, as I experienced the first blows of implicit racism.
The phone calls began, and my parents shared the news of my engagement. It was immediately followed by the question from the other side, "where is he from?" And when they would reply D.C., but ethnically Kenyan, there would be a palpable moment of surprise. And the conversations that ensued thereafter made me feel at once immensely protective of Juma and heartbroken that my own loved ones would be this way. In the ensuing days, some of the comments reached my ears. They expressed surprise at his Blackness, making comments like, "will the others marry Black folks too?" in reference to my siblings, as if it was a "bad" thing I had done. I was now setting a "trend," as some expressed in fear, that I may influence others in a "negative" way.
They took on the views that certain racial groups denoted certain negative stereotypes, ranging from low socioeconomic class affiliation to undesirable family structures to negative behaviors such as an assumption of drug use, criminality, and violence. More than the tropes of colorism, what was immensely hurtful was experiencing how these perceptions were taken on as fact by even individuals who I had such immense respect for prior to the awkward commentary that revealed their beliefs.
They would justify my marrying him, saying they understood because he was a doctor and therefore "different," insinuating that his occupation excluded him from the negative stereotypes about Black people. That his family was “different” because his father was a diplomat. That he had gone to Yale so they “understood”. Again, occupation and status signaled by his schooling background made him an “exception” to what they viewed as the assumed “norm” of Black Americans— filled with negative attributions such as those mentioned previously.
This became such a consistent trope that even when I introduced him to my local mosque community, I witnessed this shock, assuming all of the negative stereotypes. Aunties and uncles had their “worries” allayed when they found out he was a doctor. Whether it was the stranger on the street or in our mosque, there existed another layer of assumptions as well: that he was a convert to Islam. That somehow his Black'ness meant he was not from a Muslim community, and so they would take it upon themselves to clarify basic Islamic practices as if he was a child. And that it was likely that he converted to Islam to marry me, because in their eyes we appeared to be such an “unusual” couple.
We stopped attending a mosque in our local area that mimicked that hurtful behavior and instead sought out a multi-cultural one further from our home whose Imam had a welcoming and sincere approach to diversity. He treated us as a family without insinuation, assumption, or led by stereotypes to guide his interactions.
I had initially thought, or perhaps hoped, that such comments were in response to how "different" this was for my extended family and community, and that once these initial comments were over, that would be the end of that. I was not the first person in my extended family to marry someone who is not Afghan; my White Aunt had been married into the family for more than 20 years. However, I realized that race continues to play a significant part in how and what kinds of reactions were had.
My wedding was a beautiful occasion, including both Afghan, Kenyan, and American traditions. The venue itself was breathtaking, a historic mansion on the hillside of Maryland, with rolling green hills and a beautiful ballroom, making me feel like a princess out of a Jane Austen book. Family had flown in from across the country, and it was the first reunion they were able to have after many, many years. Everyone enjoyed themselves immensely, continuing to reminisce about the gathering even during extended family Zoom calls.
Some were shocked at the hospitality and kindness of Juma's family. They kept emphasizing "they're such good people," a comment I took to be a compliment, hoping in my heart that it was not made out of being surprise at having expected anything else. However, as future family members got engaged and married, I noticed the subtle differences. As my mother made the calls for the next family member's engagement, their first question to her was, "where are they from," and when she replied that they were Afghan, they replied to her their relief, with comments such as "oh that's so good," or "oh thank God." And I was shocked to hear their level of "relief" and "joy," knowing nothing about the individual other than their country of origin.
The awkwardness continued as Juma and I attended our first family wedding together after our marriage. Back in my hometown, a family friend (who I will refer to as an Uncle) came over to congratulate us. I was happy for his kind words, until I realized the mistake he had made. He began remarking upon our nikkah (Islamic wedding ceremony) and what a nice day it was at the masjid... it was then that I realized he had confused the two marriages that had happened that year. I did not have my nikkah at the masjid, and he was not present for it. Rather, my Syrian friend, who is a half foot shorter than me with a very different body type than my own, had married a Somali man at the masjid, of which this uncle was present for. The Uncle himself has been good friends with both my and my friend's families for the past 15 years, knowing me and my friend very well. Juma and my friend's husband, however, do not look similar to one another, the only similarity between being that they are both Black. I just nodded and smiled, too embarrassed by his mistake to rectify the matter.
Soon after our wedding, I formally changed my last name, taking on Juma's to my own. Prior to meeting Juma, I had always intended on keeping my name and not changing it. However, I realized that it would become necessary as a form of protection and ease in our lives given being an interracial couple. Friends remarked when they saw my name change on Facebook, surprised, and some even commenting that they would not expect that of their spouse, or that their children had no trouble in school with a mother of a different last name. However, I knew that simply appearing physically different from my children could cause significant difficulties for us, whether it be in taking them to school or to the hospital. Even in a simple moment of going through security at the border checkpoint at the airport, staff asked Juma and I to come up one by one, assuming that we were not a couple. When we approached the counter together, I had to insist upon us being together, showing them our ID's to "prove" our marriage. I never had to go through this traveling with my sister, nor did I witness my parents experience it either.
I could continue on in length about various experiences of racism that have occurred as an interracial couple. However, my purpose in sharing these incidences is greater than the sum of individual experiences. It is to bring awareness to a widespread phenomenon, one which I have noticed among "social progressives". To remind us, social progressives are individuals who stand in stark contrast to White supremacists: they think of themselves as fair people who are not horribly prejudiced. Not all, but some, even go a step further to express support for BLM or express their frustrations against instances such as the siege of the Capitol building.
However, being a "social progressive," is not enough to be anti-racist. I hope to bring awareness to the nuanced ways that implicit racism, this more subtle not often as visible form of racism, seeps into even the lives of "social progressives." In doing so, my hope, particularly for the communities I come from, for Muslim immigrants and Afghan Americans, is that we recognize and stop the perpetuation of implicit racism. That we become comfortable in naming it, in recognizing it within ourselves, and in making a commitment to learning how to do better.
I utilize the example of my experience, and in particular marriage, as it is the closest relationship one can have with another. It is in whom we deem acceptable to marry that we reveal the most intimate reservations and feelings that reflect the racial order. It's difficult to recognize how we place value judgments and levels of acceptance on White vs. Black folk in this country until we take an honest reflective look at our own interactions, judgments, and dispositions. It is easy to retweet support for Black Americans and feel good about doing better. It is harder to tell a friend when she says that the only group of people she would consider for marriage outside of her own culture are White people, that this is not a healthy mindset. We are all in different places in our growth and capacities, but it is our actions that will speak the loudest in setting a positive example of change. Let us lead by these actions in creating the change we seek to see, to diminish the implicit racism that continues to run rampant within our communities.
Follow along on my Instagram page: @imanistan as I continue the discussion there in stories, posts, and an upcoming live conversation.