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An Interview with Sadiyah Sabree: On Identity and Race

BMF caught up with LSE and Columbia graduate Sadiyah Sabree on racial politics, travel and navigating through life as a black Muslim woman.


Identity

Where are you from town/city/country? Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

What does your name mean? My name means fortunate in Arabic. I was named after Halima Sa’diyah, the wet nurse who took care of Prophet Muhammad SAW during his childhood.

How do you identify? Black American Muslim

Favourite line of poetry or prose/ quote: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people, you can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people” – Cornel West. It serves as a reminder for me to embody the ideals of servant leadership in all aspects of my life. Giving back is very important to me. 

What do you work as? I currently work in higher-education at a university in Atlanta. My job is to provide programming and support to high-achieving students that are interested in applying to scholarships and fellowship opportunities post-graduation.

How do you like to spend your time? In my spare time, I enjoy travelling, street art photography, and volunteer work. I recently started a YouTube to document my travels. You can check out my channel here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCh-73XO9DUBbX9elhzQfr0g/videos?view_as=subscriber

What is a memory you most fondly recall?  Living in London last year was one of my favourite experiences! I did a one year master’s programme at LSE. It was the longest time I’d ever spent outside of America, and I thoroughly enjoyed the program and the life I was able to create for myself.

What has been your favourite travel destination so far? I went to Tokyo a few months ago and loved it. The city is a perfect blend of modernity and tradition. I studied urban planning, so I appreciated the efficiency of the transportation systems and the cleanliness of the city.  The Japanese people I met also had a special respect and appreciation for black American culture, which was cool. I hope to visit again soon. 

In your opinion what is the key to a successful life? Remembering God often, kindness to others & to yourself, humility, and helping others in some way — leaving any space better than you found it.  

Philosophy in life? Everything is temporary, give your best effort and then let go. Do all things with integrity. Be mindful of your intentions.  


Race

Did you ever witness any racist incidents growing up? If yes can you describe it? I experienced many instances of covert racism / bias growing up, but my first blatant experience of racism happened only two years ago. I was in Toronto attending a conference, and an elderly woman approached my sister and I and said we need to “go back to our country” and called us the N-word. She was most likely mentally ill, but the experience was very jarring – more so because the only people who tried to defend us were other black people. No one else said a word about it.

What was your experience growing up as a Black Muslim girl? I feel fortunate that I grew up in a city where Black Muslims were the norm. In Philadelphia, there is a large population of black American Muslims, which has had an immense impact on the city’s culture. For the most part, as a child I felt comfortable expressing my Muslim identity. It wasn’t until I left Philadelphia that I realised that my experience as a black American Muslim was quite unique. Once I left Philly, people looked at me as an outsider – even other black Americans, and assumed I was foreign. Many had never encountered a black American Muslim before and were confused on how to categorise me, or assumed that I was a member of the Nation of Islam.

Are there problems of colourism within your community? Why/why not? Unfortunately, there are still problems of colourism within the black American community. People have been conditioned to believe that lighter skin is more beautiful. These types of attitudes foster self-hate, particularly amongst young girls. In past jobs, I’ve been able to work with high school students to try to unpack these very problematic issues and help the students to rebuild their self-confidence. 

Do you think there are issues of Arab and Asian supremacy within the Muslim community? Definitely. In some instances, it feels that Arab or Asian Muslims feel that they have “ownership” of the religion, and conflate cultural practices with the deen. I’ve also had experiences where Arab or Asian Muslims have refused to line up next to me in prayer or touch feet. I don’t take it personally, though, as I know that this is just personal ignorance and does not reflect the religion. 

Why do you think people believe being lighter skinned is better? In America, I believe this ideology stems from the history of slavery, where skin colour was used as a way to divide the black community and cause tension. Lighter skinned blacks were favoured because of their closer proximity to ‘whiteness’. This toxic ideology has persisted into the present day. We need to continue to affirm darker-skinned people and remind them that they are beautiful, regardless of how closely they align to “ideal beauty standards” perpetuated by the media or other people’s opinions of beauty. God designed us each in our own unique and beautiful way. 

What do you think we can do to tackle racism and colourism within the Muslim community?  Educate people and remind them that racism has no place in Islam. I think conversations about the reality of racism and colourism are a great starting point, but we also need to host events that shed awareness on the issues that black Muslims face. We need events that affirm all aspects of the black Muslim identity. We shouldn’t have to choose to align with our blackness or our Islamic identity. There need to be more opportunities for us to celebrate our whole selves.  During Ramadan, I attended a “Black Iftar” that was a beautiful space for community amongst black Muslims and allies, where we could talk about our culture and religion in a safe space. 

What solutions do you think Islam holds for racial inequality?  The Qur’an states that we are all equal, regardless of race, and the only distinctions between people  are based on righteousness. Instead of focusing on racial differences, we need to focus on our character, conduct, and the conditions of our hearts. At the end of the day, we are all united by Islam, and this bond should be stronger than racial differences. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it will take a lot of work to combat ignorance within the Muslim community. 

What can the average black person do to elevate and empower the black community within and outside of the ummah? Share resources and knowledge with your network, and focus on collaboration instead of competition. We have to work together in order to empower one another and our community as a whole. If one person in your network is able to secure a prestigious internship, for example, they should be willing to share their resources in order to help the next person prepare for an opportunity of similar calibre. When one person wins, we all win, and I think this is an important mindset to have if we want to work on community empowerment.

What are your thoughts on Political blackness? I don’t agree with it, as ‘blackness’ is not something that should be used as a political tool. Non-black POC have different experiences, and while there should be collaboration and community organising between various ethnic groups, I don’t think it is beneficial to lump every minority under the same term for political reasons, as different groups may have different agendas or issues that they find most important. 

What does it mean to be black? To thrive in the face of adversity, to have strength, honour, and responsibility to a community that is larger than any individual. 

Do you have advice for black Muslim women/ men struggling to thrive academically/professionally in white spaces? I’ve been in white dominated spaces my whole life, and I understand how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can be to constantly feel like you don’t fit in, or that you have to over-compensate for your identity. Impostor syndrome is a real thing. My advice is to stay true to yourself. Don’t feel that you need to compartmentalise your identity in order to blend in with your coworkers or classmates. Advocate for yourself. Find allies. Have spaces where you can decompress. Take care of yourself, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Lastly, don’t pass up on an opportunity because it wasn’t designed specifically for POCs. Go into the experience and make it work for you and meet your needs. Take what you can and bring your knowledge and experiences back to your community so others can benefit. 

What does Malcolm X mean to you? I read Malcolm X’s biography during my last year of high school, and it completely changed my perspective on how I view myself as a black American Muslim. He was a fearless advocate for oppressed peoples around the globe, an eloquent speaker and writer, and powerful change-agent. He is a source of inspiration for me as I continue to think about how I can lead a life that inspires and motivates others, and how I can move forward and fulfil my purpose without fear.

Are there any other black leaders who are your inspiration? I draw a lot of inspiration from the Black panther party. They were able to build community and take responsibility for their neighbourhoods using a powerful community-based leadership model. It is unfortunate that the US government felt the need to destabilise their organisation when it was a very positive force. I do wish that Black Americans had the same sense of care and vigilance about protecting the integrity of their neighbourhoods today. In my hometown, there is a sense of apathy regarding neighbourhood upkeep and community relations in general, and I want to do something to change that. That’s one of the main reasons why I studied urban planning, so I could equip myself with the tools to incite change.  

Any other comments?

Thank you for this opportunity! I love your organisation and everything it stands for, and I am hopeful that you will be branching out to the US soon inshaaAllah 🙂

Sadiyah’s Youtube Channel can be reached via this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCh-73XO9DUBbX9elhzQfr0g/videos?view_as=subscriber

 

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