Celebrating being black and Muslim

On Tuesday, celebrations started for the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims around the world are commemorating the holiday with a variety of special traditions, including my personal favourite — the Eid selfie.

The Eid selfie and the myriad of hashtags that go along with it emerged as a way for Muslims to showcase their Eid fashions and celebrations. In many Muslims communities, it is a tradition to dress up in your best outfit for Eid.

Social media platforms have been quick to respond to the growing popularity of the Eid selfie. Snapchat, for example, has special stickers and filters for the holiday, while Twitter adds Eid selfies to its Holiday Moment when hashtags such as #EidMubarak and #HappyEid start trending.

While the growing popularity of the Eid selfie has contributed to promoting a positive image of Muslims in the United States and elsewhere, it has not really been able to capture the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Muslim world. #BlackoutEid, a hashtag that specifically highlights black Muslim fashion, has sought to remedy that.

Created by Aamina Mohamed, a producer and screenwriter based in Minnesota, #BlackoutEid encourages black Muslims to share selfies of their Eid outfits and festivities. The hashtag, inspired by #BlackoutDay, was born out of a realisation that the clothing, celebrations, and traditions of black Muslims were not being shared with the same frequency and enthusiasm as those of non-Black members of the community.

The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan File: AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr

Despite representing a fifth of Muslims in the US alone, black Muslims are often invisible in customary representations of the Muslim community. At the same time, they are constantly challenged to negotiate their blackness and their faith when specific black clothing styles, such as the turban, forms of art and cultural expressions are declared «un-Islamic».

Black Muslims in the US often find themselves having to fight on two fronts. Outside of the Muslim community, they battle with Islamophobia. Inside of the Muslim community, they wrestle with anti-Black racism. Every so often, the two fronts merge and they are left without a resting place, constantly on their guard against forces which threaten their mental and physical wellbeing.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that #BlackoutEid has had such resonance. In fact, it has come to represent more than a hashtag: It is now a catalogue, a community and a space, which reaffirms that being black and Muslim are not mutually exclusive.

For me, #BlackoutEid has been a rare opportunity to engage with my faith without the burden of separating or mitigating my blackness. I have been an active member of the Muslim community, going to mosques, joining Muslim student associations, etc. But in these spaces, I have often felt I have had to contain my blackness or explain it in order to fit in. I would often deal with an onslaught of microaggressions or pressure to prove my faith in places that I am supposed to feel accepted and at ease. It has been disheartening to constantly have my guard up in my own religious community and feel that I have not been fully embraced.

Before Aamina started the hashtag, I was a regular contributor to #BlackoutDay, a selfie-day and quarterly call-to-action which began on Tumblr. Like #BlackoutEid, #BlackoutDay was a movement to celebrate and redefine blackness. Four times a year, social media timelines flooded with vibrant images of black youth embracing their blackness, and as one of the participants, I was able not only to make connections with other black creatives but also to curate my own relationship to my blackness.

Despite having this opportunity, I longed to incorporate my faith with the celebration of my identity. In a similar way to the Muslim spaces I have tried to navigate, predominantly black spaces, such as cultural and student organisations, were not entirely aware of the nuances and challenges that black Muslims face. Connecting to my blackness through my faith was not only something that was missing in my life but something I desperately needed, given the Islamophobia and anti-blackness that I have often faced.

#BlackoutEid was one of the first spaces I entered that did not make me choose between being black and being Muslim. Although my participation in #BlackoutEid was purely digital, it made up for the lack of healthy and supportive relationships I had faced in other communities. I felt connected to a larger black Muslim community that was invested in both my joy and the appreciation of my blackness.

#BlackoutEid has shed light on the need for spaces that focus on the experiences of black Muslims, and since its inception, several other digital and offline spaces of reaffirmation have emerged. #BlackinMSA, for example, started as a hashtag by the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative to highlight and process the discrimination and exclusion faced by black Muslim students in Muslim student associations. The hashtag received many responses on social media and eventually led to discussions on college campuses across the US.

#BlackIftar began as a Ramadan gathering for black Muslims and their friends to break fast, which quickly became a topic of conversation on social media and then transformed into a hashtag. Its founder, Samira Abderahman, created the event last year as a small dinner party for friends. Since then, it has spread to major cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.

Like all spaces centred on Black Muslims, #BlackoutEid has not gone without criticism. One of the most frequent complaints against the hashtag has been that it reinforces racist attitudes and encourages segregation of Muslims along colour. Other spaces of reaffirmation such as #BlackIftar and the Black Muslim Psychology Conference have faced similar scrutiny.

What this criticism fails to take into account are the challenges, microaggressions, and burdens of representation that black Muslims face in Muslim spaces, which are often predominantly Arab or South Asian and attuned to their culture or customs. This criticism renders the hardships that black Muslims face invisible by downplaying the emotional exhaustion of being in a space where you do not feel accepted and at ease.

#BlackoutEid signals the importance of creating spaces that centre on marginalised communities, their well-being, and their happiness. These spaces give us the freedom to construct our own narratives and representations on their own terms and to simply be themselves. As eminent black Muslim scholar Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer has rightly pointed out, black Muslims have to advocate «do for self», «because our experience as Black people has taught us the mainstream is, by its very nature, a limited space, and at the end of the day, who better to represent us to the world than us?»

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