Contested Whiteness: True Tales of a White Muslim Woman

My car battery dies today, so I call AAA. A tattooed technician in his mid 40s arrives. He is blond, Southern accent thick, and his hands are deeply rutted with grease and the trials of a Battery Service Tech.

I will call him Joe.

Joe is jovial and helpful. He starts to flirt a little bit. What he sees in the shape of me is a blond woman with size 0 purple spiral ear gauges and tortoise shell glasses.

“Are you a student?” he asks, as I live close to campus.

“No, not anymore,” I say.

This is what Joe sees.
This is what Joe sees.
“You graduated already?”

“Oh, yes. Many years ago.” Joe smiles at the cryptic reference to my age. He wants to ask how old I am, but he doesn’t. Instead, Joe makes small talk in the form of bar/drinking jokes. I laugh, for I recognize he is trying to pass the time, to appear interesting. I laugh because men rarely flirt with me.

We keep chatting as he tests my battery to discover it is completely dead. Kaput. Long overdue for a replacement. I am relieved to know the matter is that simple, for I had feared something worse. As if on cue, as if to remind me of my blessings, my adhan app announces that it is time to pray. It is only slightly audible over the diesel engine roar of Joe’s Dodge Ram service vehicle, but he hears it.

“What is that?” he asks, poking his head up from underneath the car’s hood. “Is that your phone?” Joe looks confused, “What IS that?” he inquires again, as melodic Arabic crawls out from inside my purse.

It takes me a minute to realize that it is, indeed, my app. “Oh, yes, it is me,” I confess, as I reach inside my purse to silence my phone.

He laughs, “Wow. I thought for a minute I was hearing aliens or something.” Aliens? I think, the call to prayer, a battle cry of an alien republic.

My battery is successfully installed, and he suggests that I climb into the cab of his truck as he runs my credit card. My drivers license is also required.

Joe gets into the cab next to me. I hand him my identification. In the picture, I am covered in the hijab, the traditional Islamic veil. He looks at it for a moment before commenting, “Oh, well that is…different.” Joe starts to say something else, but he can’t find the words.

“Um…yeah,” I say as I turn to him and smile. This is the point of “no return,” the moment things become more interesting, or contested, or confusing, or completely alien.

He stares at my picture for a few seconds before asking: “Are you an Israelian?”

I wonder why he thinks I am Israeli – Israelian — and not something else, like an Iraqian or Afghanian or Arabian. Or alien. Now it is my turn to laugh. “No, I am just a Muslim,” I clarify. Islamian, I want to say.

Joe looks at me, and thankfully, he smiles. “Oh, you converted?” he asks.

“Yes, I did.” There is a moment of baffled silence, and then I joke, “I bet you never thought you’d have a Muslim woman sitting next to you in the coolness of your truck’s cab?”

Joe says it doesn’t matter what “race” I am. “In my line of business,” he replies, “all that matters is that you can pay!”

This is what Joe sees on my drivers license.
This is what Joe sees on my drivers license.
He then asks how to pronounce the name on my drivers license. “Is that Kala?” he says as he looks at my name, Kelli.   My perfectly American, white girl name is now seemingly foreign, as Joe is confused by my race and what syllables define me.

The silence between us is thick with something that wasn’t there before. I make small talk and ask him if he wants to stay in the area or move elsewhere. I tell Joe that I’d drive right on out of this city had I a more reliable car. Considering the context, I think any discussion about moving through time and space might bring some relief to the matters at hand.

“I want to move to Texas,” offers Joe.  I comment that Austin seems nice. He starts to explain how Texas is about to secede from the United States, how it is big enough to do so, and has enough resources to sustain its own economy. I realize that I am in an enclosed truck with the kind of man who is excited about Texas being its own independent territory, and he has a Muslim sitting next to him, and that Muslims probably won’t be welcomed in the kind of Texas that no longer desires to be part of America.

We start talking about tattoos. “Your kind doesn’t believe in tattoos, does it?” I throw my head back and laugh. My kind. I think. Finally, I have a type. Then I show him the three I have: one on the back of my neck, two on my upper arm. Joe tells me that he has work all over this body, that his cousin is a tattoo artist, and he lives in Texas.

My credit card is approved. Joe fills out the paperwork and the battery warranty. As he writes my phone number down on the sheet, he looks up and says,

“Hey, did you realize that your number has the Mark of the Beast in it?”

25 Comments Add yours

  1. Being a Muslim can turn a normal human an “alien” !

  2. Awesome writeup,up close and humorous.

  3. As a white Muslim, I think we need more acknowledgement regarding the role Black American Muslims have had (and continue to have) in Islam in America.

  4. Arthur Garrett says:

    As a Black American Muslim I see the future of Islam in America being a mass conversion of White Americans to Islam and this will mark a pivotal and positive turn in American cultural. Wonderful read.

  5. christina says:

    I’ve also been referred to as Amish 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on nbamuslimwomen and commented:
    Concepts about whiteness and non-whiteness in the United States cause the deracialization of white people places them “over” members of the country’s diverse non-white races and ethnicities. It is from this socio-political placement that Euro-American Muslim converts transition and at some level become part of the other, which affects how they navigate the broader society.
    The relegation of many Euro-American Muslims to the other is a consequence of their new religious social intersection, which affects their embodied social privileges and “racializes” them in ways that their whiteness did not. In this post, a Euro-American Muslim convert shares a story on how her whiteness is questioned by another white when he finds out she is Muslim.

  7. Daniel Shaw says:

    She was really quite embarrassed. I believe she was afraid that she had made a serious faux pas. The context was her telling me that she “loved my kippah.” When I told her that I wasn’t Jewish, she panicked a little bit.

    While I still believe the two religions are strikingly similar, I have all but given up on convincing other Muslims of this reality. I suppose it’s not mine nor anyone’s “job” to do so, but the level of venom and paranoia I have occasionally seen expressed has tempered my idealism. I’ll speak up when it’s necessary, but never does that good deed go unpunished.

  8. Daniel Shaw says:

    It’s what they can wrap their minds around. Judaism is at least vaguely familiar, has special headgear and is readily identifiable with some fair skinned people. It’s not just white Muslims who get a dose of such assumptions, though. When my parents first moved into their neighborhood, the neighbors assumed our family was Jewish because we didn’t celebrate Christmas and were never seen at church. My father also had an olive complexion, curly hair and a full beard. They sent my atheist parents Hanukkah cards.

    I think Judaism is the default “other” among white people in most regions of the country.

    Interestingly, no other race or ethnic group assumes I am Jewish.

  9. muslimnlove says:

    That was an funny and thought inducing read! I could imagine every piece of the story in my head.

  10. Nadya says:

    Hah! “The opposite.” Judaism and Islam are strikingly similar. I wish more people could see that.

  11. Nadya says:

    As a white convert to Islam, I always got weird questions when I lived in Moscow. Russians don’t seem to understand the concept of religious conversion. I always get asked where I’m from, where my parents are from, (“No, where are they REALLY from?”), which religion my parents are, and finally if I converted in order to marry a Muslim man. I did convert to Islam due to influence from my fiance, but I’m the one who introduced him to Islam in the first place, during a discussion about religions.

    My (white Muslim convert) fiance got the “Are you Jewish?” question once while wearing his Eid clothes. It was strange. A lot of people look at this blue-eyed blond man and say with certainty, “He is not Muslim.” He most certainly is, but because of his race, “He just can’t be.”

    I, on the other hand, get to enjoy the “Guess that nationality” game. People have thought I was from Central America, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, etc. Never what I am, though, which is Russian-American.

  12. Salome says:

    That was an awkward alien! (I mean Joe) lol. Alhamdouli ALLAH (By the grace of God – Gracias a Dios) I wear a hijab (head scarf) permanently. Every single day I get the good and the bad: a smile, a question (are you Egyptian/Arab/Middle Eastern?), small talk; the angry stares, the comments, the pushing and yesterday while praying at a park by myself a woman screaming from the top of her lungs: “what are you doing there? STOOOOPPP IT RIGHT NOW!!!
    Don’t we live in the Unites States, where the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion?
    Dear Kelli, you look amazing in the picture wearing hijab 🙂

  13. Fasiha says:

    Fantastic!

  14. WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT!?!

  15. Isn’t that ironic, that the default mode is Judaism? During the time I wore hijab, someone asked me if I was Mormon.

  16. Oh, you are sweet! Thank you for taking the time to read.

  17. Stand says:

    Plot twist: Joe is an alien. Everything makes a lot more sense that way.

  18. Daniel Shaw says:

    While amusing, I must confess that my interactions with strangers have hit some of the same notes. Because I am a white man, the sight of me with a skullcap almost never makes people think Muslim. At least five times now, I have had people come up to me to talk about my religion, which they invariably think is Judaism. Once they learn that I’m not Jewish, things tend to get more awkward. Part of it is their embarrassment at being wrong, but another part of it is a fear that there will be backlash. One woman let it all hang out, “oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to call you the opposite!”

    The other question that follows roughly half the time is “did you convert in prison?”

  19. AbdelAzim Etman says:

    Marvelous theme of writing, Deonna!.
    On a side note, I don’t blame “Joe” for flirting with you 🙂 for how a beautiful elegant girl you seem to be :).

  20. I can identify….somewhat!

  21. Dan Brown says:

    Great article. The confusion of race and religion is always amusing to me.

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