Christal Williams: Black and Muslim in Birmingham

My name is Christal and I am born and raised in Birmingham in the UK. 

I am a secondary English teacher by profession and in my spare time, I like to read all manner of books. My philosophy in life has grown to be, “Put Allah swt first and all other things will follow. Trust in Him and that will give you greater trust in yourself and your actions.” Islam is everything to me, it’s the air I breathe and the thing that keeps my heart at peace when times get rough. 

I have witnessed racism, but believe it or not I wasn’t really a victim of racism until I went to university and was around more black students – colourism is REAL. As a child I was subjected to two racist incidents – one in which I was called a “black cow” the other when I was called a “gollywog”. But the real subtle, harmful, covert racism manifested later on in my life. Growing up as a black girl in an all-white environment was strange. Having to explain how your hair could drastically change overnight, not understanding why all the other girls’ hair could smell like strawberries and mine like PINK lotion and styling gel (lol) the list goes on. But it was more an awkwardness on my part to share what would have felt like an alien culture to them rather than them making me feel like an outsider. 

When I went to university, that’s when the reality of colourism HIT. Being told, I was good looking for a dark skinned girl and, strangely, people now questioning if I was ‘black enough’ because I was well spoken and polite made me realise that as a black community, our ideals of beauty and identity were damaged. Two completely different ends of the spectrum and both as harmful as each other. 

I became Muslim the second year of my Masters degree and this opened up new racist doors. I found there was a certain stigma, especially among the South East Asian community, regarding black reverts. You were either one of two things: a party girl before becoming Salafi and pious or, a black girl that fell for a Pakistani brother and was doing it just to legitimise their relationship. I was neither, and it took people a long time to truly understand that. The answers to all racial and problems of colourism are right there in front of us. How can you hate, question or be dubious of Allah’s very own creation? How can you deny the Islam of someone with darker skin when our own father, Adam (as) was a dark skinned? Using Bilal (ra) as a token black man is not the answer. Solidifying and knowing the history of Islam in the Afro-Caribbean context is crucial for us to break those stereotypes and make it known that we haven’t had Islam in our community for a hot minute, we were there from the beginning. 

I have worked in majority white spaces, Pakistani and Arab and the only way to survive is to strive. Don’t see it as a hindrance that you are a black Muslim, see it as an asset. You will have insights into communities that they could only dream of and that’s a major bonus. 

My identity as a Muslim has been shaped by figures like Malcolm X. He was one of the first black Muslims I knew of and I always admired his conviction when he was taking, despite not always agreeing with what he said. But I admired him for more than that. When he moved from the Nation of Islam into orthodox Islam, he had to humble himself, admit his wrongs and work to put right the things he had said. You don’t get many people of that calibre, especially in this day and age. He was a poster child for what Islam can do for the most down, out and destitute – may Allah swt have mercy on him.  As for other black leaders, I can’t say there are any that really capture me at the moment. My heroes are those that are battling everyday to keep themselves and their Islam in check. The dads that work multiple jobs to support their wife and children, the women that dedicate their lives to raising their children at home and the mothers that make the difficult decision to go back to work to help provide for their loved ones – all of that while being black and Muslim. They deserve true recognition.

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