I am a Somali-American Black Muslim Immigrant who grew up in America post-9/11; so much of the person I am today is a result of those 5 words whether for better or for worse. As I continue to grow up today, I have found ways to navigate my way through life, weaving between these identities depending on the environment or conversation. But a reality I always cling to is how so much of what it is to be a minority in a field is to mold and shape yourself into what will rock the boat the least while still maintaining your identity. Even more so, how I desperately want to make sure my future children can live without having to code-switch or be on their best behavior at all times to make it through the day. What I plan on covering in this blog post is to highlight the issues in Race, Religion and more in America while bringing in global trends.
I would say the most useful and long-lasting impact of college for me was being involved in a cultural center for so long. The years I spent in the center working or just relaxing helped widen my perspective and appreciation for my identity as a Black person in America. Since I was almost always the lone-Black child, particularly in school settings, the time I spent there learning and un-learning who I am will stick with me for the rest of my life. But then that feeling is overshadowed by the fact that less than 5% of the University of Arizona’s student body was Black; and more relevantly, less than 4% of Virginia Tech’s students (graduate or otherwise) are Black as well. To appreciate higher education means to acknowledge how difficult it is to achieve for far too many people.
My family always treasured an education, my parents (who came to America in the 70’s as teenagers) both created a future for themselves through graduate school and I’m attempting to do the same. In an interesting turn of events I’m preparing myself to leave the country once I get my degree; Somalis are a nomadic people after all. No matter what happens next for me though, I can lean back on experiences that only 1% of Americans get the opportunity to do; pursue a PhD. As I’ve climbed the education ladder I’ve seen the numbers continue to dwindle until suddenly I am once again the only Black person during most—if not all—of my day. Even though I’ve grown a lot since elementary school, many of the issues I faced 20 years ago haven’t changed one bit. Would I ever want to be put through that again?
I believe a large amount of individuals not just in race but in gender, sexuality, religion and more feel empowered by their respective identities. Like ceramics in a kiln, the feelings we have about ourselves have hardened due to the high heat and pressure surrounding us every day. But a question I’m often left with asking is “was this all worth it?” or rather “Does it have to be this way?”. For many Black people in the diaspora, there is no place anywhere in the world that anti-blackness isn’t present. Whether it is Blackface holidays in Europe, growing nationalist ideologies painting Muslims as threats, or the fierce dedication to one’s country—at the cost of many citizens who urgently need reform—I have been discouraged by what’s available in terms of living providing my family as normal of a life as possible.
To circle back a generation, my parents knew that they would have to struggle when they came to America. In many ways what they have faced is miles more vicious than what I’ve lived through. Through their eyes they’ve seen America make giant strides to increase opportunity for marginalized folks. But as many western countries over the past 5-10 years begin to isolate themselves not only physically but culturally, they’re witnessing all that progress unravel before their eyes. Now that I’m around the age my parents were when they got married I use their lives as a frame of reference for just how much has changed in a lifetime.
Following receiving their bachelors degrees my parents met and with the money they made at their jobs to move to New York and own property in Harlem. Fast forward ~35 years the brownstones my dad owned and lived in were worth millions and that very same neighborhood is in his words “completely unrecognizable”. All the more disheartening, I am in absolutely no position to own any property, let alone have a family of my own. The land of opportunity that was a beacon for the generation before us is exposed more and more often as a collection of many different forces that genuinely do not want you or anyone who looks like you to succeed.
As I continue to debate with myself if I really want to leave America I know that this particular struggle goes back decades before my parents even came to this country. Many Black Americans believed that going back to Africa (Namely Marcus Garvey) would be the best and only rational way to be free of racism. Because racism, in and of itself, is a supporting factor of what structures all aspects of American Life. While I doubt that any of them could predict the situations that we find ourselves in today (especially given our current circumstances), many activists across the Civil Rights Movement could outline how we got here with ease. In other words, for all the steps forward we have taken as a society for Black people, where is the proof?
This final statement is a rephrasing of one of the my favorite Baldwin quotes:
“I was born here almost 60 years ago, I’m not going to live another 60 years.
You always told me it takes time.
It’s taken my fathers time my mothers time. My uncles time.
My brothers and my sisters time. My nieces and my nephews time.
How much time do you want? For your progress?”
Which brings me to my final point. What is the progress that we should have been looking for all this time? What is progress we can actually hope to expect moving forward? Does America have any hope of providing me something worth giving to my children I can’t get anywhere else? To bring this full circle, I am as much my parent’s son as I am a child of America; speaking garbled Somali with an incredibly dark relationship to law enforcement. I don’t eat pork and will participate in Ramadan with the fear that I’m not safe, even in a Mosque. Just like my parents, in order to provide a better life for the next generation I feel the need to go somewhere new—and while I may not know what to expect next, I have to believe that it’s better than what I left behind.