As I share into this space, I do so with trepidation. My hesitancy is not from the fear of saying the wrong thing, but from the feeling that I am unsure of my right to say much of anything at all right now. The pain people are experiencing in light of the ceaseless miasma of hatred and violence against black lives in this nation must be named – loudly and vigorously – but perhaps best by those living the reality of dehumanization firsthand.
Thus, it may be far more important in these moments to invest in listening. So, here is what I am hearing thus far. I am hearing from my black brothers and sisters of humanity, not that I should rouse the small echo chamber of my social media network into a space of collective outrage; nor that I start a prayer circle; nor even snap and post photos from the scenes of a protest. What I am hearing is a plea to do something far more personal, but no less political and communal in nature. I am hearing that I need to live in this time prepared to listen closely – even silently – to the experiences of black men and women in this society. I am hearing the need to deepen my literacy and conversancy around the history and manifestations of institutionalized, brutalizing, trauma-inducing racial injustices that black Americans have been enduring in this country for generations. I am hearing that I need to consider how my own choices may reflect a gap between my professed values and the reality of how I engage these endemic challenges.
I do not have answers, but I wonder about how we got here, and why we remain. I believe that the dehumanization of black lives in this country is so embedded in the national ethos that it will endure as long as its existential and spiritual foundations are left unchallenged. The research shows unequivocally that the cruel, violent indignities black men and women suffer manifests in housing discrimination, lack of access to affordable, high quality healthcare and education, criminal sentencing disparities, barriers to voting access and beyond. No aspect of civic life is left uncorrupted by the stench of racial discrimination. Yet, in my view, realities so intrinsic to the black experience of America will neither be addressed nor healed through political action alone; we cannot legislate away the illnesses of the heart that allow these outcomes to persist. Part of the spiritual reckoning may come from hearing and living out anew – and with urgency – the declarations of our spiritual and wisdom traditions. As a Muslim, I am paying particular attention to revisiting my own teachings that express the divine conferral of dignity upon every human being, among them, when the Most Merciful declared in the Quran, “We have ennobled all of the children of Adam.” (17:70)
Even as a person of color, from a perennially misunderstood religious minority, as a check to my own humanity, I need to interrogate myself on where I am truly at in honoring the sanctity of other human beings — especially those oppressed by structural and historical systems. Before I rush to “do” something, or seek to prove I am an “ally,” I need to check my own biases, beliefs, attitudes, actions and inaction to see how well they align with the above Quranic verse. What can I do in my neighborhood, workplace, spiritual community and place of worship to ensure I am truly seeing, listening to, honoring and empowering my fellow human beings, particularly those who are overlooked, devalued, dismissed, beaten, suffocated and shot, often with impunity, in this country. This is not the only thing to be done now; local organizing, advocacy and voting do matter. But far more effective may be to embrace the discomfort of conversations that challenge biases when we see or hear them, at the office or at the dinner table — even if our own are revealed to us. These are mere starting points, of course, because the issues get more complex as individuals, communities and institutions grapple with long-standing inequities. For instance, taking self-inventory of one’s biases, while essential, does not solve the problem of tokenizing and patronizing the experiences of individuals of minority backgrounds, especially if it leads one to operate convinced of their own benevolence.
Still, self-awareness is crucial. If we cannot start there, we seem bound to remain complicit in recreating the cycles of systemic racism, and merely spectating as flashes of upheaval erupt without doing one’s part to support a deeper, enduring transformation. As a person of faith, to do less than investigate my own soul is to neglect the most fundamental tenets of my sacred teachings. As a human being, to do less may be to fail in one’s basic kinship to the human family.
I close in the prayer that our veils be lifted and our illusions abandoned. May we employ love and wisdom to correct historical and structural injustices, to end dehumanization and violence against black men and women and to finally uplift and ennoble the wider human condition.
Imam Sharif Rosen is the College’s Muslim Chaplain.